What the Butler Saw

by Joe Orton
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1122

The first performance of What the Butler Saw, on March 5, 1969, was a critical and commercial disaster. Members of the audience shouted at the actors, disrupting the performance. In his Orton biography Prick up Your Ears, critic John Lahr noted that ‘‘Shouts of 'Filth!', 'Rubbish!', 'Find another play!' bombarded the actors as they struggled bravely through the lines.’’ Lahr also quoted actor Stanley Baxter, who played Dr. Prentice, on his experience with the audience on opening night:

At first I thought it was a drunk or someone mentally deranged. Then it became clear that it was militant hate that had been organized. ... It was a battle royal. . . . The gallery wanted to jump on the stage and kill us all. The occasion had the exhilaration of a fight.

Barton also recalled "old ladies in the audience not merely tearing up their programmes, but jumping up and down on them out of sheer hatred.''

The audience could not have really heard the play itself with all of the shouting going on, but they objected to what they saw as Orton's immorality. This reaction to Orton was not limited to members of the audience. Lahr noted that critic Harold Hobson ‘‘ignored the play in his initial review, using the space instead to portray Orton as the Devil's theatrical henchman.’’ In a later essay in the Christian Science Monitor, Hobson still focused more on Orton than on the play. Lahr quoted, ‘‘Orton's terrible obsession with perversion, which is regarded as having brought his life to an end and choked his very high talent, poisons the play. And what should have been a piece of gaily irresponsible nonsense become impregnated with evil.’’

According to Lahr, the only review that recognized the play's importance was written by Frank Marcus, who predicted that ‘‘What the Butler Saw will live to be accepted as a comedy classic of English literature.’’ Marcus's words proved prophetic. The 1975 revival received much more positive reviews, and the play is today widely considered Orton's finest work.

Although there are certainly many people today who would consider What the Butler Saw immoral, and even disgusting, in general attitudes toward sexuality have changed greatly since 1969. Most people would still find the characters' actions reprehensible, but sex is not the taboo subject it once was, and today's audiences are much less likely to be shocked. More recent criticism is less likely to focus on whether the play is immoral, but to look instead at what Orton is trying to say and whether the play is successful on its own terms. Nonetheless, Orton's presentation of amoral characters is still an important topic of discussion.

In Joe Orton, critic C. W. E. Bigsby suggested that Orton uses his plays to attack. Bigsby wrote that Orton's ‘‘primary weapons became parody, sexual affront, visual and verbal humour and macabre juxtaposition.’’ The sexual affront of What the Butler Saw is, in fact, what made the earlier audiences so angry. Bigsby called Orton's work ‘‘an act of aggression.’’ Orton, according to Bigsby, believed he lived in ‘‘a very sick society’’ and attempted to ‘‘undermine [that society] at first with absurdist comedy and then with farce.’’

In What the Butler Saw, Orton's use of sexuality can be seen as an attack on the audience, whom Bigsby noted are granted, in all theater, ‘‘a privileged position’’ and ‘‘believe themselves to be in possession of a perceivable truth.’’ But Orton destroys the complacency of the audience "at the end when they are made to see that what they took to be frivolous sexual games were in fact incestuous trysts in which a mother is raped by her son and a father attempts to strip and rape his daughter.’’ According to Bigsby, the amorality of the characters serves to disturb the audience, to force them to see beyond convention, to attack their acceptance of society's rules.

In his book Because We're Queers, Simon Shepherd suggested that Orton's anger is directed not so much at the audience but at the status quo. Shepherd wrote that ‘‘Orton's most extended anger was . .. reserved for a male figurehead who had explicit association with nationalism.’’ Referring to the destruction of the statue of Winston Churchill and the symbolic castration of Churchill himself, Shepherd wrote, ‘‘To appreciate Orton's daring we have to recall the extent of national mythology surrounding the man.’’

Orton also shocked his audience with the final display of the statue's penis. ‘‘In dominant non-homosexual culture,’’ Shepherd wrote, ‘‘it is taboo to make sexual advances to a man and it is taboo . . . to represent the erect penis. Both taboos preserve the dignity of the penis, defining it as a symbol of order and power.’’ Shepherd further noted that ‘‘Conventional masculinity is founded on the notion that biological possession of the penis gives a person cultural or social power.’’

By exposing the statue's penis as an object of laughter, Shepherd wrote, Orton "has us look with a mocking gay look at the combination of elements— family, gender roles, nationalism, masculinity, propriety—which make up English fascism.’’ So shocking was the display of the penis at the play's end, that the first production substituted the organ with Churchill's cigar, which can also be seen as a phallic symbol—albeit a far less explicit one. Subsequent productions have restored the use of the penis, which is a powerful symbol in the play, in part because of its shock value.

Not all critics, however, see Orton's use of shock and immorality as beneficial to the play. Benedict Nightingale, writing in Encounter, found flaws in What the Butler Saw. Nightingale reported that he saw the play twice "and twice failed to laugh even remotely as much as the swaggering language and frenetic encounters [seem] to demand.’’ For Nightingale, the amorality of the characters weakened the play but not for the simplistic reason that such amorality is somehow "wrong.’’ Instead, Nightingale believed that the characters keep the play from succeeding on its own terms, as a farce. Nightingale asked, ‘‘How can we laugh at someone' s flouting of convention, or desperate attempt to regain respectability, when no one on stage is particularly convention, respectable or shockable? Farce simply can't breathe in an atmosphere of amorality and permissiveness.’’ For Nightingale, the extremity of the characters' amorality defeated Orton's purpose.

There is no doubt that Orton intended What the Butler Saw to shock its audience, and early reactions show he succeeded; audiences and critics were shocked, even disgusted, by Orton's final play. Shock in itself, however, is ultimately not enough. There is critical disagreement on whether the play does succeed on its own terms. In spite of such disagreements, however, most critics today recognize the importance of What the Butler Saw and consider it Orton's finest play.

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