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Theatre of the Absurd: Joe Orton

Figure 1

Orton, Razor Wit, and Poetic Eloquence

Orton lounging, (Richards, 2017).

After Joe Orton began his career when his radio play The Boy Hairdresser was accepted by the BBC, he wrote three other short plays, three full-length plays and a film script. He gained his popularity with particularly three plays: Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964), Loot (1965) and What the Butler Saw (1969). While his success was rooted in absurdity, sexuality and satire by using mockery of bourgeois mores, he was also getting outrageous expressions from the audience and some reviewers. However, absurdist and materialist assumptions about humanity were the primary characteristics that formed the pillars of his plays. Being outside of society, Orton managed to write unique plays contributing to the history of English drama by uniting the elements of Farce and his criticism of society, institutions, and politics.

It is known that Joe Orton’s homosexuality had a great impact on his plays. Yet, not only was homosexuality illegal until his death in 1967, but being homosexual also meant being subject to a great deal of social prejudice during his time period. Homosexuality was "constituted as a problem about which something should be done" (Waters, 2012). This caused gay men to be put under significant pressure to behave ‘manly’. In that sense, Orton’s plays were a rebellion, a refusal to control himself, against all social norms. For example, In What the Butler Saw, Orton criticizes how gender is structured within society:

RANGE: Do you think of yourself as a girl?


RANGE: Why not?

GERALDINE: I’m a boy.

RANGE: (Kindly.) Do you have the evidence about you?

GERALDINE: (Her eyes flashing an appeal to Dr Prentice.) I must be a boy. I like girls.

RANGE: (Stops and wrinkles his brow, puzzled. Aside, to Dr Prentice.) I can’t quite follow the reasoning there.

PRENTICE: Many men imagine that a preference for women is, ipso facto, proof of virility.

RANGE: (Nodding, sagely.) Someone should really write a book on these folk myths (Orton, 1990, p.39).

How Orton transforms "Farce"

Figure 2

Actor's style, costume, and movements in Farce

([Actors demonstrating Farce], n.d)

As a type of comedy, the plot of Farce is a combination of extreme absurdity, strange situations, drunkenness, miscommunication, improbable and ridiculous events, and exaggerated characters to generate a comedic effect. Its origin is rooted back in ancient Greek and Roman theatre with comedy writers such as Aristophanes and Plautus. Joe Orton, though, was using the comedic effects of Farce for a different purpose other than getting laughter from the audience. Orton presented life as a machine that attempts to control human desires through social norms and structures in his plays. Hence, neither characters nor speeches were the interests of Orton; instead, he was getting humour from the contrasting moralistic platitudes of the characters. He inherently transformed Farce into a tool for social criticism.

In the second half of the twentieth century, cultural and political issues, such as black, feminist, hippie, and gay movements, highly impacted and shifted the direction of art and society in the British context. Orton, as a genius playwright, was aware of his purpose to reflect social and political problems in his plays. In Loot, he made criticisms regarding the disposition of people and abuse of institutions such as the police.

LORD SUMMERHAY: Anarchism is a game at which the police can beat you. What have you to say to that?

GUNNER: What have I to say to it! Well, I call it scandalous: that’s what I have to say to it.

LORD SUMMERHAYS: Precisely: that’s all anybody has to say to it, except the British Public, which pretends not to believe it. (Orton, 1990, p. 193)

Orton's method of masking social criticisms in terms of religion, law, marriage, values, respect etc. by using comedic elements of Farce was quite successful. Also, he was ironizing the 'returning to normality’ characteristic of traditional Farce by avoiding moral outcomes.

Figure 3

The ending of What the Butler Saw

Note: The ending of the play, 'What The Butler Saw'. Actors in shot are: Alvin Epstein, Margaret Gibson, Benjamin Evett, William Young, Thomas Derrah, Elizabeth Marvel. ([Ending of 'What The Butler Saw', 1994).

In the ending of What the Butler Saw, structured with exaggerated physical actions and behaviours, as well as nonsensical language, there are several misunderstandings and complexities resolved: Prentice and his wife reunite and find their children, Nick and Geraldine find out that they are siblings, Rance has an obscene plot for his book “Double incest is even more likely to produce a best-seller than murder” (Orton, 1990, p. 446), and Match takes back the missing penis from Churchill’s statue. The humorously toned end of the Butler aims to parodize the restoration of the normality of Farce.

Joe Orton was one of the great playwrights of the English theatre of the post-World War II period. He was not only controversial in his personal life but also in his works. His plays were full of the comedic elements of Farce: absurdity, exaggeration, mockery, and satire. He was using these elements as a tool to criticize bourgeois mores, religion, law, politics, social norms forming gender roles, marriage, sexuality, and values. Through his plays, Orton was declaring his own perception of life: "Civilizations have been founded and maintained on theories which refused to obey facts" (Orton, 1990). In that sense, he formed a Godless universe where there are no transcendent values or social norms to live with by uniting Farce and criticism in his plays.


Bermel, A. (1982). History of Farce from Aristophanes to Woody Allen. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Bigsby, C. W. E. (1982). Joe Orton (Contemporary Writers). London and New York: Methuen.

Dean, J. F. (1982). Joe Orton and the Redefinition of Farce. Theatre Journal, 34 (4), 481–492. Retrieved from

Innes, C. (1992). Farce as confrontation. In: Modern British Drama 1890-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lahr, J. (1978). Prick Up Your Ears The Biography of Joe Orton. New York, NY: Avon Books.

Orton, J. (1990). The Complete Plays – Introduced by John Lahr. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Waters, C. (2012). The Homosexual as a Social Being in Britain, 1945—1968. Journal of British Studies, 51(3), 685–710.

Image Resources

Actor's style, costume and movements in Farce. (n.d). [Photograph]. The Rude Mechanical Theatre Company. Retrieved from

Richards, O. (2017). Orton, Razor Wit and Poetic Eloquence. [Photograph]. The Arts Desk. Retrieved from

The Ending of What the Butler Saw. (1994). [Photograph]. American Repertory Theater. Retrieved from

1 Comment

Tehreem Sajjad
Tehreem Sajjad
Jul 04, 2022

Excellent 👍

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Melis Güven

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