Thursday, January 01, 2015

Overdue CTG post #1: What The Butler Saw

Not the CTG poster, but the first image that came up on a Google search.
I've had every intention of writing a bit about the recent production of What The Butler Saw at the Mark Taper, but the holidays got the better of me and now it's January 1 and I'm playing catch-up, which I find hilarious since I've been trying to wrap things up here and I can't even do that in an efficient manner.

Seeing the play got me reading Joe Orton's diaries so he's remained in my thoughts and I want to get all this down. I'm an Orton fan from way back, and wouldn't have missed a professional production of his masterpiece for anything. And I was not disappointed. I laughed throughout, marveling at the wit and shimmering wordplay, and of course that ending always does me in, what with the absurd farcical revelations of everyone being related, Winston Churchill's bronze cock being waved triumphantly before the quack shrink Dr. Rance announces "Let us put on our clothes and face the world" and the cast ascends a rope ladder that's dropped through the skylight. I love the final stage direction--
They pick up their clothes and weary, bleeding, drugged and drunk, climb the rope ladder into the blazing light.
Joe Orton

JW and my friend Bertie enjoyed it almost as much as I did. Of course, at the end of the first act, Bertie leaned in at the act break and said something like, "All the rape humor's unfortunate, isn't it?" And I completely agreed. I hesitate to say that it made the play feel dated (for reasons I'll get to in a minute), but it did give me pause.

That said, I read more than one review of the production that called the play out-of-touch. At least one critic wondered why CTG was producing it. More than one review suggested that it was too long because Orton died before he could rewrite, lamenting how unfortunate it was Joe got his brains bashed in before he could tighten the thing up. Such a suggestion is as beside the point as it is factually incorrect. Orton writes in his diaries of making revisions based on the suggestions of Kenneth Halliwell and others. Maybe he would've continued to revise if he'd lived, but who cares? He finished the play, made some revisions, and died. It's not an incomplete work. There's no need to discuss it as such.

I don't think it should come as a shock to anyone that the play was written in 1967. That's pretty well documented. It's old. And yes, the playwright died before the premiere, but to suggest that it would've been better if he hadn't been murdered is like suggesting Tennessee Williams' plays would've been better if he weren't a pill addict. No wait, I think it's worse, since I guess one could argue that Williams' addiction has something to do with his writing, whereas Orton's murder was committed independently of his completion of this play, by someone other than Joe Orton. Sorry to belabor the issue but can we just talk about the production? Can we talk about the actual script instead of some speculative improved script we can't possibly know would exist in the most fortunate of alternate histories?

Okay, back to the rape humor. I'm not so annoyed by calling out that stuff (it is in the actual script, after all), and I'm on board with criticisms of the casual treatment of that subject. But it's also worth noting that the play's victim of improper advances, Geraldine Barclay, is also the play's token innocent. And she's preyed upon, manipulated, and tormented by everyone else in the show. They're all menaces of one sort or another; it's part of the point. I do think the production could've transcended being a merely well-staged English farce into something far more provocative if it had started with that idea as its focus. This production made me want to direct the play so I could do a take on it that treats this idea with the utmost seriousness.

Still, it's really rich to express outrage about a dead playwright being jokey about rape in 1967 when we stage racist, sexist and homophobic work constantly by people with names like, I dunno, Shakespeare? Last I checked it was the director's job to present historical scripts in ways that will make them resonant in today's moral and cultural climate. There are plenty of ideas in Orton's plays that resonate; I don't think any director that's half as clever as he was would have that hard a time keeping his writing relevant.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

at last, someone who liked Butler as much as I did - thanks - Henry