November 21, 2018

Director relishes the humor in ‘What the Butler Saw’ at Taper

When asked how playwright Joe Orton’s absurdist humor parallels his own, John Tillinger — who is directing Orton’s jet-black farce “What the Butler Saw,” opening Nov. 23  at the Mark Taper Forum — recalled his mother’s funeral in the mid-1980s.  

Tillinger had just directed a successful revival of Orton’s “Loot,” a mordant riff on death and money in which a corpse is stashed in a closet and flung across the stage, when he had to arrange for the transport of his own mother’s body from Connecticut to her burial plot in New Jersey. Concerned that the body might be damaged during the drive, he requested that the funeral home arrange for a closed casket at the memorial service but was appalled to discover that the coffin was,  in fact,  wide open when he arrived. 

“The journey down had made her face just skew-iffy,” Tillinger said, contorting his own face into a twisted grimace to demonstrate, during an interview in his spare dressing room at the Taper. “It looked awful, but it was also hysterical, and I burst into laughter even as the tears were streaming down my face. It was a rather harsh vision, but the absurdity of it all undercut somehow the tragedy.”

Absurdity looms large, as well, in “What the Butler Saw,” which Orton completed just two weeks before he was bludgeoned to death by his gay lover in 1967, at age 34. The play opens as a seemingly proper psychiatrist, Dr. Prentice, attempts to seduce a nubile young secretary who arrives for a job interview, only to be interrupted by his own lecherous wife. Other characters unexpectedly turn up to enhance the chaos, including a loony government psychiatric official and a lascivious bellhop, who tries to sell pornographic photographs of Mrs. Prentice. A scathing farce ensues in which protagonists dash through swinging doors in all states of cross-dressing and undress, and as mistaken identities abound, Dr. Prentice is declared “a transvestite, fetishist, bisexual murderer,” and the government psychiatrist ultimately declares every character insane. 

The play, according to Tillinger, is the blistering treatise of a playwright raging against the culture that had marginalized him — not only for his homosexuality, but also for his impoverished roots in a working-class neighborhood of Leicester, England. The farce skewers the societal pillars of marriage, sexuality, politics and medicine as its bourgeois characters indulge in bribery, blackmail, adultery, incest and rape.

When “What the Butler Saw” was first performed in London in the late 1960s, an outraged crowd disrupted the play even after scenes deemed too pornographic had been cut from the production, according to The New York Times.

Tillinger’s version at the Taper will present the play in its entirety, even though, the director said, he was “terrified” about how the still-scandalous show might be perceived by contemporary theatergoers. He need not have worried — the show seemed to be well received by the audience at its first preview, “which was a relief,” Tillinger said.  

“People have said, ‘How dare you put on this play?’ But I believe it’s about addressing huge taboos that are still relevant: rape, child molestation, incest. Orton was attacking the kind of violent hypocrisy of all those people who pretend these things don’t exist. And my contention is that if you can put these things [onstage], you have a chance to address these terrible ills.”

In an interview, Tillinger, now 76, was alternately arch and serious, looking professorial in a sweater and button-down shirt, a white beard and tousled white hair. He said he first honed his sense of the absurd — at least indirectly — upon hearing the harrowing stories of his relatives, concentration-camp survivors, who told him, “If you kept laughing, you could survive.”

“The world can be horrific and absurd, but humor is our saving grace,” Tillinger said.

His father, a Jew from Berlin, and his mother, a Protestant, escaped the Holocaust because the elder Tillinger’s business had taken the family to live in Tabriz, Iran, where the director was born in 1938.

Soon after the war, Tillinger, then 7, was sent off to boarding school in England, where he eventually studied theater at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol and was captivated by the then-emerging playwright Orton. “Everyone was talking about this new person,” he, said. “When Tillinger read Orton’s play “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” in which a character is blackmailed into sex, “I fell out of bed laughing,” he recalled.

Tillinger went on to act in Orton’s play “The Erpingham Camp,” and, in 1981, he teamed up with actor Joseph Maher, a seasoned veteran of several Orton plays, to bring a production of “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” to New York.  The going wasn’t easy: All the previous stagings of Orton’s work in the United States had been flops, and producers told Tillinger, “Oh, no, we can’t possibly do this play; it’s disgusting.” 

“So Joe and I raised our own money to do ‘Sloane’ because nobody else would touch it. And it ended up being a big success in the sense that it ran for nine months [off-Broadway],” he said.

Tillinger is now credited for helping to introduce American audiences to Orton’s work; following his critically acclaimed production of “Sloane,” his revival of “Loot” proved a hit at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1986, when The New York Times lauded him as “one of our sharpest directors of comedy, especially of the kind of black comedy honed by Joe Orton.” Three years later, the Times applauded Tillinger’s “riotous production” of “What the Butler Saw,” also at the Manhattan Theater Club.

Thus the director brings considerable expertise to the upcoming production of “Butler” at the Taper; despite all the madcap action (“The world is filled with naked men running in all directions,” a bewildered Mrs. Prentice exclaims at one point), Tillinger explained that the key to directing Orton’s work is not to force the jokes, but to urge the actors to understand their character’s motivation for even the most bizarre acts.

“In farce, there must be real people who happen to be in funny situations, otherwise the audience won’t buy it,” he said. 

“The tragedy of this play is that Orton never saw it produced; he was murdered just two weeks before he handed it in,” Tillinger added.

Orton’s longtime lover, Kenneth Halliwell, had helped to mold his partner’s work, but eventually became homicidally enraged by Orton’s success.  In August 1967, Halliwell beat Orton to death with a hammer and then committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates. “I was horrified, horrified,” Tillinger recalled of reading about the murder-suicide in the newspapers.

There was absurdity even in Orton’s death, Tillinger said. For some reason, Orton’s agent, Margaret Ramsay, arranged to mingle some of Orton’s and Halliwell’s ashes after the funerals. But as Orton’s sister mixed the remains, she worried, “I’m putting in more of Joe than I am of Kenneth.”

“It’s a gesture, dear, not a recipe,” Ramsay replied.

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