Review: “What the Butler Saw” at Westport Country Playhouse

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

Westport CT - “What the Butler Saw” is an interesting choice for WCP. The plot is layered with what one expects in a farce: chaos in a small space mixed with sex, blackmail, mistaken identity, and slamming doors (“Why are there so many doors? Was it designed by a lunatic?” quips one of the characters). Add layers of mental illness, homosexuality, cross dressing, Nazis, and tar babies, and you have Orton’s shopping list checked off for everything one could put in a show that might offend someone in the audience. 

Orton’s need to affront should come as no surprise given his background. Before becoming a successful playwright, Orton and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell used to yuck it up in London by stealing books from public libraries and returning them to the shelves with obscene dustjackets, which actually resulted in a six-month prison sentence and a fine. Orton and Halliwell claimed it was such a harsh sentence due to their homosexuality, which may have some truth to it given that the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was still 5 years away (the act of Parliament that stopped the persecution of homosexuals that jailed the likes of playwright Oscar Wilde and WWII codebreaker, Alan Turing).  Interestingly, Orton’s stint in prison gave him new foresight into his writing and his career took off, starting with “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” followed by “Loot”. Tragically, Orton’s career was cut short by his prankster-in-crime who bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer, and then committed suicide by swallowed a bunch of barbiturate tablets. Apparently, Halliwell wasn’t too happy about his lover’s success nor his plans to leave Halliwell for another man. Weirdly, their cremated ashes were mixed and buried together in the Garden of Remembrance at Golders Green in London. 

 L-R:  Paxton Whitehead, Sarah Manton, and Robert Stanton in “What the Butler Saw,” written by Joe Orton, and directed by John Tillinger, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 10.  (203) 227-4177.      Photo by Carol Rosegg

L-R:  Paxton Whitehead, Sarah Manton, and Robert Stanton in “What the Butler Saw,” written by Joe Orton, and directed by John Tillinger, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through September 10.  (203) 227-4177.      Photo by Carol Rosegg

While reading on the background of the play, I wondered why this play didn’t seem to make much of an impression in the United States. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a VERY dated, VERY British show, so much so that I am struggling to figure out why Westport chose to put it on at all. Heck, even the title is archaic: a reference to pornographic material. Linguistically speaking, it was difficult to follow because of the formal language and the multiple British jokes that were totally lost on this American audience. No one was more surprised than me that I didn’t get the majority of the jokes because I am a self-proclaimed Anglophile. I am still trying to figure out why someone toward the front row was laughing hysterically at one line about the Welsh and the military. 

This is no criticism of the actors, who were all fantastic in their roles despite the outdated material. Delivery and timing were all there; I especially liked the dry delivery from Julian Gamble (Sergeant Match) and Paxton Whitehead (Dr. Rance). And there WERE funny moments where I laughed out loud, but not as often as I had hoped.  I felt sorry for the actors as a number of their supposed one-liners hung lifeless in the air, crickets chirping awkwardly. Direction was also excellent by John Tillinger, who is obviously masterful in this style, but it was mostly wasted on this audience: when one-quarter of your audience leaves at intermission, you know they didn’t get it. 

I understand Orton’s play as a commentary on the psychiatric field – we are all quite mad here, yes, thank you, Lewis Carroll – and I recognized some of that depth in some of the characters’ utterances: chaos versus order; natural versus “unnatural.” But I wondered how is this relevant today? Why would it be important for us to see this now? To see how far we’ve come in civilized society? Maybe. 

Ultimately, what I found while watching this play in 2016 was that Orton’s goal - insult his audience in as many ways possible - still offends today, but not in the same way. As my husband and I drove home, we realized that all of the aspects that Orton brings up – mental illness, homosexuality, cross dressing – are handled very differently now than they were 50 years ago. As women are being tied up and drugged against their will to avoid outing a philandering psychiatrist… as men and women are switching clothes to disguise themselves… well, to quote the ever-melancholic, very British Morrissey and his band the Smiths, “That joke isn’t funny anymore.”