Entertaining Mr. Sloane

by Joe Orton

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

Entertaining Mr. Sloane is a savagely comic attack on bourgeois values and social hypocrisy. Although the details of its plot may at times seem stark and horrifying, the play itself is blackly humorous; it is a barbed combination of farce and satire that strikes at the heart of middle-class morality. The play’s dominant theme is the utter amorality of its characters; personal gain and self-interest are the sole factors motivating their actions. Although Kath and Ed both make an elaborate show of respectability intended to hide their true natures, much of the play’s humor arises from the disparity between their actions and their explanations for their behavior. Neither actually believes the rationalizations; it is the pretense that matters.

Kath’s seduction of her willing lodger is a case in point. With protestations of motherly solicitude, she approaches Sloane in a sheer negligee, teasingly commenting, “This light is showing me up. I blame it on the manufacturers. They make garments so thin nowadays you’d think they intended to provoke a rape.” Ed’s justification for his interest in Sloane is equally transparent. Why am I interested in your welfare? Why did I give you a job? Why do thinking men everywhere show young boys the strait and narrow? Flash cheque-books when delinquency is mentioned? Support the Scout-movement? Principles, boy, bleeding principles.

The play is at its most acidic in its depiction of Kath and Ed’s complete lack of concern for their father’s welfare. A scheme to place the old man in a home clearly is afoot before the play begins, and his murder at Sloane’s hands is, if truth be told, a convenience to his children. Kath and Ed turn a deaf ear to Kemp’s reports of Sloane’s brutality, their interest in the young boarder far outweighing their regard for their father. When Sloane admits that he has, indeed, beaten Kemp, Ed responds sympathetically, while Kath’s response to her father’s death is a plaintive, “Will I have to send his pension book in?”

Sloane himself is from a rougher, working-class background and possesses a streetwise sensibility and penchant for violence that are apparent from the start. The play’s surprise, and its central message, is that beneath their bourgeois facade Kath and Ed are every inch as ruthless as the young man they both pursue. The hints throughout the play that Sloane could in fact be Kath’s illegitimate son have a symbolic purpose as well; if he is not her child in actuality, he is at least her child in spirit—the logical offspring of middle-class hypocrisy. The play’s cheeky, irreverent tone toward the conventions of social respectability lays bare the unsavory—and very comical—reality they are intended to hide.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1184

Orton's most obvious subject in Entertaining Mr. Sloane is sexual appetite. With the exception of the aged Kemp, the characters are so preoccupied with their sexual needs that by the end of the play they appear completely self-centered, frighteningly insensitive, and almost subhuman.

Kath is the one most openly hunting for sexual satisfaction. Having met Sloane that afternoon in the library, she invites him to consider her home as an alternative to his present lodgings. When Sloane says in his fourth speech of the play, "I can't give you a decision right away," Kath says, "I'd be happy to have you." The sexual pun on "have" is obvious, and Sloane gets the message. After a brief silence he says, "are you married?" and the question is equivalent to, "are you sexually available?" This is the fictional counterpart of the real-life "pickups" that Orton describes so explicitly in his writings in The Orton Diaries. In the pre-AIDS homosexual world, Orton was outrageously promiscuous to the point of obsession, and in the characters of Entertaining Mr. Sloane he portrayed a similar kind of sexual obsession.

Ed is the most circumspect in his expression of sexual needs, but the onset of his sexual interest in Sloane is as rapid as Kath's. When he first meets Sloane, Ed is intending to dismiss the prospective lodger from his sister and father's house, but Ed only gets the word "I" out of his mouth before he begins to assess Sloane as a potential sexual partner. Sloane reads the signals immediately and is "smiling" as Ed's conversation probes for information about Sloane's availability as a sexual partner.

Sloane, of course, is initially the sexual predator, par excellence, as he is willing to serve either sex and by Act II is out cruising for additional women. But with the death of Kemp, Ed and Kath surpass Sloane in darkly comic obsessiveness, for they show no concern for the passing of their father and immediately use the event to further their sexual claims on Sloane. As the third act unfolds, Ed and Kath have completely forgotten their newly deceased father and are jockeying for sexual supremacy with Sloane. As the play ends, the predatory Sloane becomes a thoroughly "kept" man, and Kath and Ed are comically reduced to a parody of sexual appetite: Ed callously ends the play with the incredibly incongruous line, "Well, it's been a pleasant morning," and Kath settles on the sofa eating a piece of candy.

Appearance and Reality
If the intensity of these characters' sex drives makes them funny, what makes them even funnier is their attempt to hide their obsessions. While Kath is seducing Sloane, she generally pretends to be coy or describes her affections as "motherly." When Sloane responds aggressively to her sexual hints, Kath pretends to be outraged ("Mr. Sloane—don't betray your trust") while soon giving him all the "go ahead" signals he might need: "I must be careful of you. Have me naked on the floor if I give you a chance. If my brother was to know. ... Would you like to go to bed?" Perhaps the most deftly comic treatment of Kath's hypocrisy occurs at the end of Act I when Kath greets Sloane in a transparent negligee and tells him "I'm just at a quid bit of knitting before I go to bed." She then realizes that she has only one knitting needle and must search in the junk of the living room to find its mate.

Ed's approach to masking his sexual rapacity is more subtle. After he's decided in his first interview with Sloane that he wants the young man as a sexual partner, Ed offers Sloane gifts to appeal to Sloane's mercenary interests. Whereas Kath tries to entice Sloane with the promise of sexual availability and motherly shelter, Ed is simply willing to buy Sloane's body, but like Kath, Ed wants to appear shocked when the conversation and action gets too explicit. Near the end of the first interview, Ed fantasizes about Sloane's undergarments—"do you wear leather ... next to the skin? Leather jeans, say? Without... aah" and when Sloane gets explicit, finishing Ed's incomplete sentence with the fantasy Ed had in mind—"pants?"—Ed retreats into his pose—"Get away! (pause) The question is, are you clean living? You may as well know I set great store by morals. Too much of this casual bunking up nowadays."

Sloane is more honest in his sexual behavior, but he also pursues his sexual interests with hypocrisy—most clearly when he's at a disadvantage and must pretend to be repentant in order to maintain his easy life. This happens first in the second act when Ed discovers that Sloane has used Ed's car to romance the hostess at one of the night clubs he's visited. Once caught, Sloane says, "would you accept an unconditional apology.... It won't happen again.. . I respect you." The humor of this comes from the audience's realization that Sloane respects no one and will always be an inveterate philanderer. Perhaps the only thing funnier is that Ed chooses to believe Sloane, against all evidence, because Ed's sexual need is so great.

In his initial interrogation of Sloane, Ed apologizes for Kath's behavior and when Sloane says, "she seems all right," Ed says, "you can't always go on appearances." Ed's rejoinder could be taken as Orton's abiding comic concern: what "appears to be" is usually a pose to hide one's real feelings—feelings which are usually dominated by sexual drives, self-interest, and the desire for power.

Morals and Morality
A more conventional playwright might turn this attempt to hide sexual obsession into a moral stance, permitting or even leading the audience to make judgments about the destructiveness and folly of this behavior. But Orton's thematic approach seems to be to attack conventionality itself, and while he revels in the comic hypocrisy of his characters he doesn't mean to suggest that their behavior ought to be "normal." For Orton, the obsession with normality is far worse than the obsession with sex, which he seems to find fairly innocuous. In fact, the obsession with normality not only causes the hypocrisy but perhaps also adds to the intensity of the rapacious sexual behavior as characters respond to the repression of their instinctive sexual needs.

As a victim in his personal life of conventional moral judgments about homosexuality, Orton seems to suggest that conventional notions of morality ought to be challenged in order to encourage fresh thinking and to break the complacent certainty of the middle class as to what is right and wrong. The most effective way to force this thought process on his audience is to present them with outrageous behavior, entice them to laugh at it, and then refuse to give the audience the satisfaction of a moralistic ending that would reinforce the status quo of conventional morality. At the end of Entertaining Mr. Sloane Kemp's death will go unexamined by the police, as will Sloane's earlier killing, and the sexual triangle that has been established might continue to satisfy the sexual needs of these characters indefinitely.

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