Monday, December 1, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Identity in Dashes" (on Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw)


identity in dashes

by Douglas Messerli

Joe Orton What the Butler Saw / Los Angeles, the Mark Taper Forum, the performance I saw was
on November 30, 2014.

Joe Orton’s last play, What the Butler Saw, was unrevised at the time of it author’s murder by his lover Kenneth Halliwell in 1967, so we can’t know if he might have trimmed the play down a bit to focus its almost scatter-gun satirical targets or even sped-it up, transforming it into a near machine-gun like splatter of his numerous targets of societal conventionality and hypocritical behavior. As it exists the play reveals a tension between the two extremes. If the director slows it down too much, necessary in some cases just to let the audience hear and react to Orton’s brilliant bon mots, the farce may lose its overall energy; speed it up, and the real humor of the witty dialogue and basic elements of the overstuffed plot will be entirely missed. A third directorial possibility, to overemphasize the momentary sight gags and props—as the critics argued the 2012 London revival did—would lead audiences to lose sight of the metaphorical train-wreck of the play’s joyously overladen “plot.”

      Fortunately, the new production at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, directed by John Tillinger, gets the balance just about right. While I might have wished for a little more spritely rhythm for the work, it may have gone completely over the rather elderly American audience’s heads. As it is, the producers found it necessary to add a “glossary” of what they described as British Terms (holliwog, hononculus, cuttings album, W. H. Smith & Sons, howdah, peccadilloes, etc—all terms I thought belonged as well in the American lexicon. The only surprise for me was the phrase “Being put in the club,”—meaning “to get pregnant”). 
     Paxton Whitehead, as the truly insane inspector of insane asylums and clinics, delivered his lines most convincingly, even pausing at moments between the set-ups and the witty zingers that follow. Charles Shaughnessy, as Dr. Prentice, seemed, quite correctly, to be a paragon of sanity standing the edge of the emotional cliff which might at any moment send him tumbling over into lunacy. While Frances Barber, as his nymphomaniacal-somewhat frigid-lush of a wife was entertaining. in the second act, after having consumed nearly entire 1.75-litre bottle of Johnny Walker Red sitting just a few feet in front of our eyes, she broke into explosions of distracting screeches and screams. Nonetheless, given the demands put upon the actors by Orton’s impossibly gender-shifting, role-playing characters, all stood remarkably stolid in the end.
    It’s nearly impossible to tell anyone who hasn’t seen the play what happens in What the Butler Saw. First of all, there is no butler here to peek through the keyhole, unless we perceive that we, the audience, are butlers of a kind, getting our kicks out of the larger-than-life sins which we witness as quick as our eye(s) can take them in. What begins as a relatively simple abuse of power and trust, quickly spins into a tale of potential rape, nymphomania, blackmail, bribery, transvestism, pederasty, buggery, incest, confused identity, racial bigotry, medical quackery, lust, robbery, and attempted murder—to catalogue just of few of the characters’ many “quirks.” The fact that, at least within the confines of Orton’s farce, none of these sins except for medical incompetency and attempted murder, actually takes place is what, one suspects, allowed its audiences in 1967 to remain in their seats. Today, years later, when many of these activities are explored in even the most innocent of movies and plays, the Taper’s mostly over 60 audience sat politely in their seats, even after a brief bout of nudity, to the end of their equally polite applause. Absolutely no-one’s mouth seemed to be agape.

     Indeed, there is something almost innocent about this once apparently shocking play, given that Orton embeds the sexual goings on within the larger context of the truly absurd abuses of the higher powers represented by the “official” investigator of asylums and the bumbling policeman out to arrest the young bellhop for “interfering” with young women students gathered into a room in the hotel where he works. The Prentice’s, husband and wife, in fact, are almost presented as a kind of dueling duo in the manner of George and Martha in Albee’s famed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which had broken the barrier of on-stage spousal abuse five years prior. Orton’s zingers turn the naughty into everyday behavior: for example, discovering that her husband may be into transvestism, she quips “I’d no idea our marriage teetered on the brink of fashion”; he, attempts to attack her nymphomania, wittily observes: “You were born with your legs apart. They’ll send you to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin.” When Orton dishes up the attacks, it’s almost as if Neil Simon had suddenly gotten kinky.

     Of course Sophocles, Euripides, Racine, and Wilde (among others) had already long treaded some of the same territory, a fact to which Orton’s farce bows again and again: from the fact that the young libido-crazed Nicholas Beckett (Angus McEwan), like Oedipus, attempts to have sexual intercourse with his mother, while offering up the same possibility to his father before attempting to kill him, to our perception that the would-be secretary Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton)—a secretary who can take short-hand, but cannot type—is a kind of Electra waiting, without knowing it, for her missing brother (Beckett, who is a would-be secretary who cannot take short-hand, but can type) we recognize that this is a play in what the playwright described as being in the “Greco-Roman tradition.” And Orton wraps up all dilemmas in a delightful Wildean package with the discovery that Beckett and Barclay are twins, born of an illicit-closeted- incognito sexual encounter between the Prentices—just before their marriage. 
     Today, what seems most remarkable about this play, and indeed all of Orton’s writing, is that however hard the characters seek to define their identities, they can never quite place themselves within the world in which they exist. No Orton character is one thing only, particularly since each imposes his own reality upon everyone else. For Orton, it is clear, identity is always something that must be expressed in dashes. Indeed, any attempt to declare a single identity is met with absolute incomprehension, as when Prentice, declaring that he is a “heterosexual,” is faced with Dr. Rance’s utter incomprehension, demanding that the psychiatrist stop using such “Chaucerian” terms. Reality, in Orton’s world, is always multi-dimensional, and that is what makes for all the messy confusion, the chaos spreading like wildfire through any community of figures who have gathered together to spout his lines. Long before it became truly fashionable to be gay, or even possible to admit one was transgendered, Orton revealed that everyone was actually someone else under the sheets or just under their clothes. Time and again the doctors demand that they must undress their patients to get to the heart of their sexual and gender confusions. But even then, you never can tell; particularly when the mind is racing to position everyone into a reality that is spun out of the imagination instead of any logical- scientific (god forbid) evidence. As Dr. Rance—the maddest of the mad—correctly declares: “You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It isn’t rational.”
     Makes sense to me. I may attend Dr. Prentice’s madhouse clinic again before it closes. I’ll certainly run to see any other Orton creation (alas, there are only three major works) that appears within my reach.

Los Angeles, December 1, 2014

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