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 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...
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