Performance, Cognition, and the Representation of Interiority
The (Im)Possible Worlds of Joe Orton: A Cognitive Approach to What the Butler Saw
“Surely we’re all mad people, and they/whom we think are, are not.” This quote from The Revenger’s Tragedy prefaces Orton’s final play and partly prepares readers for what is to follow: a fireworks of brilliant repartee, fast-paced action, slapstick, sexual perversion and social satire, set in a psychiatric hospital governed by “democratic lunacy” (Orton 56) and designed not “to cure, but to liberate and exploit madness” (Orton 32). Throughout his career, Orton had shown himself keenly aware of the “inherent theatricality of madness” (Hutchings 228). True to his much-quoted epigram that “[y]ou can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It isn’t rational,” (Orton 72) Orton explored madness as the only possible response to a world which, in its turn, he felt to be hypocritical to the point of insanity (Lahr 109). While madness is thus a motif that features frequently in his deeply satirical and socially critical oeuvre, only his last play openly invites readers to question the mental stability of the characters – even though, as Orton noted in his diary, “there isn’t a lunatic in sight – just doctors and nurses” (qtd. in Lahr 312). Set in a private psychiatric clinic, What the Butler Saw charts the events that follow on Dr Prentice’s ill-advised attempt to seduce his new secretary, Geraldine Barclay, and his clumsy manoeuvrings to conceal this fact (and Geraldine) from his wife. When the appropriately named Dr Rance (‘rants’), a government inspector of lunatic asylums and hence a representative of Prentice’s “immediate superiors...
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