WHAT THE BUTLER SAW COURT THEATRE
“Vice can ruin a man,” declares one psychiatrist to another in What the Butler Saw, Joe Orton’s satire of authoritarian hypocrisy and sexual repression. His colleague’s quick riposte: “Ruin follows the accusation, not the vice.” In the British playwright’s 1967 comedy—written shortly before his mentally unstable boyfriend, Ken Halliwell, killed him and committed suicide—chaos follows the characters’ attempts to conceal the vice and deny the accusation. They’re guilty only of garden-variety lusts, but the lies they tell to conceal their banal infidelities unleash an orgy of ridiculousness.
The theme still rings true. Bill Clinton’s pathetic efforts to parse the meaning of “sexual relations” led to a scandal of insane proportions. Larry Craig’s attempts to explain away the allegations of an undercover cop who appears to have tried to entrap him in the men’s room of a Minnesota airport made Craig a laughingstock and titillated America with the secret rituals of so-called tearoom trade. In What the Butler Saw, efforts to preserve a facade of respectability set in motion anarchy and madness.
The play is packed with sex and violence—elements that director Sean Graney brings to the fore at Court Theatre. Like Orton, Graney, a leading figure on Chicago’s fringe-theater scene, enjoys pushing the envelope; he shocked critics and audiences last year with the dark comedy he wrote and directed, Porno. Graney’s rendition of Orton’s last work is loud, brash, raunchy, sometimes messy, often very funny, and always creative. It revels in the rude humor and angry cruelty of an artist aptly described by his biographer, John Lahr, as “a voluptuary of fiasco.”
Set in the examination room of a psychiatric clinic in suburban London, What the Butler Saw concerns a middle-aged, middle-class couple—Dr. and Mrs. Prentice—seeking furtive encounters with attractive youths (the betrayal of the young by their parents’ generation is a key Orton theme). Dr. Prentice is the head of the clinic and a pill-popping premature ejaculator; his sex-starved wife is the token heterosexual member of a lesbian “coven.” (“I myself am exempt,” she informs her husband, “because you count as a woman.”) Dr. Prentice attempts to seduce naive Geraldine Barclay, who’s applying for a secretarial position, by having her undress so he can perform a bogus medical examination. But coitus is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Mrs. Prentice. She’s recently dallied with hotel bellboy Nicholas Beckett, who’s now trying to blackmail her. (Male exploitation of women is another fundamental issue in the play.)
The Prentices try to conceal their indiscretions not only from each other but from Dr. Rance, a commissioner from Her Majesty’s government (“your immediate superiors in madness,” Rance declares). Soon the clinic receives another unwelcome visitor: a policeman, Sergeant Match, who wants to arrest Nicholas for “interfering” with a group of schoolgirls.
What begins as a routine sex farce morphs into a hallucinatory fever dream as Orton ups the ante on the usual elements of farce—slamming doors, mistaken identities, marital infidelity—by adding homosexuality, transvestism, gender confusion, incest, alcohol and drug abuse, castration, and murder. By the end of the play the characters are running around in underwear—their own and one another’s—or, in Sergeant Match’s case, a leopard-print dress. Some of them are toting pistols while others are covered in blood.
The dizzying display of carnage sharply contrasts with Orton’s carefully crafted dialogue, whose witty repartee and illogical aphorisms reveal the crucial influence of Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll. The tension between the dry verbal humor and frantic activity is essential: words and movement complement and compete with each other, reflecting the struggle between intellect and desire.
What the Butler Saw is infused with allusions to classical mythology—specifically the story of Dionysus as recounted in Euripides’ Bacchae and other sources. In these ancient tales, the god brings a liberating ecstatic madness to the people of Greece, shaking the foundations of patriarchal power. Orton, aware that theater began as a Dionysian rite, wanted not merely to expose authority figures as hypocrites but to symbolically destroy them by celebrating primal sexuality and mocking conventional propriety. A key subplot involves the outsize phallus of none other than the late prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill. And the play ends with one of the most venerable elements of classical theater: a deus ex machina, in the form of Sergeant Match descending from a skylight to rescue the befuddled, bloodied participants in Orton’s carnival of kink.
Graney has given a contemporary hyped-up energy to the mix. He’s taken some liberties with the text, altering dated political and cultural allusions, and added sight gags. When Geraldine takes off her stockings at Dr. Prentice’s request, Graney has her repeatedly flash the audience. Nicholas’s tight briefs are obscenely, outlandishly padded in front, while Sergeant Match’s underpants are festooned with toy tigers—an extension, perhaps, of his leopard-print dress (an allusion to the animal skin worn by Dionysus, and a costume suggested by Halliwell).
Graney’s most interesting choice is to break the fast farcical pace at key moments of conflict, replacing it with a slowed-down, stylized intensity building to exaggerated violence that suggests action movies by such directors as John Woo, Brian De Palma, and Renny Harlin.
The ensemble includes several of Graney’s compadres from the Hypocrites, the off-off-Loop troupe he cofounded, among them Mechelle Moe and J.B. Waterman as Geraldine and Nicholas. Blake Montgomery (artistic director of the Building Stage, where the Hypocrites performed Graney’s production of The Bald Soprano last spring) plays Dr. Prentice. Defiant Theatre alum Joe Foust portrays Dr. Rance (a role created by Sir Ralph Richardson when the play received its premiere in 1969 after Orton’s death), and Eric Slater is Sergeant Match. Best of all is Mary Beth Fisher, who brings an acidly ironic “no sex please, we’re British” edge to Mrs. Prentice.
“In a world run by fools the writer can only chronicle the doings of fools or their victims,” Orton once said, adding that “the world is a cruel and heartless place... but funny as well.” Graney’s What the Butler Saw conveys that worldview with pungent accuracy.v