What the Butler Saw
By Joe Orton
Over the course of the season, our assistant directors and student dramaturgs will be compiling dramaturgical resources relating to each production as it develops. Below are some links to websites which relate to the history of the play, the biography of the playwright, and sites that contextualize and, we hope, shed light on the directorial approach to the dramatic material.
We hope you find these resources of interest.
Joe Orton (January 1, 1933 – August 9, 1967)
Joe Orton (January 1, 1933 – August 9, 1967) was a transgressive, working-class playwright of the 1960s British counterculture. Born John Kingsley Orton, he grew up in a house in Leicester with his parents and three siblings.
He began attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in May 1951, where he met his lifelong partner, Kenneth Halliwell. Orton was openly gay at a time when homosexuality was still an offense; it wasn’t decriminalized until July 1967, just one month before Orton’s death.
The struggling artists moved in together to a north London flat bought with Halliwell’s inheritance money. They spent three years defacing more than 70 public library books with Orton’s modified blurbs and Halliwell’s collages before they were arrested in the spring of 1962 and sentenced to six months in prison.
For Orton, his time in jail encouraged his rejection of “proper” society and may have helped inspire his particular style that came to be known as “Ortonesque”. In August 1967, Halliwell, a failure of a writer in Orton’s shadow, bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer and then committed suicide by way of Nembutal sleeping pills.
As an aspiring writer, Orton was entirely unsuccessful until the BBC accepted Orton’s stage script, The Ruffian on the Stair, in 1963; it was reworked and broadcast as a radio play in 1964. This was followed by the acclaimed Entertaining Mr. Sloane (premiering in 1964) and Loot (1965).
Orton also wrote a film script in 1967 for The Beatles, Up Against It; it was never filmed. Orton’s next well-known work, What the Butler Saw, was written in 1967 and posthumously performed in March 1969 at the Queens Theatre, London.
What the Butler Saw is a roaring farce, a genre which is defined as being full of “social or sexual transgressions, …opportunities for physical comedy…” and general comedic lambasting of various social institutions. The play’s treatment of everything from repressed homosexuality to Sigmund Freud to psychiatric institutions is both hilarious and thought-provoking.
Read about Peggy Ramsey, Orton’s theatrical agent.
John Lahr is the author of Orton’s biography, Prick Up Your Ears, and editor of The Diaries of Joe Orton.
See photos of Orton and his theatre career, here.