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.
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...
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undressed is supposedly sexy).’’ While Shepherd’s assessment of the effect of the unclothed male is correct, his remarks on the unclothed female are too simplistic. While the young undressed Geraldine is certainly a sexual object, she is also a figure of vulnerability. Her innocence in believing Dr. Prentice’s reasons for having her undress is funny. Mrs. Prentice’s situation, however, is different from Geraldine’s. As a wealthy and older woman, she has a certain dignity and power. Her lack of clothing does establish her as a sexual object. Her loss of dignity, however, is also funny. In this respect, she becomes more like the undressed male.
While Mrs. Prentice is briefly out of the room, Dr. Prentice tells Geraldine to get dressed and attempts to return the girl’s clothes. When Mrs. Prentice returns before he has done so, Geraldine’s clothing becomes an object of humor as Dr. Prentice attempts to hide the garments from his wife. He succeeds in dropping Geraldine’s underwear in a wastepaper basket and tries to do the same with the dress, but Mrs. Prentice sees it, asks if he is a transvestite, and demands the dress for herself. She puts it on and thus regains her dignity and authority.
Geraldine, however, is in an even more powerless position. Not only is she not wearing her clothes, they have become unavailable to her. When Dr. Rance enters, his authority and power established by his white coat, Geraldine is completely naked. Dr. Rance, assuming she is a patient, sees her nudity as a manifestation of her madness, and Dr. Prentice gives her a hospital gown. With that change in clothes, she becomes, in effect, a mental patient, and thus loses power altogether. She also loses her identity. When the other characters become concerned because ‘‘Miss Barclay’’ is missing and begin to search for her, Miss Barclay cannot be found because, in effect, she no longer exists. In her place is a mental patient with no name, no power, and no dignity.
Geraldine’s clothing change begins a series of character disguises that continue throughout the play. Again, the effect is comic. Writing of farce, Susan Rusinko, in her book Joe Orton, remarked that ‘‘The single most necessary convention . . . is disguise—one that Orton carries to dizzyingly confusing heights. The multiplicity of Orton’s disguises results in the expected confusions of names and identities, teeter-totter plot complications caused by a fast-paced series of exits and entrances, the big scene, and the deus ex machina ending.’’
Disguise in What the Butler Saw certainly serves to confuse the characters and does create a comic effect, but for the audience, it raises a bigger question about the nature of identity. To what extent does Geraldine become a mental patient while wearing a mental patient’s clothing? The changes in costume have real effects in the play because they affect the actions of the other characters. Because Dr. Rance believes Geraldine is a mental patient, he treats her as a patient, restraining her and giving her sedatives against her will. In the world of the play, Geraldine’s increased vulnerability is real.
In the outside world as well, people are treated differently depending on how they dress. Lawyers routinely advise defendants not to wear their prison clothes in court because those clothes will cause the jury to see them as criminals. Women and men wear suits to job interviews so that the potential employers will see them as capable and responsible. In a sense, such changes of clothing are disguises as well. People are judged by what they wear.
Geraldine is vulnerable without her street clothes, but Dr. Prentice becomes vulnerable because of his possession of her dress, stockings, bra, panties, and shoes. His attempts to hide these articles from Mrs. Prentice are comic, but her discovery of them causes him to lose power as both Dr. Rance and Mrs. Prentice see his possession of women’s clothes as a manifestation of mental illness. Their beliefs are reinforced when Nick arrives with Mrs. Prentice’s dress and wig, and Dr. Prentice promptly takes possession of them. ‘‘The man dressed as a woman,’’ Shepherd wrote, ‘‘is . . . comic because this is supposedly improper for a man (and usually involves a mocking imitation of ‘feminine’ behaviour).’’ Although Nick (and later Sergeant Match) will actually dress as a woman, the idea of Dr. Prentice dressing as a woman is comic. Because women are traditionally considered inferior to men, a man dressed in women’s clothing loses power and dignity.
Sergeant Match’s arrival as a uniformed figure of authority results in further clothing changes. Nick, worried that he will be arrested for sexual misconduct, needs a disguise, and Dr. Prentice, increasingly under suspicion because of Geraldine’s disappearance, needs a Miss Barclay. Nick, therefore, puts on Mrs. Prentice’s dress and wig and becomes the traditionally comic man in drag (women’s clothing). Geraldine, still wearing a hospital gown and seen only by Dr. Prentice, enters and asks him for the return of her clothes. Dr. Prentice gives her her panties and bra, and she puts these on. Left briefly alone in the room, she takes Nick’s hotel page uniform. The effect of these quick costume changes is comic, but also furthers one of Orton’s themes. Geraldine and Nick have taken on each other’s clothes, and thus, each other’s identities. Except for Dr. Prentice, the other characters see Nick as Geraldine and Geraldine as Nick. In essence, it seems that they are identified by their clothes, not by their bodies and minds. In addition, because Geraldine has changed out of her hospital gown, the unnamed mental patient has disappeared, adding comic confusion.
Sergeant Match’s interview with Geraldine, whom he believes to be Nick, results in further exploration of the issue of sexual identity. When Geraldine asks to be taken to the police station for protection from Dr. Prentice, Dr. Prentice says, ‘‘What this young woman claims is a tissue of lies.’’ After Sergeant Match replies, ‘‘This is a boy, sir, not a girl,’’ Dr. Prentice begins to refer to Geraldine as he, even though he knows she is a girl. Geraldine initially insists that she is not Nick but still maintains that she is a boy. For Geraldine, however, her identity becomes a matter of convenience. ‘‘I’m not Nicholas Beckett,’’ she says, ‘‘I want to go to prison.’’ Sergeant Match replies, ‘‘If you aren’t Nicholas Beckett, you can’t go to prison. You’re not under arrest.’’ Geraldine pauses, then responds, ‘‘I am Nicholas Beckett.’’
Still attempting to maintain her disguise as a boy, Geraldine tells Dr. Rance that she wouldn’t enjoy sexual intercourse. ‘‘I might get pregnant,’’ she says, then catches herself and continues, ‘‘or be the cause of pregnancy in others.’’ When Geraldine is told that she must undergo a physical examination, that she can no longer continue her façade, she is finally forced to insist that she is female. Ultimately, gender can be defined clearly only in strictly biological terms. Physiologically, an individual can be male or female. Psychologically and culturally, however, the boundaries are not so clear.
When Mrs. Prentice sees Geraldine and Nick, she asks what happened to the other young man, the boy who assaulted her, Nicholas Beckett. Now Geraldine is re-identified as Gerald Barclay. Nick persuades Dr. Prentice to tell Sergeant Match to undress so that Nick can have his police uniform. Now Sergeant Match loses his authority and his dignity with his clothes. Shepherd wrote, ‘‘Orton saves the conventional farce joke for the policeman Match, the figure of law and order. He is the one caught with his trousers down when the woman enters.’’ Wearing only underpants, the officer becomes a comic figure. Mrs. Prentice sees first Sergeant Match, then Nick, wearing only underwear, and the unclothed human body is revealed as a potential threat. ‘‘You must help me doctor,’’ she says, ‘‘I keep seeing naked men.’’ Later, she says, ‘‘Doctor, Doctor! The world is full of naked men running in all directions.’’
This theme is continued when Mrs. Prentice finds the unnamed mental patient’s gown. Dr. Rance takes note of this and of the fact that Nicholas Beckett left without his uniform. ‘‘Two young people,’’ he says, ‘‘one mad and one sexually insatiable—both naked—are roaming this house. At all costs, we must prevent a collision.’’ The unclothed body is now shown to be dangerous. Without clothing, there is the threat of unbridled sexuality. Of course, this presumed nudity, like the near nudity of Sergeant Match, is comic; the sense of danger lies below the surface. In addition, the naked or nearly naked body is also funny because it creates discomfort in the audience. People laugh when they are uncomfortable. Orton thus acknowledges society’s fear of the human body and of sex but simultaneously draws attention to the body and sex as comic material. Orton uses the lack of clothing to reveal the complications of society’s attitudes toward sex.
The following portion of the play is a scene of mass confusion and comedy as all characters participate in a wild and violent scene in which clothing is continually added, removed, and exchanged. At various times, Geraldine, Dr. Prentice, and Mrs. Prentice are all put in straitjackets, which creates in them a loss of dignity and power. Geraldine, Nick, Mrs. Prentice, and Sergeant Match all appear wearing only their underwear. Again, power and dignity are lost. It should be pointed out here that, in the last scene, some of the removal of clothing seems rather contrived. There appears to be no dramatic reason for Dr. Prentice to forcefully remove Geraldine’s trousers or tear off Mrs. Prentice’s dress.
At the end of the play, Dr. Rance and Dr. Prentice retain their white coats and Mrs. Prentice, Geraldine, and Nick all appear in their underwear. In the final moments of the play, Sergeant Match is lowered on a rope ladder from the ceiling. He wears Mrs. Prentice’s leopard-spotted dress. Only Dr. Rance does not change clothes throughout the play. For the audience, he is nonsensical or insane, but he retains his power within the world of the play.
It is Dr. Rance who speaks the play’s final words, ‘‘Let us put on our clothes and face the world.’’ The line suggests a new beginning as, according to Orton’s stage directions, the characters ‘‘climb the rope ladder into the blazing light.’’ The traditional ending of farce is a return to normalcy, to the previous order. The implication is that the return of the old clothes will bring about the old order, will end the madness of the play. But Orton has shown that, like clothing, power, dignity, and identity can easily be discarded and changed.
Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1694
In May, 1967, Joe Orton sat with friends at a café in Tangier. He had every reason to feel free and full of fun. He was thirty-four, rich, newly famous after the award-winning success of' "Loot" (1966), which he had turned, by his account, from "a failed farce into a successful farce,’’ and with his new farce masterpiece, "What the Butler Saw''—now at the American Repertory Theatre, in Cambridge—completed and in the manuscript drawer under his bed in the tiny North London flat he shared with his mentor and eventual murderer, Kenneth Halliwell. Orton had already made a mental note to hot up the new play. ‘‘Much more fucking,’’ he wrote in his diary, ‘‘and they'll be screaming hysterics in next to no time.’’
Orton wanted laughter to set off a panic—a combination of terror and elation that would create ‘‘a sort of seismic disturbance.’’ Laughter was an exercise in freedom and a furious defense against the stereotyping and the received bourgeois notions that so oppressed him. Although Orton liked to brag about his sexual prowess both to friends and to his diary, his showy brilliance and his sexual athletics were displays of mastery that belied a deep-seated sense of inferiority. On that afternoon in Tangier, as Orton wrote in his diary, a "stuffy American tourist and his disapproving wife'' sat at the table next to Orton's. The threat of judgment sent Orton into a comic attack that displayed the same psychic jujitsu that he practiced on the theatre audience, using the thrust of the public's prejudice to throw it off balance:
They listened to our conversation, and I, realizing this, began to exaggerate the content. "He took it up the arse,’’ I said. ‘‘And afterwards he thanked me for giving him such a good fucking.'' The American and his wife hardly moved a muscle. ‘‘We've got a leopard skin rug in the flat and he wanted me to fuck him on that,’’ I said in an undertone which was perfectly audible tothenext table, '' only I' m afraid of the spunk, you see, it might adversely affect the spots on the leopard.''
‘‘It isn't a joke,’’ Orton told his friends after the Americans "frigidly" moved away. ‘‘There's no such thing as ajoke.’’ He never said a truer word about his craft. Jokes were a method of disenchanting the credulous and of laughing the suffocating stereotypes off the stage."Marriage excuses no one the freak's roll-call,’’ says the arresting officer in ‘‘What the Butler Saw,’’ which begins like a conventional boulevard farce, with a psychiatrist trying to seduce a would-be secretary, and ends as a tale of nymphomania, incest, transvestism, and attempted murder. Orton's combative, epigrammatic style demands capitulation, not discussion. When the lecherous psychiatrist, Dr. Prentice, protests to the government inspector, ‘‘I'm a heterosexual,’’ the inspector, Dr. Rance, counters, ‘‘I wish you wouldn't use those Chaucerian words.’’ The strut of Orton's dialogue—which honored and updated the discoveries of both Oscar Wilde and Ronald Firbank— was an irresistible amalgam of the highfalutin and the low comic. "My uterine contractions have been bogus for some time,'' Dr. Prentice's nymphomaniac wife says to her sexually inadequate husband. All Orton's characters speak in the same idiom. Their syntax is a model of propriety; their lives are models of impropriety. The very act of speaking demonstrates the thin line between reason and rapacity, which is the mischievous paradox that all Orton's comedies explore.
The other great stylists of modern English comedy—G. B. Shaw, Noel Coward, Harold Pinter— lived long enough to cajole actors and directors into realizing their vision. Orton, who was murdered in August, 1967, has had to endure a period of trial and error before graduating into the modern canon. In England, this elevation has been achieved by Lindsay Anderson's 1975 Royal Court revival of ‘‘What the Butler Saw,’’ and by Jonathan Lynn's groundbreaking 1984 production of ‘‘Loot’’ with Leonard Rossiter. These examples of comic mayhem showed a generation how to stage and to play Orton for keeps and not just for laughs. In America—despite John Tillinger' s firstrate productions of ‘‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’’ and "Loot"—Orton's finest play,'' What the Butler Saw,'' has not fared so well, both because of its verbal requirements, which defeat the diction of most American actors, and because of the nature of farce itself, which usually confounds an audience that likes stories where the self is inflated, not disintegrated. So David Wheeler's mostly sold-out Cambridge production comes as both a surprise and an improbable delight.
The ungainly fifty-foot-long proscenium of the Loeb Drama Centre, which serves as the American Repertory Theatre's main stage, poses an almost insoluble problem for any farce. Its length means that a sense of boundaries —that illusion of trapped, claustrophobic life which fuels farce's sense of chaos and collapse—is almost impossible to create. ‘‘What the Butler Saw’’—a reference to British peep-show pier entertainments—parodies French farce and at the same time reinvents the farce form for more lethal dramatic purposes. Wheeler makes life harder for himself by eliminating Orton's French windows as well as the skylight, which figures large in Orton's brilliant finale. Derek McLane's set is also full of anomalies, which the production somehow succeeds in overcoming: a pea-green-and-chrome interior that looks more like a public swimming pool than like a private consulting room; and seven doors, five arc lamps, a utility desk, and scaffolding. The set announces the unconventional nature of the evening, whereas Orton's intention is to lull an audience into expecting the ordinary and then to sock them with the extraordinary. In French farce, stage life returns to the status quo ante, but in Orton' s kind of farce, life and comic stereotypes are not just turned upside down but changed. In "Loot,'' the thieves escape, and the innocent father is framed by his son and hauled off to prison. (‘‘I'm innocent, I'm innocent,’’ Mr. McLeavy bleats, in one of postwar comedy's greatest exit lines. ‘‘What a terrible thing to happen to a man who's been kissed by the Pope.’’) In ‘‘What the Butler Saw,'' promiscuity leads to redemption when the put-upon secretary, Geraldine, and the blackmailing page boy, Nick, turn out to be the abandoned children of Mrs. Prentice, fathered by her husband's anonymous rape of her in a hotel linen cupboard—a revelation that heals the Prentices' sexual standoff.
Orton was a voluptuary of fiasco, and in acting him the challenge is to keep the argument and the action operating at full tilt. Fluidity and reality are hard to deliver for all but the most experienced of players. Here, Nick, played by the excellent Benjamin Evett, gets closest to the true note of earnestness and agitation in Orton's demented characters. He hits the stage at high energy—a page boy who just wants his blackmail money but ends up in a dress, bleeding from a gunshot wound, and with his sanity in serious doubt."If the pain is real, I must be real,'' he says to Dr. Rance, who replies, ‘‘I'd rather not get involved in methaphysical speculation.’’ Margaret Gibson may occasionally tip the wink to the audience, but she brings to Mrs. Prentice (a wife Prentice claims ‘‘they'll send ... to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin'') the crucial requirement of robust comic acting and the added feature of a great pair of legs. Ms. Gibson makes up in comic invention what she lacks in comic gravity. When the frazzled and furious Prentice (played by Thomas Derrah, who is also slow to kindle but finally burns) rips off his wife's dress, the violence turns her on. ‘‘Oh, my darling!’’ says Mrs. Prentice, writhing on the floor in sexual ecstasy while Prentice dives for her abandoned garment. ‘‘This is the way to sexual adjustment in marriage.’’ The moment is Ms. Gibson's invention, and it's terrific. At a certain momentum, all things disintegrate; and ‘‘What the Butler Saw’’ acts out the notion of gender-collapsing. The credulous Geraldine (well played by Elizabeth Marvel) is so dizzy from the plots complications that she gets confused about her sex. ‘‘I must be a boy,’’ she says, wearing a pageboy outfit and trying to pass as Nick to the police."I like boys.’’ But not all the actors feed the crazy brilliance of Orton's farce logic. Alvin Epstein, sporting a homegrown white mustache, plays Dr. Rance at a stately pace—a wrong choice, which keeps this excellent actor from maximizing the full comic menace of Rance's ranting psychiatric explanations and from raising the comic stakes for the other characters. ‘‘As a transvestite, fetishist, bisexual murderer Dr. Prentice displays considerable deviation overlap,’’ says Rance, in a frenzy of psychoanalytic labelling."We may get necrophilia, too. As a sort of bonus.'' But on the night I saw the play Epstein, who lost his way in the speech, also seemed to have lost his bead on the character. William Young's Sergeant Match is serviceable, but his unfortunate accent leaves whole areas of Match's hilarious stupidity unexplored. Still, with the complications of Orton's plot kicking in, the audience hardly notices or cares.
If Wheeler's production can't deliver the antic, it at least serves up intelligence and clarity. Wheeler has pruned Orton's jokes effectively, and in the end even his alteration of Orton's deus ex machina seems to work. Sergeant Match enters to a fanfare and on an automated trestle to demand the return of the missing part of a statue of Winston Churchill. The part, which was blown off when a gas main exploded, turns out to be not the great man's cigar but his penis. ‘‘Weary, bleeding, drugged and drunk, [they] climb the rope ladder into the blazing light'': Orton's final stage direction is a vision of bruised transcendence. In Cambridge, there is no glaring light, no rope ladder, no ‘‘Hallelujah Chorus." But there is a comic victory. The actors' final tableau fades out with a pinwheeling of psychedelic light and with the sound of the Beatles, which is what passed for hope and for Heaven in those bumptious, buoyant times.
Source: John Lahr, ‘‘Laughing It Off’’ in the New Yorker, Vol. LXX, no. 1, February 21, 1994, pp. 106-07.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175
What the Butler Saw turned out to be Joe Orton's final play, a magnificently comic celebration of excess that for the first time properly, or perhaps improperly, united his interest in the comic potential of language with his wonderment at the absurdities of the physical manifestations of behaviour. It is not only quite easily his best play, it heralds the arrival of what would have been one of the major post-war playwrights.
The plot is not readily summarised, its many and intricate complications being themselves a major part of the play's concern with the way in which rationalising words are ultimately always betrayed by the stronger imperatives of the body. Suitably enough the play is set in an asylum presided over by a psychiatrist, Dr. Prentice, whose intended sexual adventures and his continual attempts to lie his way out of the frustrated consequences are themselves a part of the tension between the desire for liberation and the protective retreat into repression which lies at the heart of the play.
At the outset Prentice is interviewing a candidate for a secretarial position, an interview which inevitably concludes with a demand that the girl, Geraldine, undress for a complete physical examination. Surprised by the unexpected arrival of Prentice's wife, the naked girl is first hidden and then easily persuaded to borrow the clothes of Nicholas, a porter from the Station Hotel who has arrived bearing Mrs. Prentice's luggage.
Add to this initial sexual confusion the potential for chaos afforded by the introduction of, first, Rance, a visiting psychiatrist intent on examining the suitability of Prentice and his clinic for the treatment of the insane, and then a Sergeant Match in pursuit of anything remotely illegal—which covers j ust about everything that subsequently occurs to the characters or is revealed about their pasts—and one has a fair idea of the kind of revelations to follow. Incest is added to adultery and tranvestisism when it transpires that Geraldine and Nicholas are, unknown to all parties concerned, the twin children of the Prentices, conceived in the Linen cupboard of the Station Hotel—Orton's equivalent of Oscar Wilde's abandoned handbag in The Importance of Being Earnest.
It is obvious that the further the plot proceeds, the less Orton is concerned with anything like a moral evaluation of the characters' actions or motivations. Farce here is more than a technique; it is a way of life. On his first entrance Dr. Rance asks, ‘‘Why are there so many doors? Was the house designed by a lunatic?'' It is a question that not only emphasises the function of the psychiatric clinic—a madhouse with openings for all tastes—but also recalls the play's epigram, from Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy:"Surely we're all mad people, and they whom we think, are not''. Orton's redefinition of farce allowed for a complete abandonment of the naturalistic trappings of plot and character in favour of a world in which the repressions and sublimations of life are allowed a fully-articulated play.
The world of What the Butler Saw is a true Freudian nightmare of unleashed sexual repression. It is civilisation without its clothes. Indeed it is Dr. Prentice's inability to admit to the only comparatively straightforward heterosexual act in the entire play that sets things in motion. The wife he would deceive has just returned from a meeting of a club "primarily for lesbians'', during the proceedings of which she has availed herself of the body of the young porter Nick, who has actually arrived at the asylum intent on demanding money for the photographs taken during the event; and Nick himself spent a large part of the previous evening sexually harrassing an entire corridor of schoolgirls.
Normality is never the norm in this play; as in the brothel in Genet's The Balcony, the asylum converts dreamed fantasy into actable reality. "Marriage excuses no-one the freaks' roll-call’’, Sergeant Match assures Prentice when he attempts to protest his absolute innocence. What follows is a sort of sexual Bartholemew Fair in which clothing is first removed and then redistributed in a confusion of sexual roles—the whole business being observed and interpreted by the lunatic inspector Rance, who offers a succession of psychoanalytical explanations of the characters' behaviour, the unlikelihood of which is only surpassed by the truths of the various cases.
It is a flawed play. It needs, and would certainly have received, considerable rewriting—in particular, the tedious running gag about the lost penis from the statue of Winston Churchill, which is eventually used to bring proceedings to a close, is a part of an interest in the over-facile shooting of sacred cows that characterised his earliest work, and could easily be removed. However, what it promises is a redefinition of farce, a complete liberation of libido in a glorious celebration of chaos and fin-de-civilisation. " 'It's the only way to smash the wretched civilisation', I said, making a mental note to hot-up What the Butler Saw when I came to rewrite. . . Yes. Sex is not the only way to initiate them. Much more fucking and they'll be screaming hysterics in no time’’, noted Orton.
But sex is both the subject of the play and the vehicle which suggests potentially more serious matters. The tradition of farce inherited by Orton was diluted and trivial, confirming rather than questioning the assumptions of its audience. His awareness of the proximity of farce and tragedy—as seen, for instance, in the scene of the mad King Lear and the blind Gloucester on the beach at Dover—both as theatrical modes and as mirrors of psychological reaction to chaos, points to what he was really attempting. While the plays of those such as Tourneur and Webster move easily from farce to tragedy, the presentation of chaos counterpointed by the articulation of a sense of a moral order, in this play there is no possibility of a transition to a tragic definition of farce. The characters end the play bloodied but unbowed; the ending is, however, purely mechanical. As Orton argued, farce had become an escapist medium, on the run from precisely that which it had originally presented—the disturbing manifestation of the human consciousness which threatens the stability of the social order.
Orton has frequently been compared to Oscar Wilde, and in this play in particular it is a useful comparison. But here more than ever there is a key distinction. Where Wilde invites us to look beyond the brittle and studied brilliance of his characters' dialogue to the hollowness underneath, Orton presents all his cards directly to the audience. What we are being shown is the underneath. What Orton was moving towards was the presentation of a pre-civilised world in which the awakened subconscious, at large in a decadent society, makes everyone a "minority group''. Had he lived, his redefinition of the boundaries of comedy would have been a major feature of the modern theatre.
Source: John Bull, ‘‘What the Butler Saw'' in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 892-93.