Use of Costume in Orton's Play

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2430

Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is notable for its use of costume. Throughout the play, characters dress and undress, discarding and exchanging clothing, and thus furthering Orton’s theme of the fluidity of identity. Orton also uses clothing and the removal of clothing in the play to establish and subvert authority, to highlight the vulnerability as well as the threat of the human body, and to create a confusing and comic effect. Costume in the play provides much more than decoration or even character illumination. In What the Butler Saw, Orton’s use of clothing is central to the play.

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From the beginning of What the Butler Saw, the characters’ clothing is used to establish who has authority and power and who does not. From the moment he arrives onstage, wearing an expensive, tailored suit, Dr. Prentice is identified as a member of the establishment and a figure of authority. Almost immediately, Orton undercuts that authority with Dr. Prentice’s nonsensical dialogue, and the dissonance between Dr. Prentice’s words and his sophisticated clothing creates a comic effect. Nonetheless, in the world of the play, he retains his power, power that is highlighted by his appearance, most of the time.

Later in the play, when Dr. Rance decides the psychiatrist is insane and Dr. Prentice loses his power, that loss is highlighted by Dr. Rance’s attempt to change Dr. Prentice’s clothing—to put him in a straitjacket. In the beginning, however, it is Geraldine whose clothes establish her subservient position. Dr. Prentice soon exchanges his suit coat for the traditional doctor’s white coat, clothing that emphasizes his power as a psychiatrist. Geraldine, on the other hand, first appears wearing a dress. As a woman in Orton’s time (the 1960s)—and an aspiring secretary—she lacks power.

Dr. Prentice orders Geraldine to undress and, in spite of her doubts, because he is a doctor, she obeys. First standing on the stage in panties and bra, then lying naked behind a curtain, Geraldine is put in an extremely vulnerable position. Her lack of clothing takes away what little power she has. No longer a person in her own right, she becomes the object of Dr. Prentice’s desire. Also, from a practical viewpoint, without her clothing, she is trapped; she cannot leave. While she undresses, becoming more vulnerable, Dr. Prentice puts on his white coat, thus increasing his appearance of authority. In addition, in production, as a nearly naked woman standing on a stage, the actress who plays Geraldine becomes vulnerable to the gaze of the audience. This adds a more complicated layer to Geraldine’s loss of power. Both actress and character are set up as objects of desire.

After Geraldine undresses, Mrs. Prentice arrives, wearing an expensive coat that marks her as a wealthy woman, with all the power that money provides. Nick comes in shortly afterwards, seemingly subservient to her in a hotel page’s uniform. The audience soon discovers, however, that Nick has taken Mrs. Prentice’s dress and wig and that he has sold the dress. He has possession of her clothing, and so the wealthy woman loses power to the hotel page. This creates a loss of dignity, which becomes even more extreme when she later opens her coat, revealing that she is wearing only a slip underneath.

In Because We’re Queers, Simon Shepherd wrote about the effect of the undressed character on stage, focusing on the difference between the audience’s view of unclothed males and unclothed females. ‘‘The man with his trousers down is funny,’’ Shepherd wrote, ‘‘because he loses his traditional dignity as he becomes uncovered (whereas the woman who is undressed is supposedly sexy).’’ While Shepherd’s assessment of the effect of the unclothed male is correct, his remarks on the unclothed...

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