Following the harmless whimsy of films A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, in 1967, The Beatles hired “bad boy” British playwright Joe Orton to write their next screenplay.
Orton’s conception, Up Against It, cast the Beatles as corrupt, adulterous cross-dressers plotting to kill the first female prime minister of Britain.
The script was quickly rejected.
“No explanation why. No criticism of the script. And apparently, (Beatles manager) Brian Epstein had no comment to make either. Fuck them,” wrote Orton in his diary.
In a brief, brilliant career cut horrifically short, Joe Orton became the master of theatrical black comedy — bringing humour to subjects as taboo as murder, adultery, homosexuality and cross-dressing.
“He wanted to take the piss out of those things that people in England found most sacred,” said Colin Heath, the director of the Guild’s performance of What the Butler Saw, Orton’s final play.
For Orton, the more dignified something was, the more it needed to be ridiculed, said Heath.
What the Butler Saw opens simply enough, with Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist, interviewing Geraldine Barclay, a prospective secretary.
When Dr. Prentice reveals that his wife is a nymphomaniac, Geraldine expresses her sympathies and asks if there is anything she could do to cheer him up.
“Well, my dear, if it’ll give you any pleasure you can test my new contraceptive device,” answers the doctor.
“(The characters) are corrupt as all hell, and it’s just exacerbated by their drinking, drugs, madness and violence,” said Heath.
Glasses of whiskey are downed by the characters almost nonstop, and there is ample gun-wielding, pills and beatings.
The play is loosely structured on the “comedy-about-relationships” style of Noel Coward. Yet Orton took the relatively G-rated Cowardian style and transplanted it into a whole new level of “hilarious, provocative irreverence,” said Heath.
There are no Coward plays in which four out of the five characters appear on-stage in their underwear.
In What the Butler Saw, Orton takes shots at the British mental health system, British family values and Scotland Yard.
Even England’s beloved Sir Winston Churchill is not safe from the play’s satirical ire.
Characters start out as acerbic depictions of well-versed, stiff-upper-lip Britishers.
“(Dr. Prentice) has killed his secretary,” announces Mrs. Prentice halfway through Act 2.
“He can’t’ve done. He’s an OBE,” replies Mrs. Prentice’s extra-marital lover, referring to Dr. Prentice’s prestigious position as “officer of the British Empire.”
As the rising chaos of the play moves forward, the pretension is stripped away, revealing a troupe of murderers, cross-dressers and adulterers.
“Their struggle for dignity just gets them deeper into shit,” said Heath.
Caught in the middle is Geraldine, young, naive, and the only pure soul in a sea of madness.
“At least give me back my clothes, I feel naked without them,” she says in Act 2.
Orton certainly had a bone to pick with his homeland.
Born into poverty, Orton needed to take elocution lessons to ensure his entry into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts — the academy didn’t take people with “lower class” accents.
Orton was also gay — an illegal practice in Britain until the year of his death.
In the early 1960s, Orton and Keith Halliwell, his friend, lover and creative collaborator, delighted in stealing books from the local library, and humorously defacing them.
“A book on how to grow roses, they’d stick monkey faces on the roses,” said Heath.
“A history of British royalty, they’d stick a naked woman in place of a queen,” he said.
The pair’s mischief was eventually discovered, and the two were handed a six-month prison sentence.
After his death in 1967, the Leicester newspaper referred to Orton as a “criminal,” in reference to his spell in prison.
However, prison focused Orton’s writing.
As his first plays hit the stage, and became smashing successes, Orton’s signature irreverence was propelled from the pages of stolen library books into British theatre lore.
Loot, premiered in 1965, follows two thieves who evade a police inspection by hiding the proceeds of a robbery in the coffin of one of the thieves’ recently deceased mother. As the play goes on, the mother’s body continually turns up at different points throughout the house.
Funeral Games follows a cult leader’s goal to kill his wife as punishment for adultering with a defrocked Catholic priest — who has murdered his own wife and hidden her in a pile of coal.
Controversy was rife, but Orton loved it. Shock was his game.
When What the Butler Saw premiered, it was greeted with cries of “FILTH!” from the audience.
Heath estimates the first rumblings of dissent probably erupted when Mrs. Prentice’s nymphomia is discussed.
“I hardly ever have sexual intercourse,” says Mrs. Prentice.
“You were born with your legs apart. They’ll send you to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin,” replies Dr. Prentice.
Orton fed off pushing the envelope, and took lengths to fuel the fires of controversy that his plays created.
In the fabricated guise of a “shocked theatre-goer,” Orton often wrote letters to local newspapers condemning his works.
“He loved that people hated his plays,” said Heath.
In theatre circles, the term “Ortenesque” still means “outrageously dark and macabre.”
“Orton delighted in making people laugh at dark things like violence, like rape, madness, incest,” said Heath.
“Those things aren’t funny, but even people that are experiencing those things have a capacity for humour, and he taps into that,” he said.
Orton himself became a victim of madness and unorthodox violence. Halliwell had become increasingly depressed and isolated in the wake of Orton’s rising success. He killed Orton in a murder-suicide from nine hammer-blows to the head.
At the scattering of Orton and Halliwell’s ashes, Orton’s sister mixed together handfuls from each of the urns. Then she decided to mix in two additional handfuls.
“Come on, dearie, it’s only a gesture, not a recipe,” quipped Orton’s agent Peggy Ramsay.
The meaning of shock has changed in the interim 40 years, stripping What the Butler Saw of its initial eye-popping originality.
But while modern audiences can marvel at the spectacle of Borat’s naked fight with an extremely obese man, the refined class of true, Ortonesque shock is lacking.
Whatever social and sexual depravity Orton dredged up, he always did it with a sophistication of language and an eloquence worthy of a “good boy” British playwright.
“Much more shocking things go on on stage and are held up as great successes in theatre, but very few have made people laugh while doing that,” said Heath.
What the Butler Saw premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Guild Hall. It runs until November 8th.