Places: What the Butler Saw

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1969

First produced: 1969

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Farce

Time of work: 1960’s

Places DiscussedDr. Prentice’s psychiatric clinic

Dr. What the Butler SawPrentice’s psychiatric clinic. Office of Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist, that is the play’s only set. Not part of England’s National Health Service, this private clinic caters to wealthy patients who pay for their care and treatment. Doors exiting from Prentice’s office lead to the clinic’s wards, a dispensary, and a hall, and French windows open to a pleasant garden. The office itself is furnished with a desk, bookshelves, a sink, and a consulting couch with privacy curtains.

Within the office’s walls, as Joe Orton’s masterfully intricate plot unfolds, charges of madness and instances of mistaken identity abound, as Freudian taboos seem to be flouted (and flaunted) with blithe impunity. Allegations and misperceptions include double incest, necrophilia, male and female cross-dressing, Oedipus and Electra complexes, voyeurism, various fetishes, nymphomania, lesbianism, and rape. Late in the second act, when an alarm is pressed, a siren wails and metal bars drop over each of the doors, transforming the office into a literal cage (or jail) as the lights go out and the set is lighted only by the glare of a bloody sunset.

Once a number of the characters’ crises are resolved, a skylight opens and Sergeant Match, a policeman, descends on a rope ladder. Weary, bleeding, drugged, and drunk, Orton’s characters then climb the ladder to the blazing light above, resolving to get dressed and face the world with renewed respectability.

BibliographyBigsby, C. W. E. Joe Orton. London: Methuen, 1982. Deals with Orton’s stylistic and thematic qualities in the context of contemporary European drama.Charney, Maurice. Joe Orton. London: Macmillan, 1984. Places Orton’s work in the farcical tradition that goes back to origins in Greece and Rome.Innes, Christopher. “Joe Orton: Farce as Confrontation.” In Modern British Drama, 1890-1990. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Introduces Orton as a playwright of his time.Lahr, John. Prick up Your Ears. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978. Traces influences on Orton’s development as a dramatist.Orton, Joe. The Orton Diaries. Edited by John Lahr. London: Methuen, 1986. An entertaining account by Orton about himself, written during the last year of his life.
Categories: Places