Jan 2, 2016

What the Butler Saw: Crossdressing, Nudity, and Churchill's Penis

Your high school drama club won't be performing What the Butler Saw (1969) anytime soon.  45 years after it opened, the play by gay playwright Joe Orton is still scandalous, homoerotic, and very funny.

There's no butler in What the Butler Saw.  The phrase comes from a British divorce case in 1886, in which a butler peered through a keyhole to see his employer having an adulterous affair in the dining room.  It became a catchphrase for risque sex.

There's no sex in What the Butler Saw, either.  But there's a lot of discussion of sex.  It's a spoof of the 1960s medicalization of sexuality, "normal" heterosexual monogamy against "sick" perversions.  Lots of them.

A psychiatrist, Dr. Prentice, tries to seduce Geraldine, who is interviewing for a job as a secretary.  His wife, Mrs. Prentice, has promised the job to her lover (and blackmailer), the bellhop Nicholas.

Nicholas and Geraldine end up switching clothes.

A government inspector and a police officer arrive.

There's crossdressing, incest, mistaken identities, homoeroticism, nudity (if the production is particularly daring, full frontal nudity), and Winston Churchill's penis.  What more could you want in an evening at the theater?

Since Nicholas Beckett spends most of the play in his underwear, he must be played by an actor of substantial hotness: Hayward Morse in the original production, David Tennent (the star of Blackpool), Nick Hendrix (top photo), Parry Glasspool, and Ewan McGregor (left).

It's been filmed once, a 1987 BBC adaption starring Tyler Butterworth as Nicholas.

If you can't find a stage performance, there's always a print version.

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