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Joe Orton’s career was launched by the British Broadcasting Corporation’s acceptance of his first play, The Ruffian on the Stair. By the time the drama was broadcast in 1964, however, Orton had already achieved fame with the successful West End production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Orton revised The Ruffian on the Stair for its stage production in 1966; the revised version is less derivative of Harold Pinter’s The Room (pr. 1957), although it still shows Orton’s early debt to Pinter’s techniques.

The Ruffian on the Stair

This one-act play involves three characters: Joyce, a former prostitute; Mike, a thief; and Wilson, the “intruder” who arrives at Joyce and Mike’s apartment ostensibly searching for a room to rent. During the course of the play, Wilson reveals that he has had a homosexual relationship with his own brother, whom Mike has recently killed. Wilson’s plan is to force Mike to kill him by pretending to sleep with Joyce; in this way, he hopes that Mike will be brought to justice for the murder. Wilson’s plan succeeds, and the drama concludes with Mike comforting Joyce, who is weeping not over Wilson’s murder but over the death of her goldfish. The play shows Orton, still strongly influenced by Pinter, moving toward the kind of verbal style that would characterize Entertaining Mr. Sloane—a style in which characters use media-influenced language to mask their real thoughts and emotions. The emotional sterility of the characters is reflected in the debased, meaningless language of cliché and the popular press, which they use almost exclusively. Although the play suffers from an ending that appears to be arbitrarily forced on the action, The Ruffian on the Stair does show Orton’s talent with dialogue and his ability to create a degree of emotional tension among his characters.

Entertaining Mr. Sloane

Orton’s first full-length drama was Entertaining Mr. Sloane, a three-act play that showed that the playwright had made important advancements beyond The Ruffian on the Stair. In much firmer control of his material in this play, Orton perfected his characters’ use of media-influenced language and cliché. In addition, he was able to construct a relationship among the characters that made the play’s ending believable and inevitable, a problem he had been unable to solve satisfactorily in The Ruffian on the Stair.

In Entertaining Mr. Sloane , Kath and Ed, Kath’s brother, battle for control and possession of Sloane, Kath’s young lodger. The double meaning of the play’s title becomes clear as the play progresses, for the insidious Sloane is at first wooed and entertained by Kath and Ed and later must provide entertainment in the form of sexual favors for both of them when they become witnesses to his second murder. At the beginning of the play, Sloane takes a room in Kath’s house, where she lives with her father, Kemp. Kemp soon recognizes Sloane as the young man who murdered his employer two years earlier. Kath, a middle-aged woman who coyly plays the role of Sloane’s “Mamma” while brazenly seducing him at the end of the first act, soon finds herself pregnant by Sloane. Sloane is also being pursued, in a less obvious fashion, by Ed, who gives him a job as his chauffeur. When Kemp threatens to expose Sloane as a murderer, Sloane accidentally kills him and is then at the mercy of Kath and Ed, who both want to possess him exclusively. The brother and sister finally agree to share Sloane, each taking him for six months at a time. Sloane, who at the play’s beginning was able to control Kath and...

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Ed completely, is quickly reduced to an object.

Orton insisted that the play should be acted as realistically as possible so that the characters would not degenerate into caricatures or stereotypes. “What I wanted to do in Sloane,” said Orton, “was to break down all the sexual compartments that people have.” Kath and Ed are deadly serious about their designs on the young lodger, and Orton resisted the two male leads being played as effeminate homosexuals, just as he did not wish Kath to be played as a nymphomaniac. Instead, the play is about individual personalities who are constantly maneuvering in their attempts to gain power. Despite the play’s realism, however, Entertaining Mr. Sloane is, like several of Orton’s later dramas, reflexive in the sense that the characters are aware of their own theatricality. Orton also uses the rhetoric of the detective film in the play, just as he would parody the genre of farce in later dramas.

Present throughout the play is Orton’s fascination with a debased language that functions to obscure the characters’ real thoughts and deeds. John Lahr argues that Orton’s dialogue reveals the “sensory overload” of the effects of the media on the individual—what he calls “an eclectic brew of rhythms and idioms which captured and commented on the mutation of language.” Entertaining Mr. Sloane is the best example of Orton’s search for what he described as his “collage” literary style: His characters mix the language of newspaper headlines, scandal sheets, advertising, and cliché in a comical and meaningless speech that nevertheless manages to communicate their obsessions and desires. Pinter’s influence is still present in Entertaining Mr. Sloane, but Orton’s success with the play led him in new directions as a dramatist. His work became increasingly more outrageous and farcical as a result of the self-confidence he gained because of the success of Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

The Good and Faithful Servant

Orton’s next play, The Good and Faithful Servant, was written in 1964 and appeared on television and stage in 1967. It was Orton’s first full-scale attack on authority and convention, represented in this case by the company from which the main character, Buchanan, is retiring after fifty years of service. At the time of his retirement, Buchanan is stripped of his uniform and given an electric clock and toaster, neither of which works. Buchanan also encounters Edith Anderson, an elderly maid who is working for the firm and who turns out to have given birth to their illegitimate twins many years ago. The one-act play concerns Buchanan’s adjustment to his retirement, his marriage to Edith, and the relationship between his grandson, Ray, and Debbie, who is pregnant with Ray’s illegitimate child.

Buchanan’s broken-down physical condition is reflective of what his lifelong service to the company has given him. Although he claims to have led “a useful and constructive life,” he breaks down coughing at the end of this statement and, in addition to needing glasses and a hearing aid, has also lost an arm in the service of the firm. Buchanan’s pitiful reverence for the company is shared by the other employees. Edith is thrilled because she was able to sweep out the canteen one day in the distant past, and Buchanan states that the “high point” of his life came when he appeared in the company’s magazine. He also reverentially mentions that he was “almost Staff” and actually opened the door to the chairman of the board on one occasion. Buchanan’s death at the end of the play, which occurs after his disillusionment with the party for the elderly, which culminates in his smashing of the toaster and clock with a hammer, is ironically counterpointed by Ray’s induction into the corporate life after having been forced by the company’s representative, Mrs. Vealfoy, into marrying Debbie. Just as illegitimacy is handed down from generation to generation in the play, so is the grinding and mindless service to a corporation that remains an abstraction to its employees.

Mrs. Vealfoy is the voice both of the corporate mentality and of the social conformity that it uses to manipulate its workers. She advises Ray to “say ‘yes’ as often as possible. . . . I always do. . . . Always,” and she organizes the darkly comic party for the retired workers in scene 16, forcing the dispirited elderly people to sing songs containing the word “happy” while a woman collapses and dies in the background. Mrs. Vealfoy’s genial intrusiveness and blind faith in the rightness of the company’s policies structure The Good and Faithful Servant, which is Orton’s most naturalistic assault on the world of authority and convention that he would lampoon in a much more anarchic and farcical style in his later drama.


In his novel Head to Toe, Orton said that “To be destructive, words had to be irrefutable. . . . Print was less effective than the spoken word because the blast was greater; eyes could ignore, slide past, dangerous verbs or nouns. But if you could lock the enemy into a room somewhere and fire the sentences at them, you would get a sort of seismic disturbance.” Not surprisingly, Orton turned from fiction to the theater, where he could attack his audience directly with words, for Orton considered his audience to be his enemy. He chose farce as the most appropriate genre to create a “seismic disturbance,” to disturb his audience’s conventions and expectations. Loot was the first full-length play in which he allowed his taste for anarchic farce a free rein, and if it sometimes too exuberantly celebrates a farcical, outrageous, and topsy-turvy world of madness and corruption, it also shows Orton discovering the proper vehicle for his talent. Farce, observes John Lahr, is an act of “literary aggression,” and Orton used farce in order to vent his own anger and to assault a society that he believed to be hypocritical and stultifying. In his farces, he sought what he called in Head to Toe a “particularly dangerous collection of words” which could “explode,” creating “shock waves [which] were capable of killing centuries afterwards.”

In Loot, Orton mercilessly lampoons authority, represented most clearly in the play by Detective Truscott. Truscott, who comes to the home of Mr. McLeavy, whose wife has just died, is investigating a theft in which Hal, McLeavy’s son, has been involved. McLeavy, the only character in the play with any real respect for authority, is also the only “innocent” character; ironically, it is McLeavy who at the play’s conclusion is arrested for a “crime” that Truscott refuses to define.

McLeavy’s faith in authority is naïve and pitiful. Early in the play, he says that he likes “to be of assistance to authority” and that public servants can be relied on to behave themselves: “As a good citizen I ignore the stories which bring officialdom into disrepute.” All the events of the play work to underscore the irony of McLeavy’s blind trust in “officialdom,” and his statement in act 2 that “my personal freedom must be sacrificed” so that Truscott can continue with his investigation becomes chillingly significant later in the play. McLeavy’s amazement at his own arrest at the conclusion of the play leads to his incredulous comment, “You can’t do this. I’ve always been a law-abiding citizen. The police are for the protection of ordinary people.” Truscott’s reply, that he does not understand where McLeavy has picked up “such slogans,” sums up Orton’s view of authority and justice: The conventional law and order of society is merely a mask for corruption, intolerance, and irrationality. As a result, most of the play’s references to authority are couched in clichés that render the characters’ speeches ludicrous. Fay, the young nurse who has just murdered McLeavy’s wife for her money, reacts similarly to McLeavy when she is threatened with arrest: “I’m innocent till I’m proved guilty. This is a free country. The law is impartial.” Truscott’s response is reminiscent of his reply to McLeavy: “Who’s been filling your head with that rubbish?”

As What the Butler Saw would later parody farce, Loot parodies the detective novel and film. Truscott’s comical conclusion that Fay shot her husband at the Hermitage Private Hotel because one of her wedding rings has a roughness associated with “powder burns and salt” shows Orton mocking the detective story’s emphasis on rational thinking and deductive reasoning. The world of Loot is instead one of madness and illogic in which relationships among people alter rapidly; there is no core of stability or predictability. McLeavy finally asks Truscott, “Is the world mad? Tell me it’s not”; his question is answered by Truscott’s statement that “I’m not paid to quarrel with accepted facts.” Loot shows that mysteries cannot be solved, for mysteries only lead to further mystification: Truscott tells the group that “the process by which the police arrive at the solution to a mystery is, in itself, a mystery.” In Loot, the plot becomes more rather than less complicated as it progresses; the true “criminals” are allowed to go free while the “detective” becomes part of the crime. Fay’s final statement in the play, “We must keep up appearances,” articulates an important theme: The world is composed of masks, false identities, and lies that exist not to conceal reality but to compensate for its nonexistence. There are only appearances, and the characters who can most effectively manipulate appearance are the most successful. McLeavy’s worship of authority reflects his ignorance of appearances. He assumes that those in power are what they claim to be, and he pays the price.

The Erpingham Camp

In The Erpingham Camp, Orton continues to attack authority and convention and to develop the brilliantly epigrammatic style that culminated in What the Butler Saw. Much less naturalistic even than Loot, The Erpingham Camp is a one-act play composed of eleven short scenes. Its setting is a holiday camp in which chaos and anarchy erupt in what initially appears to be a rigidly organized situation controlled by the proud entrepreneur Erpingham. He is the major symbol of authority in the play and, like Orton’s other authority figures, has false notions about the predictability and rational nature of the world. Early in the play, he tells an employee, “We live in a rational world, Riley”; the rest of the drama functions to destroy the validity of this statement.

Problems begin when Riley, who is organizing an evening of entertainment, slaps Eileen, a pregnant woman who is screaming hysterically. Although Riley’s action is an attempt to make her stop screaming, a melee ensues and the campers begin, in Erpingham’s phrase, to “destroy property,” which results in Erpingham refusing to feed them an evening meal. “We’ve no time for hedonists here. My camp is a pure camp,” Erpingham had said earlier, and he tries to punish his “underlings” in an effort to control their behavior. Erpingham, whose usual advice in any situation is to “consult the manual,” is unable to understand or deal with the campers’ rage and replies to their pleas for food with the statement, “You have no rights. You have certain privileges which can be withdrawn. I am withdrawing them.”

Physical and verbal violence breaks out after this incident, with two groups of campers battling for their own “approach” to the situation. Lou and Ted, a right-wing young couple who claim to have met outside the Young Conservatives, call for moderation, remaining “within the law,” and adherence to “page twenty of the Civil Defense Booklet.” Kenny and Eileen, a working-class couple resentful of Lou and Ted’s “advantages,” instead want to take the “means of supply” into their own hands and encourage the campers to break into the food stores, screaming, “Have a bash, I say. Have a bash for the pregnant woman next door!”

The play becomes increasingly anarchic and unrealistic until it concludes with Erpingham falling to his death down a hole in the floor. Attending at the funeral is the Padre, who has just returned from a court appearance in which he has been accused of molesting a young girl and who ironically notes, “As the little foxes gnaw at the roots of the vine, so anarchy weakens the fibers of society.” The play ends with one of Orton’s most famous epigrams, the Padre’s statement that “it’s Life that defeats the Christian Church. She’s always been well-equipped to deal with Death.” Although his themes in this play are similar to the dramas of the past, particularly the attacks on political and clerical authority, convention, and corruption, The Erpingham Camp shows Orton’s increasing confidence in his ability to write anarchic farce in the epigrammatic style and was an important step in his movement away from naturalistic drama.

What the Butler Saw

Orton’s last completed drama, What the Butler Saw, was not performed until after his death, and as a result the play did not undergo final rewrites by the playwright. Nevertheless, What the Butler Saw is Orton’s most accomplished work. The play is a celebration of irrationality that also parodies the farce form by comically exaggerating its structure and characteristics: An absurdist genre is parodically made even more absurd. C. W. E. Bigsby suggests that the “byzantine complexities of the plot of What the Butler Saw can be seen as a deliberate attempt to parody the very structure of farce itself,” and certainly the play’s intricate plot makes summary almost impossible.

Like Orton’s earlier work, What the Butler Saw attacks authority and tradition. In this drama, Dr. Rance, a government representative who has come to Dr. Prentice’s mental clinic to be “given details” about its operations, at first appears to be the voice of conventional authority that wishes to suppress the forces of chaos. Although Rance represents the “Commissioners,” however, he is also a spokesperson for unreason, mentioning to Dr. Prentice that he is a representative of “Her Majesty’s Government. Your immediate superiors in madness,” and opining that “the higher reaches of the Civil Service are recruited entirely from corpses or madmen.” In What the Butler Saw, Orton’s questioning of authority goes beyond that of religious or governmental institutions; here, he tries to destroy the very foundations of logic, reason, and predictability on which his audience’s assumptions are based.

One of the most important themes of the play is the very thin line of demarcation between the sane and the insane. The setting is a madhouse in which no actual “insane” patients ever appear; rather, it is the ostensibly sane inhabitants, particularly the psychologists, who are mad. Rance tells the policeman Match that they are in a madhouse where “unusual behavior” is the prerogative of everyone: “We’ve no privileged class here. It’s democratic lunacy we practice.” “Democratic lunacy” aptly describes the world of What the Butler Saw, in which sanity and insanity are relative conditions that depend entirely on perspective. “The sane appear as strange to the mad as the mad to the sane,” Rance tells Dr. Prentice in a statement that echoes the play’s epigraph, drawn from Cyril Tourneur’s play The Revenger’s Tragedy (pr. 1606-1607): “Surely we’re all mad people, and they/ Whom we think are, are not.” Rance tells Mrs. Prentice that her husband’s behavior is “so ridiculous one might suspect him of being sane,” a Wildean paradox that sums up Orton’s view that sanity and insanity are actually mirror images of one another.

In this play, sanity is dependent on a rejection of all evidence of reality; Rance, after denying that the blood on Mrs. Prentice’s hand is “real” while admitting that he sees it, says, “I’m a scientist. I state facts, I cannot be expected to provide explanations. Reject any para-normal phenomena. It’s the only way to remain sane.” Because reality is madness, sanity can exist only when reality is denied. In a sense, however, madness is to be preferred to sanity, for Rance tells Geraldine Barclay that the fact that her mind has “given way” will be an invaluable aid in her efforts to “come to terms with twentieth century living.” In a world in which irrationality and farcical absurdity rule, the most effective defense is insanity.

Orton’s characters also lack any firm sense of their individual identities. Identities and sexes are exchanged with dizzying rapidity, with the result that the characters begin to lose their sense of who and what they are. Nicholas Beckett, in an attempt to verify his own existence, tells Rance, “If [my] pain is real I must be real,” a statement Rance counters with the observation that “I’d rather not get involved in metaphysical speculation.” Rance prefers to construct elaborate and illogical premises on which he bases even more outrageously illogical theories, at one point noting his own “law” that the “relations of apparitions are also apparitions.” In What the Butler Saw, characters are much like “apparitions” who disappear and reemerge as different people; lacking any core of intrinsic identity, they are capable of endless psychic transformations. This lack of immutable identity, however, is not necessarily a negative characteristic: Like madness, fluidity of identity is a means of survival.

What the Butler Saw posits a universe in which irrationality must rule because all premises are illogical, erroneous, or nonexistent. Rance’s comically incorrect “theories” about the reasons for Geraldine Barclay’s neuroses and Dr. Prentice’s madness are blatant fictions that have, as he is well aware, no relationship to reality. In the play, there is no actual “reality” because there is no truth. Geraldine asserts to Dr. Prentice, “We must tell the truth!” and is answered, “That’s a thoroughly defeatist attitude.” Rance’s repeated admonishments to characters to “face facts” is ironic in this context, and near the end of the play, he admits to Geraldine, who is still trying to discover the “truth” about her situation, “It’s much too late to tell the truth,” a statement that could have been uttered at the play’s beginning.

Indeed, Rance is adept at creating theories that satisfy his imagination much more than any simple truth could. When confronted with an actual “fact,” such as Dr. Prentice’s attack on Mrs. Prentice, he dismisses it by saying, “Oh, that was a mere physical act with no special psychological significance.” Rance, entranced with Freudian symbols and theoretical interpretations, sees the madness around him as culminating in the “final chapters” of his planned documentary novel, which will include “incest, buggery, outrageous women, and strange love-cults catering to depraved appetites. All the fashionable bric-a-brac”—a list that also describes Orton’s dramatic world. Rance’s fictive reworking of the “plot” of the drama is similar to the artistic process, and Orton the dramatist creates a character who imaginatively and fictively revels in the madness around him, just as Orton used his own chaotic lifestyle as fodder for his art. His early death ended a career that had, perhaps, only begun to approach its maturity. It is impossible to speculate, given his rapid development as a playwright, in which directions he might have gone.


Orton, Joe