What the Butler Saw (play)

What the Butler Saw is a two-act farce written by the English playwright Joe Orton. He began work on the play in 1966 and completed it in July 1967, one month before his death.[1] It opened at the Queen's Theatre in London on 5 March 1969. Orton's final play, it was the second to be performed after his death, following Funeral Games in 1968.

What the Butler Saw
What the Butler Saw Royal Court 1975.jpg
original window card, Whitehall Theatre, 1975
Written byJoe Orton
Date premiered27 January 1969
Place premieredQueen's Theatre
London, England
Original languageEnglish
Subjecta couple succeed in extracurricular seductions and frantically try to hide their conquests
Settingan examination room in a private clinic

Plot summaryEdit

  • Dr Prentice
  • Geraldine Barclay
  • Mrs Prentice
  • Nicholas Beckett
  • Dr Rance
  • Sergeant Match

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 in a job interview, during which he persuades her to undress. The situation becomes more intense when Mrs Prentice enters, causing the doctor to hide Geraldine behind a curtain.

His wife, however, is also being seduced and blackmailed, by Nicholas Beckett. She therefore promises Nicholas the post as secretary, which adds further confusion, including Nicholas, Geraldine and a police officer dressing as members 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 original production, having toured briefly from January 1969,[2] opened in the West End at the Queen's Theatre on 5 March. Presented by Lewenstein-Delfont Productions Ltd and H. M. Tennent Ltd, it was directed by Robert Chetwyn and designed by Hutchinson Scott.[3]


Stage revivalsEdit

1) A revival at London's Royal Court Theatre, directed by Lindsay Anderson, opened in July 1975 and transferred to the Whitehall Theatre the following month.[4]


2) A revival in April 1977 at Leicester's Phoenix Arts Centre was directed by Antonia Bird. She realised that the last line of the play had been given to the wrong character, and by referring to Orton's handwritten manuscript was able to give it back to the correct character.[5]

3) A revival at London's Hampstead Theatre, directed by John Tillinger, opened in November 1990 and transferred to the Wyndham's Theatre in January 1991.[6]


4) The play was revived in 1994 at The Royal Exchange Theatre, directed by Robert Delamere, and ran from 7 April to 7 May.[7][8]


5) In 1995, a Royal National Theatre production of the play premiered in February at the RNT's Lyttelton Theatre and then went on tour prior to returning to the RNT repertoire. Phyllida Lloyd directed the play.[9]


6) There was a further revival in 2012 at the Vaudeville Theatre, directed by Sean Foley, which ran from 16 May to 25 August.[10]


7) A 2017 production directed by Nikolai Foster was a co-production between the Curve Theatre, Leicester and the Theatre Royal, Bath.[11]



In 1987 the play was adapted for BBC2's Theatre Night series. First transmitted on 24 May, it was 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 Dr Prentice, Frances Barber as Mrs Prentice and Clive Owen as Nicholas Beckett, it was transmitted on 18 September 1995.


  • Paul Taylor (26 July 2005). "Reviews: Theatre – What the Butler Saw Hampstead Theatre London HHH". The Independent. Archived from the original on 14 June 2008. Retrieved 4 November 2008.

External linksEdit