What the Butler Saw
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
“I thought about how fashionable madness is at the moment…” was how British playwright, Joe Orton described 1967 society in his diary during the writing of his last comedy, “What the Butler Saw” -- currently at the Westport Country Playhouse (WCP). Since poking fun at “queer people” seemed to be the current rage, and all folks needed to do was look in the mirror, he felt his play was bound to be a success. And, there is usually some truth behind satire.
To better understand Orton, it helps to know that he felt being an open homosexual contributed to a stiff jail sentence for a minor prank. So, who can blame him for having a specific agenda, and for his outrageous depictions of repressed sexuality? His play “Loot,” a comedy based on a similar theme, and presented a few seasons ago at WCP, won an English Standard Award for Best Play. Ironically, Orton himself was a victim of society’s madness. He was only 37 when his jealous partner murdered him. “What the Butler Saw” was produced posthumously and at the time it was also considered successful.
Contrary to its title, “What the Butler Saw,” is not a stiff, English parlor murder mystery. There is no “butler” and no murder. This common English phrase was coined after a popular peep show was featured on a new invention called the Mutoscope (a wind-up, card-flipping machine). In other words, Orton’s mad comedy is meant to be a kind of peep show. Along the way, it pokes fun at Freud’s theories about repressed sexual desires, mad psychiatrists, government officials, nymphomaniacs and even incest. There’s lot’s of cross-dressing, sexual innuendo, and a flash of nudity -- everything silly that comedy will allow plus, occasional bits of cleverness that are bound to tickle your senses. The style is similar to the British TV series “Fawlty Towers,” only with more vivid sexual content.
The play begins with psychiatrist, Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), who is interviewing Geraldine (Sara Manton) for a job as his secretary. He requires her to undress, his wife (Patricia Kalember) walks in, and with a lot of amusing fumbling, the doctor attempts to hide the girl. This leads to further complications with a government official, Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead), a bellhop (Cris Ghaffari) whom his wife is having an affair with, and Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble) who is after the bellhop for sexual misconduct. Uttering remarks that have double meaning, the characters run in and out of doorways in various forms of dress and undress. Like a Shakespearean comedy, the ending comes complete with a miss-matched set of twins.
Considering what has been going on with exposing some prominent officials’ sexual habits lately, such madness may still fashionable in our own society. However, there comes a point when sex and silliness becomes tiresome. Cross-dressing and undressing does not seem to be as funny as it used to be -- it can even lead to tragic consequences. It was interesting to note, that on opening night, mostly young men’s laughter was frequently heard. Others in the audience were not as demonstrative.
WCP’s veteran director, John Tillinger who worked with a well-seasoned cast, expertly timed the play’s comical phrases. Paxton Whitehead, with his English composure and a knowing twinkle in his eye, is always fun to watch.
Plays to September 10 Tickets: 204-227-4177