Issue 185 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
What The Butler Saw
by Joe Orton
It could have been bad. The stalwarts of British TV sitcom, ancient (John Alderton from Please Sir!) and modern--Richard Wilson from the programme whose title overestimates its liveliness, One Foot in the Grave, lined up in a farce to pull the middle classes into the National Theatre. And all over by 10pm in time for the train to Guildford.
But, with the pen in Joe Orton's hand, the joke is on the middle classes. Orton was famously and flamboyantly gay in a time when it was still a jailable offence no matter how old you were. He wasn't interested in the farce of the Brian Rix variety.
What the Butler Saw doesn't even try to get a few chuckles out of mild innuendo about adultery. Orton's out to get gales of laughter from transvestism, lesbianism, nymphomania and a few other things which it would do no good for potential audiences to find out about in a review.
The action takes place in a sanitorium where the doctor's attempts to seduce an applicant for the post of his secretary, the calamitous state of his own marriage and the inconvenient arrival of a government inspector (by far the maddest of a barmy bunch) conspire to trigger the usual loss of sanity and outer garments.
In passing, quite a few establishment icons get demolished--Winston Churchill is revealed as, literally and metaphorically, a big prick, psychiatrists as crazed and/or sex maniacs, and policemen as crossdressers (well, actually, nearly everyone is a crossdresser in this play.)
Orton's triumph is to take the almost moribund form of the farce and turn it into something which is progressive without being pofaced.
Orton's intentions are most clearly signalled in his diaries: '26 March 1967. Easter Day. Nothing on television but uplifting programmes. BBC crooning to itself as usual... Kenneth [Halliwell, Orton's lover], who read the Observer, tells me of the latest way out group in America--complete sexual licence. "Its the only way to smash the wretched civilisation," I said, making a mental note to hot up What the Butler Saw. Sex is the only way to infuriate them. Much more fucking and they'll be screaming hysterics.'
Now as a theory of revolution this may, as they say, leave something to be desired. Nevertheless, it produced a marvellously funny and subversive play, even if time and this production have taken out some of its bite.
Plays at the National Theatre, London.
A View From the Bridge
by Arthur Miller
A View From the Bridge is a staggeringly straightforward play. Eddie Carbone is a man who has worked his fingers to the bone on the New York waterfront.
He harbours illegal immigrants from Sicily in his apartment while they find their feet. Eddie is profoundly in love with his niece and doesn't want her to grow up and meet young men. Catherine does indeed fall in love with a handsome and talented young Sicilian immigrant.
The rest of the play deals with Eddie's jealousy and obsession with his niece. He drives himself to commit what is seen as the most terrible of crimes in the self protective Italian community: he blabs to the immigration department in a desperate attempt to rid himself of the young Sicilian.
America had a reputation for welcoming the world's dispossessed migrants with the fine words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, 'Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door'.
The reality behind the golden door was very different. Men left their families in Europe to illegally enter America and work for low wages under terrible conditions. This life was one of inconsistent employment, poverty and alcoholism, being deported by the harsh department of immigration.
Miller evokes the atmosphere of the 1950s McCarthy witch hunts against Communists. He was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to admit Communist sympathies or name names. His refusal to do so led to a fine and suspended sentence.
As a response, Miller wrote The Crucible, a play about the 17th century Salem witch hunts, and the following year A View from the Bridge where Eddie Carbone loses all respect for the betrayal of his friends.
The play is written in the form of a Greek tragedy where a man is set on a course of destruction. This is its greatest weakness as it deems that the characters can have no control or any choice in their lives.
Eddie Carbone's destiny is helped on its way by his inability to express his genuinely deep felt emotions towards his niece, which is cleverly underlined by the dumb gaping windows of the set. Later the empty windows seem to symbolise the open mouths of traitors in the community who speak out from a wall of silence.
Much of the pent up emotion is inarticulate and needs performances from the guts that this production lacks. It could easily have been a play about a working class man who lashes out at a society that has stunted his emotion, but Miller loses his anger by dragging Eddie towards his mortal destiny.
Plays at Birmingham Repertory Theatre then at the Savoy Theatre, Aldwych, London from 5 April.
After Auschwitz, now at London's Royal Festival Hall, is the first exhibition in Britain to focus on contemporary artists' responses to the Holocaust. The title is taken from the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno's claim, in 1949, that 'to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric'. Artist Zoran Music survived the war in Dachau and is a non-Jew who was incarcerated for his resistance activities. His work, We are not the Last is a powerful statement outlining the importance of fighting this barbarity. The most impressive work is that of the American born Shimon Attie who with The Writing on the Wall projects eight black and white photographs of prewar German-Jewish street life (1920-1933) onto the very geographical location where the original photographs were taken. These transparencies, which marry contemporary Berlin with the ghosts of the murdered population, are haunting yet breathtaking and form a lasting impression.
After Auschwitz is an interesting exhibition and although it misses a valuable opportunity to illustrate the heroic resistance to the Holocaust, it is moving in parts and yet remains unsentimental--choosing to avoid many of the widely used visual images of death camps. Most of the work in the exhibition has been produced in the last ten years--proof that in a world still witnessing anti-Semitism and racism, the Holocaust has lost none of its relevance.