WHAT THE BUTLER SAW
Joe Orton’s last play, What the Butler Saw, was completed in July 1967, one month before Orton was murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell. Set in a private mental-health clinic, it’s a mad farce triggered, as many farces are, by a philandering husband trying to hide his latest indiscretion. The comedy begins when the play’s protagonist, Dr. Prentice, after having coaxed Geraldine Barclay out of her clothing, is surprised by the early return of his wife.
However, Orton has more on his mind than merely repeating the same old farce formulas: the near meetings, the mistaken identity, the done-wrong spouses out for blood. He uses the conventions of traditional sex farce to mock conventional (and very hypocritical) British middle-class heterosexual attitudes about sex, creating a mad world in which some outrageous sexual indiscretions are allowed without fear of retribution (Mrs. Prentice admits matter-of-factly that she needs 100 pounds to pay off a blackmailer) while others are harshly punished (Dr. Prentice’s relatively staid and very traditionally heterosexual designs on poor Barclay). Barclay is committed not once but twice to an insane asylum, and Dr. Prentice spends most of the play struggling desperately to preserve his life and his career.
Yet What the Butler Saw is also far more than a parodic inversion of the straight world. For Orton has created an alternative world that is just as neurotic and just as unfair as the present one. Shame and guilt rule the day, and things go from bad to worse when the authorities (the officious, half-mad Dr. Rance and later the dull-witted Sergeant Match) step in to “straighten” things.
In this respect What the Butler Saw is as much a satire, in the bitter tradition of Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding, as a farce. Certainly, behind all the chaos and mockery lies a satirist’s moral indignation. Much of Orton’s comic barrage is leveled at the hypocritical authorities such as Dr. Rance, a commissioner representing “her majesty’s government” who seems no more committed to the truth than your garden-variety nihilist. One minute he maintains his allegiance as a scientist to the importance of facts; the next he admits a willingness to ignore any detail that doesn’t fit his hypothesis. “Civilizations have been founded and maintained on theories which refuse to obey facts,” he says.
Dr. Prentice, the chief psychiatrist at the clinic, is also a shockingly amoral authority figure, willing to submit everyone around him to the most incredible humiliations (Barclay, for example, has her hair cut off, is drugged, and is forced to pretend she is a boy), all to protect his good name. When Barclay repeats what could be the moral of the play–“You must put matters right by telling the truth”–Prentice brushes her suggestion aside, saying, “That’s a thoroughly defeatist attitude.”
“Laughter is a serious business,” Orton once said, “and comedy a weapon more dangerous than tragedy.” Twenty-four years later, his dangerous play is holding up quite well, if the Court Theatre production is any indication. As might be expected, the most radical elements are downplayed. But they are not extinguished–it is still possible to see some faint glimmer of Orton’s outrage at heterosexual hypocrisy.
It helps that Tom Amandes plays Dr. Prentice as a perfectly untrustworthy fool who deserves every kick he receives. Shannon Cochran’s nagging, vindictive, eternally angry, sexually frustrated Mrs. Prentice is a fine match. It’s a marriage made in hell.
It also helps that director Jacques Cartier has assembled a cast capable of executing Orton’s physical comedy without making it look stupid or forced. Amandes, Cochran, and gangly John Alcott (Sergeant Match) manage to get laughs with the sort of gags–characters hiding under desks and running through scenes in their underwear–I normally won’t crack a smile for.
Rebecca MacLean is wonderfully restrained but still very funny as Barclay. Not for a minute did this subtle actress seem tempted to turn Barclay into a bimbo. Instead, she plays her with the sort of dignity that wins the audience’s all-important sympathy immediately.
In fact, Cartier seems to have made only one very minor slip in this exceptionally funny production. Jonathan Farwell’s portrayal of Dr. Rance is a touch too sane and restrained for a character Orton intended to be the maddest of them all. And that undercuts a bit of the comedy.
But I probably shouldn’t complain. In these increasingly reactionary times, any successful production of a work that challenges the stuffy worldview some would dearly love to force on all of us should be cherished.