What the Butler Saw
New Theatre, 2018


Lisa Thatcher,


October 16, 2018

One of my favourite things about The New Theater in Sydney is its endlessly optimistic belief in their audiences’ intellect. Of all the places to attend theatre, only The New constantly offers an acerbic wit under laced with an idealistic buoyancy that refuses to sink to a cookie-cutter-TV-watching passivity to which almost all theatre has felt compelled (at some time or another) to acquiesce in the name of being ‘entertaining.’ The New Theatre commits that audacious crime of audience expectation; it assumes its audience is going to consist largely of left leaning intellectuals of a variety of orientations, colours and stages of navel gazing. However, The New Theatre loves these folks, of which I am one, and seeks regularly to presume upon our biases and have a dialogue within that context. It is within this ambiance the good people at The New Theatre want to have a chat with us about Joe Orton’s play, What The Butler Saw.


Because of who we all are and where we all are in history, I do feel compelled (before I launch into a full defense of this play) to state that I am a feminist who bristles as much as anyone at a rape joke   – especially one penned by a white man from the 1960’s. However (and surely this is Joe Orton’s point) I regularly sit through theatre that has semi-sublimated aggression toward females that I feel are mean of spirit if not overtly belligerent. There are playwrights (such as Arthur Miller[1]) still being performed in Sydney who, due to sublimation, are able to mask aggressive attacks on women, and who regularly re-write rape scenarios to configure males as victims. Sublimation, the real subject of Orton’s very clever play, is still used in theatre as a propaganda tool to dominate or to promote what we consider to be an antiquated ideal. (Note the way that white women are absent from The Book of Mormon and tell me that a couple of white republican males weren’t making a ‘sublimated’ statement there.) Sublimated, aggressive underpinnings are the tools of cultural aggression and Joe Orton is saying, why can you say it under your breath if you can’t say it out loud? If you think we have come a long way, I am here to tell you being outraged by What the Butler Saw is no indicator. Joe Orton suffered the same cries of offence when the play was first performed in 1969. The point of What the Butler Saw is to shine a light on sublimation and its need for context, and to criticize Freud who felt sublimation was sign of maturity and civilization that allowed people to function normally in culturally appropriate ways.


In this current production of What the Butler Saw director Danielle Maas has included more gender-switching among a remarkably diverse cast. Sublimation is used to gentrify poor behavior, but in classical Freudian fashion, interpretation misses the obvious. Joe Orton’s point is made by brandishing that which ought to be sublimated and misinterpreting the sublimated in that which is seen, but Danielle Maas takes this further with great success to incorporate the beauty of queer culture and to poke a very large and pointed stick at straight white male culture. Ariadne Sgouros puts in a superb performance as the stupefied misogynist Dr Prentice, and easily carries the weight of the play on her capable shoulders. Perfectly partnered by her foil Dr. Rance (a marvelous Amrik Tumber) the pair stumble and trip their way through their various blunders with only the power of their ego to propel them, each portraying “the gifted white man” when very clearly, they are not whom they presume to present.


The cleverness in Danielle Maas directorial concept of further switching roles calls forth the very modern problem (which Joe Orton couldn’t have predicted) of how sublimation works in a politically correct society. Slavoj Žižek has been vocal in his criticism of political correctness primarily due to the problem of sublimation. To force people to control their language does nothing to prevent racism, sexism or homophobia, rather it is more dangerous because it forces sublimation of these traits which in turn become latent hostilities and force a resurgence. While this may be true for some unpleasant folk burdened under the weight and grandeur of their own opinion, there is no doubt that political correctness provides an attempt at a level playing field for those of us who have to live under this hostility. It might force sublimation in the aggressor, but it does give those victimized a chance to get something done without being told they can’t because they are female, black, or gay. Political correctness isn’t for those who feel the need to vilify. It’s for the vilified to cop a break.


Which brings us back to Joe Orton’s point, and Danielle Maas’ excellent homage. Those rape jokes are on the nose, and that’s deliberate. Rape jokes may not be funny, but they are still prevalent. Why do we need these jokes at all is surely the only real question? Politeness, sublimation and political correctness are not the ‘fault’ of those taking offense they are necessary for us to stand each other. If you are pissed off that you can’t insult people via a physical characteristic over which they have no control, then you suffer precisely the same ability to be offended that you decry in the Other.


This production of What the Butler Saw at The New Theatre is the perfect opportunity to have these discussions in the context to which they belong. Danielle Maas has successfully embellished on Joe Orton’s points to bring into being an obvious provocation that is beautifully timed and exquisitely performed by her excellent cast. Joe Orton still has something to say today (how little territory we have gained becomes obvious, and is quite distressing) and Danielle Maas and the production team from The New Theater are well aware of this.


[1] See “How Arthur Miller Created an American Myth of the Male “With Hunt” men still cling to today.”By Teresa Jusino. It is important to note that the relationship between John Proctor and Abigail Williams occurred when Abigail was eleven and her accusations started when she was a twelve year old child. Arthur Miller writes these facts out.