What the Butler Saw

by Joe Orton

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Geraldine Barclay, an attractive young woman in search of her first job, appears at Dr. Prentice’s clinic one day to be interviewed for a secretarial position. Under interrogation from Prentice, she tells him that her father deserted her mother many years ago when the latter was a chambermaid at the Station Hotel. She herself did not see her mother for a long time, and her stepmother, Mrs. Barclay, died recently from being penetrated with a certain part of a statue of Sir Winston Churchill that was destroyed in a gas-main explosion. Geraldine’s legacy from her stepmother is that part of the Churchillian statue, which she carries with her in a box to the interview.

Prentice orders Geraldine to undress for a physical examination and asks her to cooperate in the testing of a new contraceptive device. She agrees. His plan is foiled suddenly by the entrance of a disheveled Mrs. Prentice, who spent the night at the Station Hotel with the hotel page after attending a lesbian meeting. With Geraldine naked behind a screen, Prentice makes frantic attempts to hide Geraldine’s clothes. His wife sees Geraldine’s dress, however, and, arriving wearing only a fur coat with a slip underneath, puts on the dress.

Nicholas Beckett, the young hotel page, arrives to check Mrs. Prentice’s bag for missing articles and to bribe her to let him sell pictures taken during their tryst at the hotel. Like Geraldine, Nick comes from a broken family. He asks for the job in Prentice’s office and leaves only when Prentice hurriedly gives him some money.

A third intrusion into Prentice’s plans occurs in the person of Dr. Rance, an inspector of psychiatric clinics. Discovering the naked Geraldine, he immediately proclaims her insane, the first of many similar proclamations. His habit is to question patients only after he issues insanity verdicts. He then interrogates Prentice about his background and follows with questions to Mrs. Prentice about her husband. He notes Prentice’s apparent obsession with women’s clothes. A fourth intruder, Inspector Match, arrives on a matter of national importance having to do with Sir Winston Churchill’s statue.

Nick conveniently reappears with Mrs. Prentice’s freshly cleaned dress and wig. Prentice, desperate to find attire for Geraldine, orders Nick to undress and Geraldine to put on his uniform. Nick is then asked to wear Mrs. Prentice’s leopard-spotted dress and to impersonate Geraldine in a subsequent interrogation by Match. At the end of the first act, in the interest of professional correctness, it is agreed that Mrs. Prentice will examine Geraldine (actually Nick in disguise) and that Match will examine Nick (actually Geraldine in disguise).

At the start of the second act, the desperation of Geraldine and Nick to unravel what is so obvious that it needs no unraveling leads Geraldine to insist on being arrested. Meanwhile, at the same time that Prentice rapidly loses control of events, Rance gains control by his obsessive insistence on giving Freudian interpretations of everything having the slightest appearance of a sexual nuance: bisexuality, transvestism, incest, nymphomania, sadomasochism, and the like. Even Match falls victim to Rance’s freewheeling accusations, namely, that he, too, may be a victim of a sexual assault by Prentice. When Rance insists on examining Match and orders him to undress, Nick is able to put on the police officer’s uniform so as to arrest himself.

To ensure his ability to safely straitjacket Prentice, Rance asks Mrs. Prentice for a gun. She produces two, one for herself and another for Rance. As variously disguised persons flee out one door and in another, shots are fired that result in wounds to Match...

(This entire section contains 881 words.)

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and Nick. By this time, Match finds himself attired in Mrs. Prentice’s leopard dress, and the confusion seems total.

Geraldine is finally given a chance to tell her story, and when her lost brooch is produced Nick says he has one just like it. Mrs. Prentice then begins her own story of having broken a brooch in two, pinning one half to the clothing of each of her twins, a boy and a girl. The Prentice family reunion is made complete with Mrs. Prentice’s confession that the brooch was given her in partial payment by an unknown man (who turns out to be Prentice) with whom she enjoyed a liaison during a power outage at the Station Hotel, the result of which was the birth of twins. Mrs. Prentice’s story concludes with an account of her tryst with Nick in the same room in which she conceived him.

The revelations about the Prentice family, however, solve only one of the farce’s two mysteries. Geraldine clears up the mystery of Match’s investigation when she opens the box she brought with her to the interview, containing her stepmother’s legacy to her, the lost part of Churchill’s statue, a phallus.

In the final scene, all embrace. A skylight opens, a rope ladder lowers, and a bloodied Match descends, announcing that the great man, Churchill, “can once more take up his place in the High Street as an example to us all of the spirit that won the Battle of Britain.” Bedraggled, all pick up their clothes and follow Match back up the ladder.