What the Butler Saw

by Joe Orton

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Themes and Meanings

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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.

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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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 involuntary electroshock is used only in the most extreme cases. In...

(This entire section contains 1681 words.)

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Orton's time, however, the authority of the psychiatrist was more absolute. InWhat the Butler Saw, Orton calls the entire system into question, blurring the line between sanity and madness, questioning psychiatric methods, and subverting the authority of the psychiatrist.

It would seem that in a psychiatric clinic, the line between who is mad and who is not would be most clear. Those in the clinic either are or are not patients. In What the Butler Saw, however, no one in the clinic is a patient and, to some extent, everyone is mad. There is madness in the way the characters speak; the dialogue is not rational. When Mrs. Prentice tells Dr. Rance that Nick attempted to rape her but did not succeed, Dr. Rance replies, ‘‘The service in these hotels is dreadful.’’ When Mrs. Prentice suspects that Dr. Prentice wears women's clothing, her response is, ‘‘I'd no idea our marriage teetered on the edge of fashion.’’ In addition, in performance, the appearance of the characters running on and off stage repeatedly, changing clothes and physically fighting each other, gives the audience a sense of chaos, of the abandonment of social constraints, of madness.

Psychiatrists are supposed to be able to treat madness, but that is not the case in this play; Orton satirizes psychiatry, particularly in the person of Dr. Rance. Believing Geraldine to be a patient, Dr. Rance conducts a psychiatric examination that ridicules psychiatric methods. Dr. Rance is convinced that Geraldine was the victim of an incestuous attack by her father, and he uses even her denials as evidence. When Dr. Rance asks Geraldine if her father assaulted her, and Geraldine says, "No,'' Dr. Rance remarks, ‘‘She may mean 'Yes' when she says 'No.'’’ When he asks her again and she again says no "with a scream of horror,'' Dr. Rance says, ‘‘The vehemence of her denials is proof positive of guilt.’’

There is nothing Geraldine can say that will change Rance's mind. No matter what the other characters say, Dr. Rance interprets their words to fit his preconceived theories. His psychiatric methods lead neither to truth nor understanding. He can make the words of others mean anything he chooses.

Orton aims not only at traditional psychiatry but also at new theories of madness that were becoming popular at the time he was writing. Some psychiatrists began to suggest that madness showed only a different way of dealing with reality and that the mad really had a kind of wisdom. Orton ridicules these theories as well. Mrs. Prentice says, ‘‘The purpose of my husband's clinic isn't to cure, but to liberate and exploit madness.’’ And Dr. Rance echoes the words of psychiatrist R. D. Laing, a major proponent of new interpretations of madness, when he says,"You can't be a rationalist in an irrational world. It isn't rational.’’ Orton's satirization of psychiatric theory is all inclusive.

Orton also focuses on the psychiatrist himself as authority figure. In much of his work, Orton attempts to subvert established authority, showing those with power as useless or corrupt. When ridiculing psychiatric methods, Orton is also ridiculing the authority society gives to psychiatrists. Dr. Rance and Dr. Prentice, for instance, exhibit what can easily be considered mad behavior. Dr. Rance even tries to certify Dr. Prentice as insane and have him put in a straitjacket. Showing the figures with power as madmen undercuts their authority, causing the audience to call that authority into question.

In addition, the psychiatrists in What the Butler Saw blatantly abuse their authority. Dr. Prentice uses his position as a doctor in his attempt to have sex with Geraldine. Dr. Rance is quick to certify the other characters as insane based on his ideas more than their words or actions. He also forces an injection on Geraldine, who is no more mad than he is. It is unimaginable that he could ever be a help to the mentally ill.

In essence, Orton's use of these themes amounts to a criticism of societal conventions. Orton asks those in the audience to question their definitions of madness, their faith in psychiatry, their respect for authority. As funny as they may be, Orton's barbs and jests are aimed at serious issues.

Sex and Sexuality Much of the action in What the Butler Saw revolves around sexual matters. The plot of the play is, in fact, driven by Dr. Prentice's attempted seduction/rape of Geraldine and his subsequent efforts to hide his sexual exploits from his wife. In addition to infidelity, Orton's play deals with rape, incest, and sexual identity. Orton's presentation of these sexual matters is comic, but there is a dark side as well.

Neither Dr. Prentice nor Mrs. Prentice is sexually faithful to the other. In the beginning of the play, the audience sees Dr. Prentice attempting a sexual tryst with Geraldine and Mrs. Prentice returning from a sexual encounter with Nick. The nature of the encounter with Nick is not clearly defined. When talking to Nick she says that she ‘‘gave herself’’ to him. However, later in the play, she claims he tried to rape her and he says this as well. What is clear is that Mrs. Prentice has affairs, and this is accepted within the reality of the play. When Dr. Prentice calls her a nymphomaniac, it seems he takes this condition as a fact of life. In fact, his simple acceptance of her nymphomania is what makes it funny.

Similarly, when Mrs. Prentice offers to find her husband young men, she acts as if his sexual infidelity is a matter of course. Again, that is what makes it funny. However, in the real world, infidelity is taken seriously. It destroys marriages and ruins lives. While the audience laughs at Orton's jokes, it is also aware of the serious nature of the matter. This adds a dark underside to Orton's play.

Similarly treated as humorous subjects, rape and incest also provide a dark background. Dr. Prentice's attempt to have sex with Geraldine would be construed by many as a type of rape. His deception takes no account of her will. He assumes, in fact, that she would not willingly have sex with him. In addition, Mrs. Prentice may have been raped by Nick, and she was raped by Dr. Prentice before the two were married. Again, these rapes are treated as the subject of humor.

In Orton's time, it would have been more socially acceptable to joke about rape, but recent changes in attitudes toward women have made such joking unacceptable. Even in Orton's time, however, rape was no laughing matter, especially to the victim. Incest, one of the most taboo of sexual activities, similarly, is no longer considered appropriate material for humor, if it ever was. Orton's play however, focuses on double incest, Dr. Prentice's attempt to have sex with his daughter and Nick's possible rape of his mother. Again, this provides a sort of dark humor.

In What the Butler Saw, Orton also deals with sexual identity, which he presents as fluid. Mrs. Prentice belongs to a lesbian club, despite the fact that she is married to Dr. Prentice, because the club counts him as a woman. Dr. Prentice's sexual identity can therefore change with other's perceptions of him. Later in the play, Dr. Rance and Mrs. Prentice come to believe that Dr. Prentice is gay. They then treat him as if he is gay, and the actual nature of his sexuality becomes less important than the way he is regarded.

Costume changes in the play also suggest the fluidity of sexual identity. When dressed as Nick, Geraldine is treated as a male, but she identifies herself as either male or female, depending on what is most convenient, saying in one case that she must be a boy because she likes girls. Nick appears on stage as a woman and as a man, but his sexual nature is not clear. He molests women but also has sexual relations with men for money. Thus the sexual natures of Dr. Prentice, Mrs. Prentice, Geraldine, and Nick are all in question. Orton suggests elements of homosexuality for each of these characters.

Orton, himself gay, did not see homosexuality as wrong, and in fact insisted, for other productions, that gay characters be played in the same way as other people, with no campiness. At the time he was writing, however, gays faced great discrimination (homosexuality was even outlawed in England for a time) and were considered by many to be "sick." For the audience, therefore, changes in sexual identity could be perceived as dark, although that would be less likely to be the case today.

Critics have said that Orton uses sex as a weapon, that he wishes to shock and upset his audience. If this is the case, Orton certainly succeeded, in his own time, with What the Butler Saw and his other plays. Discomfort often results in laughter, and so Orton's blatant presentation of sexual matters also makes the play funny. In What the Butler Saw, the various reactions that an open look at sex causes—shock, disgust, laughter—all mix to create a play that shows sexual matters in all of their complexity.