Into the Blazing Light: Liminality in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw

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Shih, C.-Y., 2000. Into the Blazing Light: Liminality in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw. Body, Space & Technology, 1(1). DOI:


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Into the Blazing Light: Liminality in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw

Why are there so many doors. Was the house designed by a lunatic? --Joe Orton, What the Butler Saw

Liminality can perhaps be described as a fructile chaos. A fertile nothingness, a storehouse of possibilities, not by any means a random assemblage but a striving after new forms and structure, a gestation process, a fetation of modes appropriate to anticipating postliminal existence. --Victor Turner, ‘Are There Universals of Performance?’

Joe Orton in his What the Butler Saw charts a contour of liminalilty. Liminality, based on Victor Turner, who extends from Arnold van Gennep’s research on the three stages in a rite of passage--separation, transition, and incorporation--and emphasises the transitional phase, signifies a state/space separated from the past and leading into the future. Suspended from the old structure, the liminal is of confusion, ambiguity, and anarchy. Yet, it is also a process of becoming, transforming, and changing; namely, from the liminal disorder new orders are produced. Liminality is therefore a repository of fertile chaos and new possibilities. This paper, drawing on Turner’s blue-print, aims at sketching how Orton destabilises the normalised world through transvestism, displaces it with a liminal void of sexuality and insanity, and delineates a potential heaven of sexual pleasures for the future. By presenting the liminal landscape of subversion, upheaval, and potentiality, the paper attempts to illustrate What the Butler Saw as a liminal act and, by way of illustration, argues that each farcical site is a presentation of liminality.

Joe Orton wrote between 1953 and 1967. In the brief period, three full-length plays were created and characterised his eccentric style. Entertaining Mr Sloane, a comedy of manners and finished in 1964, tells of a handsome young man who intrudes into a family, kills the father in a state of indignation, and, under coercion, is shared sexually by the sister and the brother. Issues of incest, homosexuality, and bisexuality are touched upon. Although the play attracted the attention and encouragement of two established dramatists, Terence Rattigan and Harold Pinter, it also invited extreme comments. W. A. Darlington, for instance, expressed his feeling that ‘snakes had been writhing round my feet’ (qtd. in Rusinko, 1995: 78). Loot, opened in 1965, revolves around an investigation into theft and murder. By manipulating the convention of the detective thriller and a corpse on stage, Orton attacked law, authority, and religion, and shocked the audience. In 1967, Orton worked on What the Butler Saw, intending to hot up sex because ‘[Sexual licence] is the only way to smash the wretched civilisation. …Sex is the only way to infuriate them. Much more fucking and they’ll be screaming hysterics in next to no time’ (Orton, 1986: 125). Orton died a month after the play had been completed.(1) In 1969, What the Butler Saw was first produced on stage. Stanley Baxter, who played Dr. Prentice and recalled the opening night, said: ‘The anger really came through at the curtain calls. The gallery wanted to jump on the stage and kill us all’ (qtd. in Lahr, 1978: 333). Martin Esslin in his ‘Joe Orton: The Comedy of (Ill) Manners’ dismissed the play as ‘an impressive piece of juggling, of prestidigitation’ (1981: 106). He also thought that Orton’s attack in his work rose from rage, the same rage manifested in ‘the wicked trains of football supporters, the mangled and vandalized telephone kiosks and the obscene graffiti on lavatory walls’ (1981: 96) and behind the rage was nothing but ‘spiritual emptiness’ and ‘thoughtlessness’ (1981: 107). The severest criticism was perhaps leveled by Harold Hobson. He described the play as ‘a wholly unacceptable exploitation of sexual perversion’ and Orton, ‘the Devil’s theatrical henchman’. Orton’s obsession with perversion, moreover, caused his death, choked his very talent, and poisoned the atmosphere of the play with evil (qtd. in Lahr, 1978: 334). Venting anger is indeed one of Orton’s incentives and provoking anger, his intention. Yet, what can be seen in What the Butler Saw--beyond anger?

What the Butler Saw is located in a mental asylum and starts with Dr. Prentice’s interview with his new secretary, Geraldine. Desirous of her, he coaxes her into undressing for a physical examination. Right at this moment Mrs. Prentice comes in unexpectedly. Together with her is a hotel page-boy, Nick, who has attempted to rape her, taken some indecent pictures of her, and is now blackmailing her. Dr. Rance from the government also arrives to inspect the clinic. He soon finds the naked Geraldine behind the curtains and asks for an explanation. Intending to hide his improper behaviour from Dr. Rance and his wife, Dr. Prentice pleads with both Geraldine and Nick to undress, exchange, and change clothes to play different roles. Sergeant Match, at the same time, is sent here to investigate an explosion, which has caused the penis of Winston Churchill Statue to go missing. Unwittingly, Sergeant Match joins the clothes-changing and wears Mrs. Prentice’s leopard-spotted dress. Dr. Prentice, unable to explain his abnormal behaviour, invents stories and is accused of being mad. The muddled asylum is shut by the metal grilles and the lights turned off. In the dark a mystery is consequently unraveled: Geraldine and Nick are actually twins, conceived when Mrs. Prentice was raped by Dr. Prentice in a hotel. Surprisingly, Sergeant Match descends from the skylight and, holding up the part found, he directs the people out.

Clothes-changing, as many critics have noted, is the most intriguing and complex part of the play, for it propels and effects all the actions. Clothes on stage serve as the very guide to the sexual identities of the characters and, moreover, to their sexualities. With proper clothes on, the characters’ sexes and sexualities are defined and appropriate performances can be expected. With clothes, orders operate. However, the constant clothes-changing and role-playing causes the identities of the characters to ‘split, double, multiply, evaporate’ (Smith, 1989: 128). The blurring of the sexual distinctions is well indicated when Geraldine has Nick’s uniform on and Nick, her clothes:

NICK. Why is he wearing my uniform?

PRENTICE. He isn’t a boy. He’s a girl.

GERALDINE. Why is she wearing my shoes?

PRENTICR. She isn’t a girl. She’s a boy. (2.418)

The sexual confusion further dislocates the indicator of natural sexuality, namely, heterosexuality, and from the dislocation ‘unnatural’ homosexuality could be revealing:

NICK. What is unnatural?

RANCE (to Mrs Prentice). How disturbing the questions of the mad can be? (To Nick.) Suppose I made an indecent suggestion to you? If you agreed something might occur which, by and large, would be regarded as natural. If, on the other hand, I approached this child--(He smiles at Geraldine.)--my action could result only in a gross violation of the order of things. (2.416)

And along with the development of the story, other sexual behaviours emerge as well: ‘buggery, necrophilia, lesbianism, exhibitionism, hermaphroditism, rape, sadomasochism, fetishism, transvestism, nymphomania and the triumphant incest’, as Maurice Charney enumerates (1984: 101-2). In other words, through the enactment of transvestism, Orton makes the guide dysfunctional and displaced by a hybrid of sexual identities and desires.

The lacuna of hybridity is not charted without ambivalence, though. In other words, Orton's characters are not liberated into festivity and promiscuity at no expense. Their reactions to the oscillation between the chains of identities--to the disruption and destruction of the structure they have been sticking to or dependent upon--vary. Geraldine, for instance, floating in the identities of secretary, patient, Nick, and Gerald Barclay--female, neutral, and male--continues to claim that ‘I am Geraldine Barclay’ (2.438); all she wants is to have her clothes back to prove her legitimate identity and sexuality. Mrs. Prentice keeps seeing men without clothes--without the marks by which she can tell reality from hallucination, comes to a hysterical state, and is forced to admit that she is mad. Both Geraldine and Mrs. Prentice, faced with the removal of the customary symbols, cry out for their needs of them. By contrast, Nick and Sergeant Match serve as a different case. Nick goes through various clothes/roles and makes the most of them in order to exempt himself from the charge of sexual harassment. Therefore, for Nick, garments are not strait-jackets but suits of armour; he can always take off those harmful and put on those protective to him. Like Sloane in Entertaining Mr Sloane, Nick is not tied down to his identity, but, instead, shifts freely in identities. Sergeant Match, by the same token, undresses and changes his attire without any pain. Yet, his situation is subtler, or, more satirical. Sergeant Match represents a law figure. Having changed his clothes from the police uniform to Mrs. Prentice’s leopard-spotted dress and been drugged by Dr. Prentice, Sergeant Match walks dizzily, ‘stumbling across the room, crashing and upsetting furniture’ (2.436). That is, departing from a symbol of discipline and order, Sergeant Match, without any sign of struggle, becomes an embodiment of anarchy and disorder. Wearing the leopard-spotted dress, Sergeant Match becomes above the law.

Transvestism is apparently the main theme in What the Butler Saw. Transvestite theatre, as Lesley Ferris remarks, exemplifies Barthes’s ‘writerly text’, which pursues a production of multiple readings/meanings. A reading Ferris supplies is that theatrical cross-dressing can be one way of playing with liminality and its multiple possibilities--it is the liminal moment of ‘a relaxation of the social rules that hold man’s animal passions in check’, of questioning, and of perceiving a slippery and protean self (1993: 9). For Ferris, transvestite theatre means a mediating space between the present and potential worlds, between the stable being and its mutable self. Orton’s play displays a similar meaning. By manoeuvring transvestism, Orton foregrounds the issue of reality. Sexual identities, like clothes, are imposed so that both sexes can act accordingly. They in effect register the norms in reality. In reality the norms are designated and relied on in order to sustain a world of order and rationality. Through the transvestites, Orton discloses the layers of ambivalence towards the need/negation of the norms and, most importantly, problematises the creed of the norms as absolutely prerequisite and permanent. Are they really prerequisite and permanent? Or, are they actually prescribed and thus contingent? Can they be destabilised easily and destroyed immediately? And what would become of the world if the norms fall apart? Could it be an alternative of chaos and promiscuity? These questions resonate throughout the play.

The space of Transvestism, giving rise to the questionings of the normative reality, becomes the liminal site of reflection. Liminality is ‘both more destructive and more creative than the structural norm’; ‘it raises basic problems for the social structural man, invites him to speculation and criticism’ (Turner, 1982: 47). Moreover, Transvestism acts out a play of sexual significations; along with the play, the concepts of heterosexuality, homogeneity, and family are disseminated, deconstructed, and reinscribed. In liminality the factors or elements of culture are recombined in ‘grotesque ways, grotesque because they are arrayed in terms of possible or fantasied rather than experienced combinations’; that is, people play ‘with the elements of the familiar and defamiliarize them’ and thus create novelty (Turner, 1982: 27). Orton’s stratagem of defamiliarizing the familiar concepts, or, of producing novelty, is his providing supplements to the play and, most importantly, his presenting it with excess and to the extreme: the signifier of sexual identity is gradually displaced by the signifier of sexuality and the signifieds of sexual practices. The scene of sexual identities is turned into a spectacle of sexual impulses, or, more precisely, polymorphous perversity.

Polymorphous perversity, a psychosexual term, is generally used by critics to designate and describe the sexual versatility in Orton’s characters. Perverse sexualities, according to Jonathan Dollimore, who rereads and revives Freud’s theorisation of perversions, are subversive:

Freud attributes to the perversions an extraordinary disruptive power: they subvert, first, the genital organization of sexuality, thereby sabotaging the whole process of normative psychosexual development (or subjection) upon which civilization depends; and second, sexual difference itself, along with the entire functional aspect of sexuality, whether it be biological (reproduction) or social (sublimation). Further, perversion also subverts many of the binary oppositions upon which the social order rests…. Lastly, perversion affords more pleasure than those forms of organized desire based on its repression…. (1991: 181-2)

In Freud’s investigation, perversions, in brief, destabilise and destroy the paradigms on which the whole civilisation is grounded. The very undermining power of perversions, as Dollimore terms it, is perverse dynamic. At this point, Orton, through perverse dynamics, breaks down the normalised past and conjures up an alternative future. The truth implanted in sexuality and exposed by Orton is in contrast to that Foucault enunciates in History of Sexuality. According to Foucault, the truth, ultimately, tells that institutional power, by deploying sexual discourses, determines and divides the subject sexually. Deciphering the knowledge of sexuality, Foucault discloses the power and its discursive subject. Orton, on the contrary, deconstructs the power over sexual compartments and liberates bodily pleasures by enabling the perverse dynamics. Centring on the polemical sexuality and its truth, Foucault presents a narrative of the casualties by the power and Orton, a tableau of the prolific sexualities from the perverse dynamics.

Performing sexuality with excess and to the extreme, Orton, as C. W. E. Bigsby observes, is inscribing Nietzsche’s Dionysian essence--‘the Dionysian spirit represents sexual ambivalence and the extreme’ (1982: 66). Dionysus, according to Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy, is the god of darkness, chaos and impulses, in opposition to Apollonian light, harmony and serenity. Though Apollo creates a world of clarity, beauty and sublimity, which, for Nietzsche, is deceptive--an escape from the pain and suffering of existence, from the conflicts and contradictions of life. Dionysus, endowed with the orgiastic momentum, that is, with the excesses of sexuality, frenzy, and decay, facilitates to unmask the veil of Maya, the illusion woven by Apollo, and to uncover what hides behind the veil/illusion. The central concern of the Dionysian celebration is universally a complete sexual promiscuity which overrides the established form; men’s savage urges are released and reach ‘the paroxysm of lust and cruelty’ (1956: 25-6). Dionysus thus becomes an incarnation of a power of disruption and destruction. In short, Dionysian excesses disclose the truth of life. Correspondingly, Orton, by writing the tropes of extreme sexuality, destabilises the appearance of normality, rationality, and sanity and depicts a possible aspect of life. Moreover, the Dionysian dynamics, as Susan Broadhurst observes, underlie the arts of liminality:

The Nietzschean Dionysian can be argued to be central to the liminal in its expression of immediacy, disruption and excess. In addition, it demonstrates an exploration of the ambiguous and open-ended nature of reality, together with an emphasis on the destructured, dehumanized subject which is also fundamental. (1999: 32)

For Broadhurst, an intertexuality between the Dionysian orgy and the liminal arts resides in the fact that both point to a force of immediacy, disruption, and excess and both make manifest ruptures in life/reality instead of its closure. In this regard, Orton’s revelry of transvestism, in accordance with the Dionysian and the liminal characteristics, enables questioning and breaking the paradigm of the reality and further encapsulates the ambiguity and contingency of the reality. Therefore, Orton's transvestites, whilst acting the Dionysian dithyramb, personate Turner’s fertile chaos of liminality.

The void, devoid of the sexual structures, is more fantastic, bizarre, and anarchic--characterising the liminal inversion, grotesqueness, and chaos--for its being located in a seclusion of unreason, that is, in a mental asylum. The mechanisms of the modern asylum are well delineated in Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. Observation, silencing, and authority, as Foucault points out, were firstly exerted on the mad by Tuke and Pinel in the eighteenth century, who had been generally acknowledged to liberate the mad and reform the treatments. In other words, in the space of insanity, patients were observed by the physicians; they were also watched by themselves to find their madness/the Otherness. Mad delirium was being muted for it was not ‘a fragment of dialogue with reason’; it was not language but something referring to transgression (1967: 262). And the authority of the physicians was deployed to cause fear, the fear of being punished, different, and immoral--the fear of being mad. The asylum structures did not change much because of the advent of Freud and his psychoanalysis in the nineteenth century. Although he brought in language, it was not reciprocal, not a dialogue between the psychiatrist and the patient. Rather, he endowed the psychiatrist with the absolute power of a thaumaturge in the asylum:

[H]e amplified its thaumaturgical virtues, preparing for its omnipotence a quasi-divine status. He focussed upon this single presence--concealed behind the patient and above him, in an absence that is also a total presence--all the powers that had been distributed in the collective existence of the asylum; he transformed this into an absolute Observation, a pure and circumspect Silence, a Judge who punishes and rewards in a judgment that does not even condescend to language; he made it the Mirror in which madness, in an almost motionless movement, clings to and casts off itself. (1967: 277-8)

Therefore, according to Foucault, the asylum, since Tuke and Pinel, has been a space of being surveyed and silenced. And the modern asylum, since Freud, has become a domain of the psychiatric surveillance, judgment, and prescription; the madman, under psychiatry, simply serves as a spectacle--as an object of the medical watch and the institutional dominance. Foucault’s description of the birth of the asylum, in the mean time, spells out psychiatry in Orton’s age. Psychiatry in the sixties, as Dollimore accounts, was ‘perceived as a form of social policing’ and ‘mystified socially desirable behaviour as natural, and undesirable beheaviour as the result of abnormal psychosexual development’ (1983: 79). That is, psychiatry, with licence, has been able to impose the borderline between what appears natural/normal and what unnatural/abnormal.

The borderline, However, is inverted and blurred in What the Butler Saw. Dr. Rance, as he claims, is ‘a representative of order’ (2.417); in him all the sense of normality is concentrated (Shepherd, 1978: 104). Throughout the play, he seems to abide by the rules of psychiatry, namely, of rationalization and reification; dependent upon which he interprets the phenomena in Dr. Prentice’s clinic, or, more precisely, the symptoms of the other characters. For Dr. Rance, there is no substratum where reasoning can not explore and expand and, as well as reasoning, strait-jackets and guns are also his weapons of subjugation. His psychoanalysis of the other characters, which would be used as the material for his best-seller, reaches the following conclusion:

The final chapters of my book are knitting together: incest, buggery, outrageous women and strange love-cults catering for depraved appetites. All the fashionable bric-a-brac. A beautiful but neurotic girl has influenced the doctor to sacrifice a white virgin to propitiate the dark gods of unreason. (2.427)

What is revealed in the passage, and in Dr. Rance’s other analyses as well, is discrepancy between factuality and actuality--‘the intellectual complexity of the explanation is always at war with the physical simplicity of the cause’ (John Bull and Frances Gray, 1981: 74). Like Sergeant Match and Dr. Prentice, Dr. Rance also stands for an authority agent, yet his obstinate clinging to principle and theory makes a spectacle of himself and, furthermore, makes himself a spectacle of those who exploit reality. In one scene, he comes to be exploited by the exploitation. Confronted by Geraldine’s resistance to his certification, Dr Rance ‘abruptly throws himself on to her and holds her in his arms’ and claims: ‘Let me cure your neurosis! It’s the only thing I want out of life’ (2.438). Dr. Rance’s violence, on the one hand, indicates the failure of reason and, on the other, reveals his impulse to Geraldine, like Dr. Prentice’s desire for her in the beginning. There is little doubt that Orton, by pushing Dr. Rance to the extreme, caricatures psychiatry. But, only by driving the psychiatrist to the extreme can Orton catch his slippage into insanity--his crossing the line between sanity and insanity. In other words, the mad, continuing to ridicule Dr. Rance’s certifications and thus exceeding his authority, are not any longer posed as objects, as being silenced and watched; on the contrary, they are, with energy and anarchy, animated into the subjects of speaking and acting and driving Dr. Rance to and beyond the limits of sanity.

The asylum in What the Butler Saw, after the meaning of the psychiatrist has been emptied and the power of psychiatry subverted, becomes a site of acting, speaking, and subverting. Orton’s travesty, for Esslin, is not original at all; it is merely ‘an old, oft-repeated cliché’ and ‘there is not even a hint of a genuine critique of psychiatry or psychoanalysis in the play’ (1981: 106). Orton indeed appropriates the platitudes about psychiatry, yet appropriation contains not only duplication but also reinscription. And the reinscription lies in the change of the asylum from an institutionalised domain to a Bakhtinian carnival square--a space where ridicule, blasphemy, and obscenity are voiced or performed and all the voices/performances are directed ‘toward a shift of authorities and truths, a shift of world orders’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 127). That is, the carnivalesque asylum, through irony, mimicry, and parody, has undermined authorities and absolutes, and mediated their transformations. These irony, mimicry, and parody thus become the carnivalesque critiques--Orton’s critiques of psychiatry. In a broader sense, the psychiatrist represents, more than an institutional agent, the father figure, like Winston Churchill. The father figure has consistently been a target attacked by Orton; caricaturing the psychiatrist is consequently one of Orton’s subterfuges to castrate the phallic prowess.(2) The castration ‘projects the destruction of restrictive social norms’ and clears ‘the way for a celebration of a new (dis)order’ (Innes, 1992: 272). New orders, together with the carnivalesque critiques, are exactly Orton’s re-creation of the asylum as a liminal space.

Liminality, drawing on Turner, can also be termed as ‘anti-structure’. By anti-structure he means the dissolution of normative social structure and further from the dissolution potential alternatives emerge. He thus considers the liminal stage as the seedbed of cultural creativity: ‘The new symbols and constructions then feed back into the "central" economic and political-legal domains and arenas, supplying them with goals, aspirations, incentives, structural models and raison d’être’ (1982: 28). That is, the liminal state, having disconcerted and abandoned the old structure, does not stay in chaos or nothingness; rather, it comes to create new sources and pathways for the future. As Spariosu endorses, ‘liminality is more than a passive, negative condition’; it contains both positive and active qualities, especially when the threshold becomes a ‘tunnel’ and the liminal the ‘cunicular’ (1997: 38). Liminality, in brief, is concerned with regarding ‘transition as a process, a becoming, and in the case of rites de passage even a transformation’ (Turner, 1979: 234). Producing passages to the future is exactly the greatest feature and function of the liminal.

Passages open up in What the Butler Saw as well. Along with the constant running, clothes-changing, and gun shooting, Geraldine and Mrs. Prentice are driven to the verge of breakdown; Nick and Sergeant Match are hurt and fatigued; Dr. Prentice and Dr. Rance become rivals in certifying each other. The border of order has already crumbled; the characters fall into disorder and dilemma. Dr. Rance is forced to press the alarm and, suddenly, ‘[a] siren wails. Metal grilles fall over each of the doors. The lights go out. The siren wails to a stop. The room is lit only by the glare of a bloody sunset shinning through the trees in the garden’ (2.442). That is, at the very moment, the entrances are closed, the lights turned off, and the characters shut into the dark where/when ‘the past is momentarily negated, suspended, or abrogated, and the future has not yet begun’ (Turner, 1982: 44). By having his characters assemble in the cage, Orton brilliantly builds up the liminal threshold, spatially and temporally. The only possible exit can be the skylight. And, at the climax, through the skylight descends Sergeant Match. Holding high the restored penis of Churchill Statue, he leads the way out: ‘They pick up their clothes and weary, bleeding, drugged and drunk, climb the rope ladder into the blazing light’ (2.448).

Two possibilities of the ending are offered. Firstly, the characters may go back to the normalized world, as John Lahr articulates:

Life is returned to ‘normal’, and the cycle of social hypocrisy begins again. … Soon, the clothes will impose on each of them a style and sexual role which farce, as a celebration of formlessness, momentarily breaks down. (1978: 330)

Susan Rusinko makes similar comments: ‘In tattered condition at the end, clothes join bleeding bodies as part of Orton’s unnerving conclusion involving the return to a corrupt normality’ (1995: 117). Lahr’s articulation is based on the conventional notion that farce usually ends with rejoining order and rationality. This notion, however, is called into question in What the Butler Saw. Orton, as Leslie Smith argues, distinguishes himself as a modern farce writer by revitalising the farcical conventions with current issues, such as sexuality and psychiatry; for him, the medieval feast of fools ‘offers a permanent image of the human condition, not a temporary one’ (1989: 138). That is, Orton has, in his modernised farce, rewritten the formulated ending. And Rusinko, identifying clothes-wearing with identity-assumption, thinks that it is the old world ahead. However, an ambiguity in the ending could be that the characters ‘pick up’ instead of ‘put on’ their clothes. Even though considering the clothes-collecting as a symbolic action of returning to the past, this possibility seems to neglect some subtleties in the play and fails to be convincing.

The alternative, as Charney illustrates, may be a paradise of sexual satisfaction:

Sexual fulfillment awaits all these ‘bleeding, drugged and drunk’ characters, weary and sore, as they wend their naked ways to a heaven of polymorphously perverse indulgences. The ending is wonderfully satisfying, but ironic. Can the power of Winston Churchill’s phallus, waved triumphantly over the celebrants, bring eternal happiness? (1984: 106)

Charney maps the landscape of sexual pleasures according to the phallic wand Sergeant Match waves. The perpetuity of the heaven is doubtful, but its possibility could be more real--if the embodiment of Sergeant Match can be taken into account. Sergeant Match changes his clothes from a police uniform to a leopard-spotted dress, implying his transformation from a law agent to a Dionysian figure. Dionysus, as mentioned above, is empowered to unveil Apollonian dreams and held to be a symbol of chaos and destruction. He mediates the hidden reality and, in addition, a new meaning of life. Dionysus thus becomes ‘a synthesis of both chaos and form, of orgiastic impulses and visionary states--at one with the life of nature and its eternal cycle of birth and death, of destruction and creation’ (Pfeffer, 1972: 216). The power/significance produced in Dionysus is in fact that of transfiguration. In the same way, Sergeant Match, having been transformed from an institutional figure to a Dioynisan saviour--having experienced chaos and destruction--should be guiding his people to a different world. His people, to an extent, have also changed. Dr. Prentice, Mrs. Prentice, Geraldine, and Nick, apparently, are united to become a family. It is a new family with love--and, at the same time, with transvestism, homosexuality, fetishism, necrophilia, and incest as well. Four of them have unsettled the grids of a normative family and come to the liminal area leading to a new place for their deviant family. Dr. Rance has deviated from the paradigms of psychiatry as well; a different psychiatrist is on the threshold. As a whole, all the characters have suspended from the past and are waiting in transition; climbing into the blazing light, they are entering into the future--a could-be heaven of sexualities.

Doors—‘Why are there so many doors?’ asks Dr. Rance--are the most striking design in the asylum. As John Clum points out, ‘farce is about transgression, which requires limits. This is why doors are essential to the setting of farce’ (1994: 114). That is, doors function as the symbols of limits; actions of crossing doors therefore symbolise acts of transgressing boundaries. In What the Butler Saw, the characters run through the doors incessantly. Along with their incessant running and crossing, social conventions and sexual paradigms are trespassed, and libidos released. Moreover, in relation to the source of the title, the doors are also like the peep-holes into the transvestites’ carnival.(3) And the butler, to whom the carnival is exhibited, can thus be referred to the voyeur, the audience and, to an extent, the Lord Chamberlain.(4) Intending to infuriate the voyeurs, Orton directed the sexual festivity. The turmoil at the opening night and the critiques on the play indicated that the anger of the voyeurs was indeed provoked and, behind anger, the structures they had been relying on were challenged. By tackling sexuality, the most controversial issue in the post-war England, Orton, together with other contemporary writers, undermined the conservative constructions and came to mediate the social reformation and the sexual liberation (Dollimore, 1983). Therefore, the doors Orton contrived in What the Butler Saw could be a space of transgression, a site of challenge, and, above all, a threshold of change--open up for his characters and for his contemporaries as well. What the Butler Saw signifies a liminal act, in the theatre and in the society. And farce, in essence, disturbs its audiences and decomposes their norms in order to present an alternative world. Every piece of farce, if taken seriously and illustrated with Orton’s What the Butler Saw, represents the liminal transition. The potential future offered may be of grotesqueness, insanity, and anarchy, yet it is a transformation of the old paradigms or a creation of new structures. It attempts to liberate the audiences from their normalised states, or to stimulate them to reflection on and questioning of their customary lives, or, to the full extent, to effect changes in the society or culture. Angry at the attempt, the audiences may remain in the old domain. Laughing at and happy with the liminal presentation, they may join the farcical world, entering into a new possibility--into the blazing light.


1. On 9 August 1967, Orton was battered to death by his partner, Kenneth Halliwell, and Halliwell committed suicide immediately after the murder.

2. Kenneth Halliwell discovered a Golden Bough subtext in What the Butler Saw and pointed it out to Orton, including ‘the castration of Sir Winston Churchill (the father-figure) and the descent of the god at the end--Sergeant Match, drugged and dressed in a woman’s gown’ (Orton, 1986: 237).

3. What the Butler Saw ‘comes from the most well-known type of pier-end peepshow machine, one showing a keyhole, through which a French maid could be watched stripping to her suspender-belt while a gentleman sheds his pin-stripe trousers’ (Innes, 1992: 275).

4. Despite the reference of the butler to the audience, his identity and invisibility invite interpretations. Charney, for example, visualises the invisible butler ‘as a stand-in for the cosy and complacent amenities of upper-middle-class drawing-room life’ (1984: 97). And Rusinko, extending from the absence of the butler, notes that none of the characters ‘sees a given situation as does another, so that all free-float in their respective way’ and, furthermore, the experiences of the missing butler and the characters can be shared with any audience who has a similar liberation (1995: 112). The butler, for Charney, is a could-be viewer in the bourgeois house; for Rusinko, his absence amounts to the lift of restrictions and effects freedom or liberation. Yet, from a different perspective, the butler can be identified as the Lord Chamberlain. Between 1737 and 1967, the Lord Chamberlain excised works that dealt with politics, religion, and sexuality in order to emasculate the theatre as an arena for the exploration of social issues (O’Connor, 1998: 20). That is, the Lord Chamberlain had been the authority of censorship, maintaining the traditions and proprieties of the theatre. Placing the plays under his invisible yet omniscient gaze, the Lord Chamberlain was obviously one of the voyeurs.


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Chun-Yi Shih





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