What the Butler Saw (play)

What the Butler Saw

original window card, Royal Court Theatre, 1975
Written by Joe Orton
Date premiered 5 March 1969
Place premiered Queen's Theatre
London, England
Original language English
Subject a couple succeed in extracurricular seductions and frantically try to hide their conquests
Genre Farce
Setting an examination room in a private clinic

What the Butler Saw is a farce written by the English playwright Joe Orton. It was premièred at the Queen's Theatre in London on 5 March 1969. It was Orton's final play and the second to be performed after his death, following Funeral Games the year after.

Plot summary


The play consists of two acts—though the action is continuous—and revolves around a Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist attempting to seduce his attractive prospective secretary, Geraldine Barclay. The play opens with the doctor examining Geraldine Barclay in a job interview. As part of the interview, he persuades her to undress. The situation becomes more intense during Dr. Prentice's supposed "interview" with Geraldine Barclay when Mrs Prentice enters. When his wife enters, he attempts to cover up his activity by hiding the girl behind a curtain. His wife, however, is also being seduced and blackmailed by a Nicholas Beckett. She therefore promises Nicholas the post as secretary, which adds further confusion, including Nicholas, Geraldine and a police officer dressing as a member of the opposite sex.

Dr. Prentice's clinic is also faced with a government inspection, led by Dr. Rance, which reveals the chaos in the clinic. Dr. Rance talks about how he will use the situation to develop a new book: "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 penis ("the missing parts of Sir Winston Churchill") is held aloft in the climactic scene.


The play incorporates a combination of British dry humour and seamier content. For example, at one point, the police sergeant (a staple of this genre) says, "During that period he is alleged to have misconducted himself with a party of school children." Later, the sergeant accuses "Marriage excuses no one from the freaks' roll-call." At the same time, it is typical of the style:

Mrs. Prentice: "You told Dr. Rance that she was burning the golliwogs. Was that a lie?"
Prentice: "It may have been. I can’t remember."

It could be argued that the social change that Dr. Prentice's psychology is drawn against manifests itself throughout the play, in particular social attitudes towards sexuality. Furthermore, it could be argued that the play is a story about the way men and women feel and communicate, and their desire for power. For example, one of Orton's characters calls it a "Graeco-Roman hallucination". The on-stage visions take their themes from the old tragedies. Caligula and Jocasta rest comfortably together in the genealogy of the farce. Cinema-goers will recognise situations used by Orton's contemporaries, the Carry On comedians of the late 1960s. For example, Carry On Doctor was showing while the play was being written in 1967.



The original production was staged at the Queen's Theatre by Lewenstein-Delfont Productions Ltd and H. M. Tennent Ltd and opened on 5 March 1969. The production was directed by Robert Chetwyn and designed by Hutchinson Scott.



The play was adapted for BBC2's Theatre Night series, first transmitted on 24 May 1987, produced by Shaun Sutton, and directed by Barry Davis.


Channel 4's Blow Your Mind – See a Show series included a short extract from the play. Featuring Brian Cox as Doctor Prentice, Frances Barber as Mrs Prentice, and Clive Owen as Nicholas Beckett, it was transmitted on 18 September 1995.


The play was revived in 1994 at The Royal Exchange Theatre, directed by Robert Delamere and run from 7 April to 7 May.[1][2]



  1. "What the Butler Saw". Theatricalia. Retrieved 18 March 2015.
  2. "PROJECTS". Retrieved 18 March 2015.
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