WHAT JOE ORTON SAW

March 6, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

When the British playwright Joe Orton was murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell in 1967, he left behind one completed and unproduced comedy, What the Butler Saw. Before being bludgeoned to death with a hammer, in his short theatrical career, Orton had been crowned a modern-day Oscar Wilde. After his shocking and tragic death, a year and a half later, Londoners were clamoring to see what unseen gem was left behind stemming from his brilliant comic mind. So it was on this date in 1969 that What the Butler Saw premiered at the Queen’s Theatre in the West End. It starred Coral Browne, a renowned Australian-American actress and Sir Ralph Richardson, theatrical royalty personified.

Expectations were high and the sold-out crowd was eager to drink in the bitter taste of Orton’s mischievous take on the upper class, which was his wont. In 1966, when Loot won London’s prestigious Evening Standard Award for Best Play, such mainstream acceptance was a huge surprise to Orton. He was the first to take not of the irony in being embraced by the very establishment he was holding up to scrutiny in comic and confrontational ways.

Yet three years later when Orton’s What the Butler Saw was produced posthumously, London audiences hoping for his masterpiece, instead rejected it. The banner headline in The Sun declared: “DEAD PLAYWRIGHT BOOED BY GALLERY.”

Playwright Joe Orton

According to his biographer John Lahr, Orton’s intention with the play “was to create a seismic disturbance,’ using a traditional boulevard form to attack the audience’s received opinions, especially about sexual identity.”

That he did. After all, What the Butler Saw’s central plot device revolves (among other things) around Sir Winston Churchill’s penis. Imagine what it was like on this opening night 48 years ago for poor Sir Ralph holding onto that phallus miming comprehensiveness for what had to have been for its audience, a largely incomprehensible evening. As a noble Knight of the British theatre cast in the play in the hopes of making it a bit more respectable, that was not remotely in the cards.

A year after What the Butler Saw had been booed in London, it received a production Off-Broadway at the McAlpin Rooftop Theatre, located in the McAlpin Hotel at Broadway and 34th Street.

Sidebar: Built in 1912, at the time it opened its doors, the McAlpin was the largest hotel in the world. The theatre on the roof is no more, but it still stands and is a rental apartment building called the Herald Towers.

Hotel McAlpin (1914 postcard)

When this What the Butler Saw opened in 1970 it got excellent reviews and ran for six months. But it in no way caused any kind of stampede to produce more of Orton’s works. It wasn’t until 1981 with a new production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, that a true revival began.

Laurence Luckinbill and Diana Davila in What the Butler Saw (1970)

This owed mainly to the partnership of the director John Tillinger and the actor Joseph Maher, who together would produce highly acclaimed productions of Sloane, Loot and What the Butler Saw in New York over an eight-year period. During this Orton renaissance, the 1987 film of John Lahr’s book Prick Up Your Ears, based on Orton’s unpublished diaries, opened at the Cannes Film Festival to excellent reviews. Directed by Stephen Fears, it starred Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as Kenneth Hailwell, his murderer-lover. With a pitch-perfect cameo by Vanessa Redgrave as Peggy Ramsey, Orton’s agent, it’s well worth checking out.

It would be a number of years before What the Butler Saw would be appreciated as a perfect coda to Orton’s short, but magnificent career as a playwright. The play is now produced the world over and I caught a wonderful 2014 Los Angeles production that starred the British actor Paxton Whitehead, that was later revived this past year at the Westport County Playhouse in Connecticut. Both productions featured Whitehead and were directed by John Tillinger, now in his late seventies, still finding new discoveries to be made with Orton.

In the beginning, when almost no one understood Orton’s plays, practically every one of them were unsuccessful in their first productions: miscast, misconceived and misbegotten. Undeterred, this young playwright eventually became the toast of the West End in mid-60s London with ferociously funny comedies that have proven timely over the decades without losing their unseemliness And, as already mentioned, Orton was only able to enjoy his fame for a criminally short span of time. When Kenneth Halliwell took his rival (and one-sided) jealousy to its limits, he not only murdered Orton, but took his own life immediately following with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Orton was thirty-four years old.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing. https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/