first eighteen years of his short life in Leicester where he attended
secretarial school, acted in plays, and lost several odd jobs. In 1950,
Orton moved to London to attend the Royal Academy of Art. It was during
these three years, that he met Kenneth Halliwell a man seven years his
a selected bibliography of the works and criticism of the British playwright
Joe Orton. It was compiled in July 2001 by Beth Burke, a graduate student
of Simmons College GSLIS).
For more information see http://www.le.ac.uk/li/sources/subject1/specol/details.html#orton .
WHAT THE BUTLER SAW
by Joe Orton
Orton's last play, What the Butler Saw, will live to be accepted as
a comedy classic of English literature" (Sunday Telegraph)
is on in this breakneck comedy of licensed insanity, from the moment
when Dr Prentice, a psychoanalyst interviewing a prospective secretary,
instructs her to undress. The plot of What the Butler Saw contains enough
twists and turns, mishaps and changes of fortune, coincidences and lunatic
logic to furnish three or four conventional comedies. But however the
six characters in search of a plot lose the thread of the action - their
wits or their clothes - their verbal self-possession never deserts them.
Hailed as a modern comedy every bit as good as Wilde's The Importance
of Being Earnest, Orton's play is regularly produced, read and studied.
What the Butler Saw was Orton's final play.
"He is the Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility" (Observer)
THE BUTLER SAW
the Butler Saw was Joe Orton's last play. He never saw it performed
before he bacame the mortal victim of his lover Kenneth Halliwell's
an hedonistic, anarchic homosexual with a priceless sense of humour,
albeit black with a wit mordant. He was fascinated by the ubiquitous
cliché, "in the worst possible taste", finding the
very notion of taste risible; and he set out to demolish any such pretension.
Death, sex, and corrupt policemen were in his childhood the great unmentionables
and breaking these taboos was his especial delight. But writing
rude words on a wall mighht have been the sum of Orton's iconoclasm
had it not been for Halliwell.
education was in three contrasting stages. First came the kind
of basic education provided for the children of the Leicester council
estate whence Orton came. Next came R.A.D.A. to which, amazingly,
Joe won a scholarship but which he came later to describe as a complete
waste of time. Thirdly and crucially at the hands of his lover
and mentor (and finally, murderer) Kenneth Halliwell.
could fairly be described as a well-educated misfit, a failure in the
eyes of the world and himself. But it was undoubtedly he who fed,
inspired and transformed Orton from a failed working-class actor into
a hugely successful playwright. Halliwell's influence notwithstanding,
Orton's style is unique, inimitable: a kind of dumb insolence out-loud,
elegantly incisive, bordering, at times, on the poetic. There
is no bad language in an Orton script; no mother-in-law jokes, or harridan
wives, or sex-starved spinsters. There are laughs a-plenty but
no cheap laughs.
technically, as a farce, What the Butler Saw is a masterpiece; evidently
Orton had made a serious study of the genre and was intent on producing
just that. It is also fiendishly difficult to produce with, for
example, no less than 149 separate entrances and exits for the actors,
plus a great deal of manic stage business and a difficult to design
set. The plot is operatic in its complexity with, methinks, an
occasional genuflection to The Marriage of Figaro.
to have done full justice to Orton's comic genius we cannot. But
we've given it our best shot. Hope you enjoy it.
Notes by B.B., July 2002