Wednesday, August 25, 2010

(No.110) Joe Orton's "What The Butler Saw"

What the Butler Saw is the last play written by the Englishman Joe Orton. It does not have a butler in it. Rather the title is a reference to the popular name of an English amusement arcade peepshow machine dating from the 1890s.

What The Butler Saw was not staged until 1969, two years after Orton's murder on August 9, 1967 at age 34 by his lover Kenneth Halliwell in the Islington (London) apartment they shared. Nor was the play well received at the time by London audiences. It was rescued from potential obscurity in 1975 when the director Lindsay Anderson mounted it successfully at London's Royal Court theatre.

As an English playwright Joe Orton was at the other end of the social and political spectrum from a contemporary like Sir Terence Rattigan. "I'm from the gutter," declared Orton, "and don't you forget it because I won't."

An Orton stage farce like the Soulpepper Theatre Company's What The Butler Saw directed by Jim Warren or last summer's Soulpepper staging of Orton's play Loot (also directed by Warren) is only superficially just about comedy. An Orton play has an overlay of social comment and criticism very particularly about England in the 1960s.

Last year the staging of Loot was a great success at Toronto's Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Pat and I saw the play and enjoyed it very much (see our review in column No.42 on, posted July 30, 2009). Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz deserves credit for mounting it; we credit him again for presenting what some regard as the best of Orton's nine plays: What The Butler Saw.

What The Butler Saw takes place in a psychiatric clinic. The doctor in charge is a seducer, his wife a nymphomaniac and a visiting government medical bureaucrat incompetent. The play is, it can be argued, Orton's attack on various aspects of the English establishment, especially the handling of the mentally ill, but a critique and satire that is contained within a frantic farce.

Orton could toss off lines that remind one of what a very rude Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward might have written. For example: the doctor in What The Butler Saw to his unfaithful and over-sexed wife -- "You were born with your legs apart. They'll have to bury you in a Y-shaped coffin." Or this declaration by the civil servant -- "I am a scientist. I deal in facts. I cannot be expected to provide explanations." Or: "The insane are famous for their wild ways"; "Simple explanations for simple minds."

The entire play is set in the clinic doctor's office, a set which -- true to the conventions of such a farce -- is equipped with multiple doors to accommodate the characters' frantic coming and going. And it is a funny play.

The strongest performance is by Blair Williams as Dr. Prentice, the clinic head, with Graham Hurley as Dr. Rance a close second. The other performances, particularly Brenda Robins as the doctor's wife, are more than competent.

We did not enjoy What The Butler Saw quite as much as Loot a year ago. Pat liked it somewhat more than I did. She argues that I am unsure whether the reason lies with my expectations, or with the play itself, or with this particular stage production or a combination of all three. It may well be the latter.

We do agree that What the Butler Saw is a worthwhile evening at the theatre.


What the Butler Saw runs through Sept.18 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts located in the Distillery Historic District in Toronto.

Box office information: online at; by telephone at 416-866-8666; seats from $31 to $75.


Alastair Rickard