What the Butler Saw Essay - Critical Evaluation

Joe Orton

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Joe Orton’s farcical world is diminished, at worst distorted, by a mere summary of the story. Although he follows the oldest of farce conventions—including the plot device of twins separated at birth, a situation that necessitates the use of disguises so as eventually to reveal true identities—he changes the very nature of farce by adapting those conventions in his own inimitable way. All farce depends on social satire as a main theme, and in this respect Orton is a traditional satirist. As farce conventions demand, Orton’s characters are flat and represent the excesses of his age’s vices. Tradition also dictates a happy ending in which families are reunited and social norms, purified of wrongdoings, restored.

It is in this restoration that Orton makes a clean break with tradition. At the end of the play, nothing has changed. Mrs. Prentice’s incest will not be punished. Dr. Rance will profit financially from the best seller he envisions about sexual perversions. Dr. and Mrs. Prentice will continue in their customary sexual pursuits. Match will go on championing an England that is no more. Geraldine and Nick will look for jobs.

The basis for Orton’s reputation is his probing of the difference between behavior and the language used to make that behavior appear respectable. The physical disguises are a mere structural underpinning for the characters’ linguistic disguises, which they use to justify their actions. Orton’s language is that of the accepted idioms of the time, understood by all, yet ingeniously alien to the context in which they are used.

The basic elements of a job interview rise to heights of absurdity when, in response to Geraldine’s confession that she has no idea who her father was, Prentice replies that he cannot hire her if her birth was in any way miraculous; he adds “You did have a father?” He abuses professional ethics when he convinces Geraldine to test a new contraceptive device, at the same time asking her not to mention it to his nymphomaniacal wife, whom he confesses he married for her money and whose sexual pursuits he likens to the search for the Holy Grail. Two lies, then, begin a long procession of lies and disguises. All stem, as Prentice at one point tells Geraldine, from his misguided attempt to seduce her. Mrs. Prentice joins in the absurdity when she reminds Nick, who tells her that he has an offer for an option...

(The entire section is 981 words.)