What the Butler Saw

by Joe Orton

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The Play

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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 puts on Nick’s uniform, so that by the end of the act she is impersonating him and he her.

Act 2 begins one minute later. Match questions Geraldine, thinking her to be Nick. When Geraldine indicates confusion over which sex she is, Rance demands that she undress. She confesses that she is a girl, while Mrs. Prentice reports that “Miss Barclay” (Nick) refuses to undress in front of a woman. When Rance demands to know who Geraldine is, if not Nick, Prentice says she is “Gerald” Barclay. Rance gives Prentice a pillbox and tells him to take no more than the stated dose. Prentice supervises the undressing of Match. Nick dresses in Match’s clothing, while Prentice gives Match the pills and tells him to take as many as he wants, as they are harmless. When Match becomes unconscious from the pills, Prentice and Nick put Mrs. Prentice’s leopard-skin dress on him and drag him out.

Rance enters with two straitjackets. Nick claims to be his own brother, whom he has just arrested, but eventually confesses to Rance that he is the page boy. Rance asks for Nick’s help in putting the straitjacket on Prentice. Mrs. Prentice takes two guns from a drawer and offers one to Rance. Prentice is urging Nick, Match, and Geraldine to undress, in order to get them back in their proper clothing. A shot is heard and Match enters, wounded in the leg. Mrs. Prentice demands that Prentice...

(This entire section contains 863 words.)

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make love to her and, when he refuses, fires at him. Again a shot is heard and Nick enters, wounded in the shoulder. Geraldine, close to naked, enters and asserts that she is Geraldine; Rance insists that she is not. Nick threatens Prentice with a gun in order to get the straitjacket on him, while Rance tries to get one on Mrs. Prentice. Each psychiatrist tries to certify the other as mad.

When Rance pulls an alarm, metal grilles fall over the doors, and the lights go out. Rance questions the reality of Nick and Match. Prentice and Geraldine try to “confess” to the seduction that gave rise to the misunderstandings, and Geraldine reports the loss of her lucky elephant charm. Rance gives it to her, and Nick says he has one like it. Mrs. Prentice recognizes the two pieces of a brooch she was given years before by a man who raped her in the Station Hotel in the dark, after which she gave birth to twins. Prentice admits to being that man, and Mrs. Prentice tells Nick and Geraldine that she is their mother. Rance is delighted to have discovered an actual double incest. As they embrace, a skylight opens, a rope-ladder is lowered, and Match, in leopard-skin dress, descends. He demands the missing parts of Churchill, and Geraldine gives him a box which she first brought in. He opens it and holds aloft “the nation’s heritage,” the statuary phallus of Sir Winston Churchill. The characters climb the ladder into the light.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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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

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With the death of Sir Winston Churchill on January 25, 1965, Great Britain lost a major figure of political and moral authority. As Prime Minister through most of World War II, Churchill had become a national hero. During the war years, the British people suffered greatly, enduring daily deprivation as well as the terror and destruction of Nazi Germany's intense bombing of London, known as the "blitz." Churchill's inspired leadership and his stirring radio speeches, still widely quoted today, sustained British morale during those dark years. He was a symbol of British unity and strength and, when he died, the nation and the world mourned.

It is difficult for contemporary Americans to understand the depth of British feeling for Churchill that existed when Joe Orton symbolically castrated the great man in What the Butler Saw. Audiences were outraged by Orton's disrespect for Churchill's memory and that is most likely the reaction Orton desired. Orton's What the Butler Saw, however, did not exist in a vacuum. The 1960s in Britain saw an unprecedented increase in personal freedom and a rejection of the symbols of authority.

Of particular importance in understanding Orton's work are the changes in attitude regarding sexual freedom. While there had been movements promoting what was called free love in earlier decades, it was not until the 1960s that such movements gained significant public support. There were, as there are today, many who opposed sex without marriage and same sex relationships. Nonetheless, the predominant movement was towards sexual permissiveness, and the support for this movement is well illustrated by the changes in British laws which, before the 1960s, assumed a governmental interest in what are now widely regarded as private matters.

For most of Orton's life, the homosexual relationships with which he was involved were criminal offenses. It was not until 1967 that homosexual acts between consenting adult males became legally permissible. That same year, the Family Planning Act made it possible for local authorities to provide contraceptives, and the Abortion Act allowed for abortions to be performed under the National Health Service—though only if two doctors considered the procedure necessary for medical or psychological reasons. In 1969, the Divorce Reform Act permitted either party in a marriage to obtain a divorce, but only after five years of separation. Some of these laws may seem restrictive by today's standards, but at the time, their enactment was a significant step in the movement away from governmental authority over private lives.

Psychiatry was also undergoing a revolution during Orton's time. Then as now, psychiatrists had the power to deem an individual insane and forcibly place him or her in a locked mental hospital. Psychiatrists also have the authority to force medication or electroshock therapy on such committed patients. Since the 1960s, legal restrictions have made it much more difficult for a psychiatrist to restrict personal freedom unless such restriction is deemed absolutely necessary. During Orton's time, however, some psychiatrists were seeing their patients in a new way. Psychiatrist R. D. Laing popularized the idea that schizophrenia and other disorders were a logical reaction to living in a mad society (a theory which spawned the classic line from the Star Trek television series: ‘‘In an insane society, the sane man must appear insane’’).

The psychotic, according to Laing, emerged from the state of psychosis with a deeper understanding of the world. It was the so-called ‘‘normal" individual, in his or her blind acceptance of society's rules, who was truly insane. Laing's belief in a sort of wisdom in madness is also reflected in the widespread use of psychedelic drugs during this period. Those who used such drugs often believed that the experience opened their minds, made them more aware of their surroundings, and gave them a clearer understanding of the true nature of reality. Harvard Professor Timothy Leary, himself a user of LSD, urged young people to take psychedelic drugs, to reject authority, to ‘‘tune in, turn on, drop out.’’ Leary's message shocked and angered many who still valued the orderly society represented by men such as Churchill, but rebellion against authority was the hallmark of the 1960s and of the work of Orton.

Literary Style

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Farce is a type of comedy known for its humorous and extreme exaggeration. It is often characterized by a ridiculous plot, full of comic twists and turns and impossible coincidences, absurd dialogue, stereotyped characters, and physical comedy. Elements of farce exist in some plays of ancient Greece. The form first became popular in fifteenth century France, and it continues to this day. Examples of twentieth-century farce include movies by the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin.

What the Butler Saw exhibits all of the attributes of farce, but many critics have said that the play is in fact a parody of a farce. This means that Orton is imitating the form of farce in order to ridicule it. It is difficult to distinguish a farce from a parody of a farce, but some elements of Orton's play move it outside of the traditional form.

The plot of What the Butler Saw can certainly be characterized as ridiculous. It begins with a job interview that quickly becomes absurd as Dr. Prentice attempts to seduce Geraldine. Immediately after Geraldine undresses, Mrs. Prentice enters the room. This initial coincidence sets the plot in motion as Dr. Prentice goes to more and more ridiculous lengths to keep the truth about Geraldine from his wife. As he grows more and more desperate, he causes Geraldine to be certified insane, forces Nick to dress in women's clothes, and has Sergeant Match take off his clothes before drugging him.

The madness of his actions convinces Dr. Rance and Mrs. Prentice that Dr. Prentice is himself insane, and so he almost ends up in a straitjacket. Unbelievable coincidences further the action of the plot as Mrs. Prentice finds Geraldine's nightgown and assumes she has been killed, and Sergeant Match arrives at the door looking for Nick and Geraldine. Of course, the most impossible coincidence occurs at the end of the play when Geraldine pulls out her elephant charm, Nick has a charm that matches it, Mrs. Prentice reveals that she is their mother, and Dr. Prentice realizes he is their father.

The absurd dialogue is also characteristic of farce. Throughout the play, the dialogue simply is not rational. Characters rarely say what one would expect them to say. Dr. Prentice remarks casually upon Mrs. Prentice's infidelities. Mrs. Prentice offers to introduce her husband to young men. Geral-dine says she will be delighted to test Dr. Prentice's new contraceptive device. Nick says that the guardian of the schoolgirls he molested reported him because he did not molest her. Much of this dialogue concerns sexual matters. Orton pokes fun at societal conventions by having his characters act as if such mores do not exist. The characters' dialogue is not meant to be realistic.

Orton also uses stereotyped comic characters. Geraldine is the innocent girl, Dr. Prentice the sexual predator, Dr. Rance the mad psychiatrist, Mrs. Prentice the nymphomaniac wife. In farce, all of these characters are made to look ridiculous. They also look ridiculous because of the extreme physical comedy. Dr. Prentice desperately tries to hide Geraldine's clothes; Sergeant Match, drugged, falls down; Mrs. Prentice, wearing only a slip, crashes into a vase. Characters rush about the stage, dressing and undressing, and the play finishes with a free-for-all that involves screaming, fighting, and even gunplay.

Orton uses the expected elements of traditional farce, but he also upsets some of those elements, and that is what causes some critics to call this play a parody of a farce. In traditional farce, for instance, there may be onstage violence, but the violence is generally bloodless and nobody really gets hurt. In What the Butler Saw, Sergeant Match and Nick are shot and bleed and Mrs. Prentice's hands are covered with blood. Also, traditional farce is characterized by a return to the accepted social order after all of the madness of the play has passed.

Although What the Butler Saw ends with a scene of recognition that seems it will return the characters to a sort of normalcy, Orton's ending is dark. What is really discovered at the end is that Dr. Prentice raped his wife and attempted to seduce his child, and that Nick either attempted to rape his mother or had consensual sex with her. The play ends with the characters "weary, bleeding, drugged, and drunk,’’ and although Dr. Rance's final words imply a new beginning, there is a strong sense of corruption. Orton uses the basic forms of farce and many of its elements, but he twists those elements and so arrives at a play more complicated than the traditional form of farce.

deus ex machina
The Latin words deus ex machina literally mean ‘‘god from the machine.’’ The term was first used in ancient Greek and Roman drama. In some of these plays, a complicated situation at the end of the play is resolved when a god appears and tells the characters what to do or creates an ending that does not always follow from the events of the play; the Greek playwright Euripides (Medea) was often accused of resorting to such quick fixes to end his plays. The god is "from a machine'' because a sort of crane was used so that the god appeared in the sky, then was lowered down to earth.

Today the phrase is used to refer to an improbable event that creates a convenient ending for a dramatic work. For instance, in American western films, it is a well-known cliche to have the U.S. cavalry arrive at the last minute to save a hopeless situation. In modern times, the use of a deus ex machina ending, unless done for humorous effect, is generally considered a flaw in the writing.

In What the Butler Saw, Orton parodies the deus ex machina ending. The appearance of Geraldine's brooch creates an artificial ending for the play. Orton takes his parody further in the final scene, however. Sergeant Match appears descending from the skylight on a rope ladder as a god descended on a crane in ancient Greek theater. But Sergeant Match, instead of a glorified god, is a ridiculous figure wearing a leopard-print dress. Orton imitates the deus ex machina ending, but he does so for comic effect.

Compare and Contrast

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1969: Society experiences a growing movement toward sexual freedom. Sex outside of marriage is gaining acceptance, at least in part because of the development of the birth control pill. Homosexuality has only recently become legal, and gays continue to suffer society's rejection and hatred.

Today: The sexual freedom fought for in the 1960s has gained widespread acceptance, but concerns about the AIDS virus have caused more people to consider abstinence and monogamy. Gays have made great strides socially and legally but continue to be the victims of discrimination and hate crimes.

1969: Psychiatrist R. D. Laing hypothesizes that madness is a sane reaction to an insane world, and some psychiatrists join him in opposition to traditional treatments for schizophrenia and related disorders. Today: Scientific research has shown that many mental illnesses are largely caused by biological factors. New and more effective medications revolutionize psychiatry. Success with medication results in the closing of mental hospitals, but many of the mentally ill will not take their medications on their own and are not capable of successfully living without assistance. Many of the mentally ill become homeless.

1969: Young people protest, sometimes violently, against the restrictions imposed by the authority of the government. Opposition to American involvement in Vietnam gains worldwide support among young people.

Today: Some opposition to the authority of the state continues, but formal protests are less common and less vehement. Many young people become more conservative.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Nightingale, Benedict. ‘‘The Detached Anarchist: On Joe Orton’’ in Encounter, Vol. LII, no. 3, March, 1979, 55-61.

Further Reading
Lahr, John. Prick up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, Knopf, 1978.
This is the most complete biography of Orton, featuring information on his life as well as his work. Lahr's work on the relationship between Orton and Halliwell was adapted to make the 1987 film on Orton's life, Prick up Your Ears.

Levin, Bernard. The Pendulum Years: Britain and the Sixties, Jonathan Cape, 1970.
This thorough book covers many aspects of life in Great Britain during the time in which Orton was writing.

Rusinko, Susan. Joe Orton, Twayne, 1995.
Rusinko provides a brief biography as well as extensive analysis of Orton's plays.

Shepherd, Simon. Because We're Queers: The Life and Crimes of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton, GMP, 1989.
In this study of Orton's work, Shepherd maintains that ‘‘the Orton industry,’’ as he calls it, reflects society's prejudice against gays. Shepherd seeks to present a ‘‘radical gay viewpoint'' on Orton and his work.


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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 influences on Orton’s development as a dramatist.

Orton, Joe. The Orton Diaries. Edited by John Lahr. London: Methuen, 1986. An entertaining account by Orton about himself, written during the last year of his life.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide