Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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,...

(The entire section is 451 words.)