Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

In simplest terms, What the Butler Saw is a conventional comedy-farce about a husband and wife, both in search of extramarital adventures, whose attempts backfire and lead to complications which form the plot of the play. Even the husband’s attempted seduction of a girl who proves to be his own daughter is anticipated (tragically) in Luigi Pirandello’s Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (pr., pb. 1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922). The plot is only the frame, however, for Joe Orton’s striking originality of witty and subversive dialogue, for which the only antecedent is the witty and subversive dialogue of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (pr. 1895), a play similarly framed on a perfectly conventional comic plot.

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Satiric the play certainly is, but messages of social correction or uplift would be difficult to derive; the play is almost incidentally satiric as a by-product of its wit. The authorities of state and church and medicine are continuously available targets, whenever witty lines can be achieved, but the only prevailing satiric theme is perhaps the overturning of the conventional pieties and moralities of interpersonal relations. The play suggests, and to some extent achieves, a nonmoral utopia in which sexes and sexual preferences and perceptions of one’s sex and sexual preferences are altered as easily as clothing: Relationships may be readjusted for temporary pleasure, and the boundaries between sane and insane remarks and conduct dissipate in mirth. Sexual jokes and transpositions form the only recurring issue, and the only “serious” theme is that conventional sexual roles and conventional psychoanalytic interpretations of those roles are preposterously simplistic and restricting. That two of the characters, in what is at its crux a family play, are psychiatrists, obsessed with Freudian cliches that they wildly misapply, suggests that Orton also had an agenda against the ruling authorities of the mind.

The ending of the play—with gunfire, darkness, sirens, and the caging of the characters in the room—is a melodramatic parody of the need for a dramatic climax; when into this scene descends the sergeant as a Dionysian deus ex machina, the play reminds the viewer of its origins in Aristophanic Old Comedy, in which probability and morality were similarly subservient to zany discourse. The final embracing by the family members has not quite the safely conventional suggestion that one finds at the end of most comedies; given the proclivities of the characters for one another, a “happy ending” might include almost any pairing between the characters, since Prentice, his wife, and their son and daughter have all been sexually eager, if not predatory. Only the two outside authorities, Rance and Match, have remained neutral to the blandishments of sex.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1681

Madness, Psychiatry, and Authority
Orton prefaces What the Butler Saw with a quotation from The Revenger's Tragedy: ‘‘Surely we're all mad people, and they/Whom we think are, are not.’’ The perception of madness and, consequently, who is mad, is central to Orton's play. In the twentieth century, it is given to psychiatrists to answer this question. Although many may question psychiatric methods, it is nonetheless the case that psychiatrists have been given the legal authority to determine who is mad and, consequently, to commit those so diagnosed to psychiatric hospitals, to force them to take medications, and even to submit to electroshock therapy.

In recent years, safeguards against abuse of these powers have become strong; committing a patient to a psychiatric hospital requires clear evidence that he or she is a danger to themselves or others, and...

(The entire section contains 2132 words.)

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