The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

In a private clinic, Dr. Prentice interviews Geraldine for the position of his secretary. His questions focus on her parents, of whom she knows little except that her mother was a chambermaid at the Station Hotel and that her stepmother recently died as a result of a gas-main explosion which also destroyed a statue of Sir Winston Churchill. Soon, as a part of the interview, he asks her to begin undressing, and she gradually complies behind the curtains of a consulting couch. Mrs. Prentice arrives in a fur coat unexpectedly early from her meeting of the night before, in company with Nick, a page boy from the Station Hotel, where she spent the night. Nick has sold her dress and wig and now threatens her with photographs taken of their intimacy together in the hotel. He wants a hundred pounds and also the position as her husband’s secretary. Dr. and Mrs. Prentice exchange taunts on sexual performance while both drink whiskey copiously. Dr. Prentice is trying to hide Geraldine’s underclothes. Mrs. Prentice demands Geraldine’s dress, as she is in her slip beneath her fur coat. She tries to convince her husband to hire Nick.

Dr. Rance enters, apparently to investigate the clinic. He questions both Prentice and, when he sees her naked behind the curtain, Geraldine, whom he certifies as insane. Prentice says his secretary is missing and is not this woman. Rance develops a theory that Geraldine was molested by her father. Rance cuts her hair, while Prentice tries to hide her underclothes and shoes in a flower vase. Nick delivers a box containing Mrs. Prentice’s dress and wig; Prentice seizes them. Rance is looking for “Miss Barclay” and cannot find her. Prentice asks Nick to undress and put on Mrs. Prentice’s dress, to impersonate his secretary. When Geraldine reappears she demands her clothing but then ducks behind the curtains. Sergeant Match has entered looking for Nick, who is alleged to have violated a group of schoolgirls at the hotel, and Geraldine, who is suspected of having certain parts of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill. Prentice says he does not know where either one is. Geraldine...

(The entire section is 863 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The play calls for a dizzying blocking: comings and goings through doors leading to the wards, the dispensary, and the hall, and through French windows leading to the garden. The frequent entrances and exits, especially to establish or prolong deceptions, disguises, undressings, and misunderstandings, derive from French bedroom farce, as do the many complexities based on props: various articles of clothing, bottles of whiskey, roses, scissors, a vase, a wastebasket, pillboxes, and so on. In pantomime, the play might look like a French farce, except for its medical location. Apart from the opening attempted seduction, however, no affairs are actually carried on during the play: The sex is mostly in words, not actions.

The farcical trappings serve as a pretext for the dialogue, which is the glory of the play. Responses are based on illogic and discontinuity, as if one speaker’s intention was only to supply an opening for the epigram or joke of the next:Geraldine: I’ve no idea who my father is. Dr. Prentice: I’d better be frank, Miss Barclay. I can’t employ you if you’re in any way miraculous.

Examples such as this may be found on almost every page.

The title What the Butler Saw is a tease or joke in itself, as the play has no butler and does not occur in a mansion with keyholes looking in on the set. Perhaps the title is merely a backward-looking tribute to French farce and Wilde, or perhaps it casts Joe Orton himself, and the audience with him, as the butler, the voyeur, in the new madhouse of modern sexual relations.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Dr. Prentice’s psychiatric clinic

Dr. Prentice’s psychiatric clinic. Office of Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist, that is the play’s only set. Not part of England’s National Health Service, this private clinic caters to wealthy patients who pay for their care and treatment. Doors exiting from Prentice’s office lead to the clinic’s wards, a dispensary, and a hall, and French windows open to a pleasant garden. The office itself is furnished with a desk, bookshelves, a sink, and a consulting couch with privacy curtains.

Within the office’s walls, as Joe Orton’s masterfully intricate plot unfolds, charges of madness and instances of mistaken identity abound, as Freudian taboos seem to be flouted (and flaunted) with blithe impunity. Allegations and misperceptions include double incest, necrophilia, male and female cross-dressing, Oedipus and Electra complexes, voyeurism, various fetishes, nymphomania, lesbianism, and rape. Late in the second act, when an alarm is pressed, a siren wails and metal bars drop over each of the doors, transforming the office into a literal cage (or jail) as the lights go out and the set is lighted only by the glare of a bloody sunset.

Once a number of the characters’ crises are resolved, a skylight opens and Sergeant Match, a policeman, descends on a rope ladder. Weary, bleeding, drugged, and drunk, Orton’s characters then climb the ladder to the blazing light above, resolving to get dressed and face the world with renewed respectability.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

With the death of Sir Winston Churchill on January 25, 1965, Great Britain lost a major figure of political and moral authority. As Prime...

(The entire section is 689 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Farce is a type of comedy known for its humorous and extreme exaggeration. It is often characterized by a ridiculous plot,...

(The entire section is 1033 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1969: Society experiences a growing movement toward sexual freedom. Sex outside of marriage is gaining acceptance, at least in part...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Orton has often been compared to Victorian writer Oscar Wilde. Compare What the Butler Saw with Wilde's play The Importance of...

(The entire section is 129 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Loot, an Orton play first produced in 1966, is a farce focusing on twentieth-century taboos surrounding death. In this send-up of the...

(The entire section is 239 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Bigsby, C. W. E. Joe Orton, Methuen, 1982. pp. 49-61.

Nightingale, Benedict. ‘‘The Detached...

(The entire section is 177 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bigsby, C. W. E. Joe Orton. London: Methuen, 1982. Deals with Orton’s stylistic and thematic qualities in the context of contemporary European drama.

Charney, Maurice. Joe Orton. London: Macmillan, 1984. Places Orton’s work in the farcical tradition that goes back to origins in Greece and Rome.

Innes, Christopher. “Joe Orton: Farce as Confrontation.” In Modern British Drama, 1890-1990. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Introduces Orton as a playwright of his time.

Lahr, John. Prick up Your Ears. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978. Traces...

(The entire section is 117 words.)