'What the Butler Saw': Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
Sarah Manton, Paxton Whitehead and Charles Shaughnessy in "What the Butler Saw"
Joe Orton's watershed comedy may have lost its power to shock, but its wit still sparkles

Joe Orton specialist John Tillinger conjures a superlative version of the classic 1969 farce at the Mark Taper Forum

It’s easy to see why playwright Joe Orton might have felt he was born at the wrong time. For 16 years he lived in a poky flat with his partner Kenneth Halliwell on a limited budget after studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. They knocked around regional theater, taking menial jobs and writing novels and plays informed by a brand of intellectual enlightenment deemed inappropriate by the more sober-minded. The two were separated when they went to jail for six months for defacing public library books, and when Orton emerged in 1963 he found London was beginning to catch up with him.

With the Labour Party sweeping into power in 1964, leaving the Profumo-tattered Conservative Party in rags, issues like abortion, legalized homosexuality and the death penalty became public debate, while old ideas about empires grew dusty and new ideas about social class took shape. Anarchic comedic forces like Monty Python tickled the national funny bone, and four mop-tops from Liverpool transformed pop songs into high art.

The timing could not have been better for What the Butler Saw, a farce that skewers a laundry list of social norms, government institutions and establishment figures in witty, profane and, for the time, outrageous ways.

The director of Center Theatre Group’s revival at the Mark Taper Forum, John Tillinger, specialized in the playwright’s work in the 1980s, reviving major titles like Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot to great acclaim. His 1989 revival of Butler for Manhattan Theatre Club received glowing reviews, and the new production at the Taper shows why. Tillinger delivers the inspirational nuttiness the play demands. He guides his cast seamlessly through precisely-timed entrances and exits, rhetorically-twisted and logic-impaired verbal exchanges, drugs, alcohol, lust and nudity, making it all appear part of the natural flow of things around the rural sanitarium where the action unfolds.

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We first meet Dr. Prentice (Charles Shaughnessy) putting the moves on job applicant Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton). He requests she undress so he might get a good look at her to determine whether she’s suitable for work as a stenographer. Confused, she obliges, hiding behind a curtain when the doctor’s wife (Frances Barber) enters, making a beeline for the bourbon. She is followed by Nicholas Beckett (Angus McEwan), a bellboy at the Station Hotel who aims to blackmail the sex-crazed Mrs. Prentice with pornographic photos.

As Dr. Prentice’s lies pile up he becomes buried under accusations of cross-dressing, omni-sexuality and eventually incest and murder. Those last two come courtesy of the patrician Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead), a government inspector sent by Prentice’s “immediate superiors in madness,” as he explains. Meanwhile a bobby (Rod MacLachlan) comes looking for a missing part of a statue of Sir Winston Churchill that was destroyed in a gas-main explosion.

At one point or another half the cast disrobes down to their underwear, often trading clothes as Mrs. Prentice drunkenly notes, “the world is full of naked men running in all directions!”

Although What the Butler Saw scandalized many upon its premiere in 1969, by today’s standards it’s hardly outrageous. Luckily, Orton’s clever dialogue and sardonic epigrams transcend time. The title suggests a late Victorian or Edwardian comedy of peccadillos and mistaken identity, usually viewed through a keyhole by a servant. However, there are no butlers in What the Butler Saw, just as there are no secrets.

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By referencing a classic comedic form that arguably reached its peak under his idol Oscar Wilde, Orton crystallized the gap between the old and new social order in Britain. What used to pass for clear-eyed consideration and orderliness is defined here by chaos and debauchery. In the old model, there was often a paragon of virtue; a pair of lovers whose relationship was forged in fire so they could stand together stronger by the end. In Butler, the galvanizing moment comes when the recovered bronze phallus of Sir Winston Churchill is held aloft like some ritualistic icon.

Tillinger’s ensemble is so uniformly strong that to single out any individual cast member is to do the others an injustice. Shaughnessy’s Doctor Prentice strikes just the right uneasy chemistry with Barber’s Mrs. Prentice. His awkward attempts to appear natural counter-mix with her liquor-lubricated sarcasm, arriving at a motor-mouthed rhythm of impulse and venom. 

The self-proclaimed voice of authority, Dr. Rance is what you would expect, a domineering windbag seemingly incapable of reaching the right conclusion. If played for laughs, Dr. Rance would be of little comedic value, but Whitehead’s seriousness is such that no matter how absurd and illogical his conclusions, it’s almost tempting to believe him. “You cannot be rational in an irrational world,” he tells Dr. Prentice. “It’s irrational!” And then he’s off to solve the next problem in the most irrational way he can. 

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Manton is game as the gamine who came looking for a secretarial job but ended up in a straight-jacket, and McLachlan as Sergeant Match gets doped on tranquilizers and takes a spin in a dress while searching for Churchill’s missing member. Hats off also to McEwan as the lecherous bellboy who gets caught waving his willy in the wind… literally.

If What the Butler Saw retains any shock value it’s in the play's provenance. It was completed only weeks before Orton was fatally struck in the head with nine hammer blows by Halliwell, who then swallowed 22 sleeping pills. Orton never had the chance to see the farce performed. In his 34 years, he enjoyed earlier success with Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot. But What the Butler Saw put him on another level. Sadly, we can only imagine what he might have produced in the years to follow. 

Cast: Frances Barber, Sarah Manton, Angus McEwan, Rod McLachlan, Charles Shaughnessy, Paxton Whitehead

Director: John Tillinger

Playwright: Joe Orton

Set designer: James Noone

Costume designer: Laurie Churba Kohn

Lighting designer: Ken Billington

Sound designer: John Gromada

Presented by Center Theatre Group