What the Butler Saw

by Joe Orton

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Characters Discussed

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Dr. Prentice

Dr. Prentice, a middle-aged psychiatrist. Prentice is an unscrupulous man who does not hesitate to use his position as a doctor to seduce Geraldine Barclay, who is applying for a job as his secretary. He also refuses to tell the truth, despite the trouble this causes Geraldine with Dr. Rance. It was this same lustful lack of scruples that led him to interfere with an unknown chambermaid at the Station Hotel many years before, resulting in her conception of Geraldine and Nick.

Dr. Rance

Dr. Rance, a psychiatrist sent from the government to check on how psychiatric clinics are being run. He is a brutal, power-mad doctor, and he tries to certify everybody as insane, though it is obvious that he is the only one who is truly mad.

Mrs. Prentice

Mrs. Prentice, Dr. Prentice’s wife. During a brief stint as a chambermaid at the Station Hotel, she was raped in a linen cupboard during a power outage (hence her inability to recognize her attacker as her fiancé, Dr. Prentice). She is a blasé, disillusioned woman who belongs to a lesbian women’s group. The failure of the Prentices’ marriage is attributed to the fact that Mrs. Prentice refused to consummate their marriage during their wedding night.

Nicholas (Nick) Beckett

Nicholas (Nick) Beckett, a page boy from the Station Hotel, now an applicant for the job as Dr. Prentice’s secretary. Nick is an accomplished typist and blackmailer with an insatiable sexual appetite, exemplified by his attempted rape of Mrs. Prentice (his mother) and the accomplished molestation of “a section of the Priory Road School for girls” on the same night. He turns out to be Geraldine’s twin brother and the Prentices’ son.

Geraldine Barclay

Geraldine Barclay, an applicant for the position as Dr. Prentice’s secretary. A young, attractive girl, she is trusting and believes in telling the truth. Although she is the only person with any morals (except, perhaps, for Sergeant Match), she gets the brunt of Dr. Rance’s abuse, as when he cuts off all of her hair. Her ignorance of the whereabouts of pieces missing from a statue of Winston Churchill seems symbolic of her purity and naïveté. Ultimately, it is revealed that she is Nick’s twin and the Prentices’ daughter.

Sergeant Match

Sergeant Match, a policeman looking for Geraldine Barclay and Nicholas Beckett. His more important mission, however, is to find Geraldine and Sir Winston’s missing parts; of lesser interest is his charge to find the molester of the girls from Priory Road School. Having accomplished his main task, which is of national importance, Match has no qualms about forgetting everything else he has witnessed, though this willingness may be related to the large amount of narcotics that Dr. Prentice has given him.


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Geraldine Barclay Geraldine is the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Prentice and the sister of Nick. At the beginning of the play, she does not know who her father is and believes her mother was a chambermaid. She was raised by a Mrs. Barclay, who was recently killed in a gas main explosion. Geraldine applies for a position as secretary to Dr. Prentice, but she can only take dictation at the speed of twenty words per minute and does not know how to type at all. She is a satire of an innocent, accepting Dr. Prentice's explanation of why she needs to undress for her job interview, and when Dr. Prentice asks her to help him test his new contraceptive device, she says she will be ‘‘delighted to help.’’

Of all of the characters...

(This entire section contains 1011 words.)

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in the play, Geraldine seems least able to take control of what happens to her. Attempting to hide his sexual misconduct, Dr. Prentice tells the others that Geraldine is a mental patient, and she is consequently dressed in a hospital gown, given a short haircut, and forcibly injected with drugs. At the end of the play, she is alternately described as "tearful," "weeping," and ‘‘unable to speak.’’

Nicholas Beckett Nick is a hotel page, the son of Dr. and Mrs. Prentice, and the brother of Geraldine, though he only finds out about these relationships at the end of the play. He seems to have virtually no sexual ethics. When he first arrives on stage, through his discussion with Mrs. Prentice, the audience is told that Nick had sex with Mrs. Prentice and has taken photographs of their encounter. He has sold her dress and threatens to sell the photographs as well unless Mrs. Prentice persuades Dr. Prentice to hire him. Later in the play, he and Mrs. Prentice both claim that he attempted to rape her but did not succeed. The audience also discovers that after his encounter with Mrs. Prentice, he assaulted a group of schoolgirls and is trying to avoid arrest. In addition, Nick reveals that he prostitutes himself to strange men.

NickSee Nicholas Beckett

Sergeant Match Sergeant Match is a policeman who arrives at the clinic searching for Nick, because of Nick's assault on a group of schoolgirls, and Geraldine, because she possesses the missing piece of the statue of Winston Churchill. A figure of authority, Sergeant Match becomes an object of ridicule when he undresses on stage at Dr. Prentice's request and subsequently appears drugged and wearing a leopard-print dress. Dr. Prentice Dr. Prentice runs the psychiatric clinic in which the play takes place. He is married to Mrs. Prentice and is the father of Geraldine and Nick, although he does not know of his offspring until the end of the play. Dr. Prentice is a sexual predator who is completely lacking in ethics. He fathered Geraldine and Nick when he raped Mrs. Prentice, thinking that she was a chambermaid, shortly before their marriage. Because he raped her in a dark closet, he did not realize that she was his fiancee. In addition, he attempts to have sex with Geraldine, who is interviewing to be his secretary, by deceiving her into thinking that he must physically examine her before giving her the job.

The action of the play is set in motion by Dr. Prentice's efforts to hide this attempted rape/seduction from his wife. Dr. Prentice's relationship with Mrs. Prentice is primarily one of antagonism. He admits to having married her for her money, then attempting to beat her when he discovered she was not wealthy. He also physically attacks her during the course of the play.

Mrs. Prentice Mrs. Prentice is married to Dr. Prentice and discovers at the end of the play that she is the mother of Geraldine and Nick, whom she abandoned at birth and, consequently, does not recognize. She is characterized as a nymphomaniac who pursues young men. When she first comes on stage, the audience discovers that she has recently had a sexual encounter with Nick, but the exact nature of that encounter is unclear. In her conversation with Nick, she indicates that she "gave herself' to him, implying that she willingly had sex with him. However, during the remainder of the play, she claims he attempted to rape her but did not succeed. She does not expect any sort of fidelity in marriage. She admits to numerous liaisons and seems to expect the same from her husband. For instance, when Dr. Rance leads her to believe that Dr. Prentice is attracted to young men, she volunteers to introduce him to some she knows (and with whom she has more than likely had sexual relations herself).

Dr. Rance Dr. Rance is a government official in charge of psychiatric facilities. He is a figure of authority who boasts that he would "have sway over a rabbit hutch if the inmates were mentally disturbed.’’ Dr. Rance sees everything that happens as a validation of his own preconceived notions. Upon being told by Dr. Prentice that Geraldine is a patient, Dr. Rance imposes his own ideas on whatever Geraldine says, concluding, for instance, that she is the victim of an incestuous attack by her father—an astute observation whose truth no one yet realizes. He even cites her denial of such an attack as proof that it occurred. Dr. Rance is quick to certify Geraldine as insane, again based on his own theories, not on actual symptoms that indicate such an illness.

Rance similarly imposes his own interpretations on the words and acts of all of the other characters, and those interpretations satirize the modern practice of psychiatry. For instance, believing Dr. Prentice to have murdered Geraldine based on the psychiatrist's statement: ‘‘I've given her the sack’’—meaning that he fired her—Dr. Rance tells Mrs. Prentice: "He killed her and wrapped her body in a sack. The word association is very clear.’’ From the events of the play, Dr. Rance creates a narrative which he intends to publish as a novelette, and he anticipates becoming rich and famous.




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