Entertaining Mr. Sloane

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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 1998
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 3. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 20
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Entertaining Mr. Sloane


Entertaining Mr. Sloane was Joe Orton’s first full-length play and it initiated a meteoric, three-year career that established him as one of the most significant writers of stage farce in the twentieth century. This exalted stature is now supported largely by two additional full-length plays—Loot (1965), and What the Butler Saw (produced posthumously in 1969)—and to a lesser extent by four one-act plays originally written for radio and television.

Entertaining Mr. Sloane opened in London in May of 1964 in a small “fringe” or off-Broadwaylike theatre. Its unconventional subject matter, explicit sexual themes, and coarse humor drew contradictory reviews, as did Orton’s plays throughout his career. However, by the end of June, 1964, the controversial nature of the play helped catapult it into a major London theatre and Orton’s short but brilliant career was launched. The most persuasive early praise came from the extremely popular but very conventional playwright, Sir Terence Rattigan, whose craftsman-like and conventional “well-made” plays (dramatic works that have a distinct five act structure over which the plot logically unfolds) had dominated British commercial theatre from the 1930s until the late 1950s. Rattigan visited the production in its first week and ensured its transfer to a “West End” or Broadway-like theatre by investing a considerable amount of money in it himself. Controversial as the play was in both London and New York, Entertaining Mr. Sloane Page 161  |  Top of Articlealso enjoyed a German production and was soon slated for a film adaptation.

Joe Orton Joe Orton Getty Images

Clearly influenced in his earliest work by fellow British dramatist, Harold Pinter (The Homecoming), Orton gradually forged a distinct comic style that distanced his work from Pinter. As critics still speak of certain plays as Pinteresque, they now also refer to a farce that turns grotesque, explicitly sexual, and purposefully shocking as Ortonesque.


Joe Orton was born John Orton in Leicester (pronounced “Les-tur”), England, an industrial city eighty miles northwest of London, on New Year’s Day, 1933. The son of working-class parents—his father a gardener and his mother a factory worker—Orton was raised in a stable but emotionally barren and conventional middle-class suburban environment. His defiant homosexuality, unhappy home life, and emotionally distant relationship with his parents finally came together in the mid-1960s to produce an iconoclastic comic style that emerged in his first produced comedy-farce, Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Intent in this and all subsequent plays on questioning middle-class values, Orton specialized in suggesting that unconventional passions existed beneath conventional middle-class behavior and language.

As a teenager, Orton became devoted to amateur theatre, and after leaving school and losing a number of mundane office jobs, he quite surprisingly won a scholarship in 1951 to London’s very prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). There Orton met Kenneth Halliwell, his long-time lover and sometime collaborator. After Orton graduated from RADA in 1953, he worked briefly as an actor in repertory theatre and then joined Halliwell in virtual poverty as the two lived together and worked jointly on a number of bizarre, unpublished novels. It was under the guidance of the older and more sophisticated Halliwell that Orton discovered his interest in writing.

In 1962, however, Halliwell and Orton were imprisoned for six months for stealing and defacing dozens of books from a suburban London library. The two pranksters would alter the books, often with comically obscene illustrations, and then haunt the library to observe the reactions of browsing patrons. Prison was a turning point in Orton’s life.

As his biographer John Lahr put it in Prick up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, “Orton found [in prison] a focus for his anger and a new detachment in his writing.”

As he refined his satiric attitude toward middle-class culture and discovered his flair for unconventional comedy, Orton became more confident as an independent writer and less tolerant of Halliwell’s insecurity. His personal relationship with Halliwell deteriorated steadily as Entertaining Mr. Sloane initiated Orton’s meteoric rise to artistic prominence and celebrity status. Within three years his play Loot (1965) became an enormous success, Page 162  |  Top of Articleseveral one-act plays written for television bolstered and widened his reputation, and What the Butler Saw (produced in 1969) was completed in manuscript. Orton had even been commissioned to write a screenplay—Up against It (produced as a play in 1979 and later re-adapted as a stage musical by musician Todd Rundgren)—which was to be the follow-up to the Beatles’s film A Hard Day’s Night. Halliwell responded to Orton’s sudden fame and increasing sexual infidelity with extreme jealousy, envy, and depression. On the night of August 9, 1967, as Orton slept, Halliwell bludgeoned him to death with nine blows from a hammer. Halliwell then took his own life with an overdose of sleeping pills. Despite a relatively small body of work produced during what would have been the early stage of his career, Orton’s dramas have endured, finding new audiences with each subsequent decade since their creation.


Act I

Entertaining Mr. Sloane begins with a dowdy, forty-ish woman named Kath showing her middle-class home to a prospective lodger, a street-wise and coarse twenty-year-old boy named Sloane whom she had met that afternoon in the public library. Kath almost immediately hints to Sloane that she is willing to have sex with him and reveals that she once had a young son out of wedlock whom she gave up for adoption. Sloane agrees to take a room in the house, revealing that he was himself brought up in an orphanage.

Kath’s elderly father, Kemp, enters, and initially mistakes Sloane for his son, Ed. While Kath is in the kitchen, Kemp talks with Sloane and toasts crumpets (small cakes) over the electric logs in the fireplace. Eventually Kemp decides that he recognizes Sloane as the young hitchhiker who two years ago murdered Kemp’s former boss. Kemp then stabs Sloane in the leg with the toasting fork. Kath returns from the kitchen, scolds her father for his uncivilized behavior and then ministers to Sloane’s wound, insisting that Sloane remove his trousers so she can apply antiseptic and a bandage. While dressing Sloane’s wound, Kath ignores the doorbell, expecting a nosy lady acquaintance who might spread rumors. She somewhat coyly attempts to seduce Sloane. Sending Sloane upstairs for a bath, Kath demands an explanation from her father, eventually sending him to Sloane’s former lodging to collect the young man’s belongings.

Kath’s brother, Ed, then enters. A participant in some kind of vague “business” that sounds like it has underworld connections, Ed has come to get Kemp to sign papers that will commit him to an old folks home. Ed does not live in the same house with Kath and their father, but before his entrance he overheard the talk of the new tenant and now forbids Kath to take in Sloane. Ed already suspects the possibility of sexual relations between Kath and the new lodger and asserts that rumors of such behavior would hurt his reputation and livelihood.

Ed insists on meeting Sloane. When he does, Ed is immediately attracted to Sloane himself. The homosexual Ed dismisses Kath, interviews Sloane, and offers him a job as his personal chauffeur. As Sloane goes to eat, Ed tells Kath he will pay Sloane’s rent. Ed leaves, and Kath is finally alone with Sloane, who has re-entered from the kitchen. Kath quickly seduces the willing Sloane on the living room sofa as the first act ends.

Act II

One morning, six months later, Kath enters from a shopping trip to find Sloane lying on the sofa wearing boots, leather trousers, and a white T-shirt. Sloane explains that he is resting while Eddie works on the car because Sloane has a hangover from a late night out with three of his male friends. As he fields Kath’s probing questions about women, Sloane accuses her of jealousy and attempting to run his life, threatening to leave if she persists. Kemp enters looking for his pills but refuses Sloane’s help in finding them. While Kemp babbles, Kath whispers to Sloane that she is pregnant. After Kemp leaves Sloane refuses to marry her. But to mollify Kath, Sloane turns over to her, as a token of his respect, a locket his mother had given him.

Ed enters and joins Kath in vying for Sloane’s attentions. After Sloane exits to the kitchen, Ed intimates that he might fire Sloane from his chauffeur’s job for joy-riding the previous night, but Kath says she needs her “baby” because Ed took away her other baby, the child she bore out of wedlock to Tommy, one of Ed’s former friends. When Sloane re-enters, Ed traps him into admitting he was with a woman the night before. He counsels Sloane on the untrustworthiness of females. Sloane Page 163  |  Top of Articleagrees to move out of the house and go with Ed once Sloane receives sufficient financial incentives.

Kemp enters and breaks his usual silence with his son because he wants to tell Ed about Kath’s pregnancy, Sloane’s crime, and about Sloane threatening and beating him. When Sloane returns and Kemp leaves the room, Ed confronts Sloane with Kemp’s accusations concerning the pregnancy. Sloane claims that Kath threw herself at him. Sloane seems penitent, and Ed decides to forgive him if Sloane will promise to avoid women in the future. Before he leaves, Ed sides with Sloane against Kemp. Once alone with Kemp, Sloane menaces the old man before learning that the police have Sloane’s fingerprints. Sloane then confesses the “accidental” killing of Kemp’s former boss, attempting to win Kemp’s silence. When Kemp threatens to go to the police, Sloane knocks the old man down behind the sofa and kicks him. When Kemp doesn’t respond to Sloane’s invitation to rise, Act II ends with the surprised Sloane calling for Ed rather than for Kath.


Ed enters, finds his father behind the sofa, and carries him upstairs to the old man’s bedroom. When Ed returns, he reports that Kemp is dead. While Sloane is shocked and frightened, Kath seems oblivious to the seriousness of her father’s condition. Ed revels in his new position of power. Sloane begins to pack to leave with Ed, but Ed pretends to be intent on forcing Sloane to face the authorities until Sloane lays his hand on Ed’s knee, accepts responsibility for the killing, asks for forgiveness, and promises eternal devotion.

Kath returns screaming, having discovered Kemp’s body and finally realizing that her father is dead. Ed convinces Kath that Kemp had been ill and coaches her about what she should say when the doctor arrives. Ed reminds her that if Sloane is tried for murder Kath will lose him, so Kath begins to see Kemp’s death in a different light. Kath agrees to polish the stairs and put Kemp’s new shoes on him, making it look like he slipped down the stairs. But when Sloane enters with his suitcase, Ed explains that Sloane is coming to live with him. Kath reveals her pregnancy and is shocked when she hears that Sloane has accused her of seducing him. She and Ed argue over Sloane’s affections and which one of them is best for him. When Sloane is asked to choose between the two, he chooses to leave with Ed, claiming never to have cared for Kath. Ed cruelly forces Kath to look at herself in the mirror. She sees herself as attractive until Sloane corroborates Ed’s assessment of her appearance and the situation in which she now finds herself.

Under these new circumstances, Kath announces that she will describe their father’s death as murder and reveal what Kemp reported about the murder of his former boss. Faced with blackmail on both sides, Sloane slaps Kath and threatens her physically. In the struggle, Kath’s false teeth fall out and roll under the sofa. Then Ed comes up with the idea of sharing Sloane, living with Sloane by himself six months of the year and then permitting Sloane to live six months with Kath. Kath will say that Kemp fell downstairs and Kath and Ed will exchange the locket that Sloane gave her whenever they trade Sloane. The play ends with Ed announcing that it has been a pleasant morning and with Kath sitting on the sofa eating a piece of candy.



See Kemp


Ed vies with his sister Kath to be Sloane’s sexual partner and ends up sharing him with her. Mean-spirited, self-centered, pompous, and domineering, Ed is the son of the aging Kemp and part of the mysterious “business” that employs Sloane as a chauffeur after Ed becomes sexually attracted to him. As a young man Ed was very active in sports, which his father admired, but a rift occurred one day between Ed and his father shortly after Ed’s seventeenth birthday, when Kemp discovered Ed doing something unmentionable in his bedroom.

Now barely on speaking terms with his father, Ed arrives in the first act to procure Kemp’s signature, presumably on papers that would commit his father to the kind of old-age home in which Orton’s own father, William Orton, was eventually placed. When Kemp is accidentally killed by Sloane at the

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • Entertaining Mr. Sloane was adapted as a feature film by Canterbury Film in 1970. The screenplay was written by Clive Exton, produced by Douglas Kentish, directed by Douglas Hickox. Beryl Reid stars as Kath, Peter McEnery as Sloane, Harry Andrews as Ed, and Alan Webb as Kemp. This ninety minute film was made more widely available on VHS in 1980 by Thorn EMI Video, in 1989 by Warner Home Video, and in 1990 by HBO Video.
  • Prick up Your Ears (1987), is a feature film based on John Lahr’s biography of Orton. Produced by Andrew Brown and directed by Stephen Frears, the screenplay was written by Alan Bennett and stars Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Kenneth Halliwell, Vanessa Redgrave as Orton’s agent, Peggy Ramsey, Julie Walters as Elsie Orton, the playwright’s mother, and Wallace Shawn as the biographer John Lahr. The film was distributed in VHS format by Virgin Vision, and Samuel Goldwyn Home Entertainment.

end of Act II, Ed shows no remorse for the death of his father and throughout Act III seems only interested in preserving his sexual partnership with Sloane. Of all the characters, Ed asserts the most hypocritical concern for high moral values.


See Ed


Kath competes with her brother Ed for Sloane’s sexual favors. A frumpy, middle-aged woman with a raging sexual appetite, she lures Sloane into her home as a prospective lodger and then seduces him, as she apparently had seduced at least one man (Ed’s “mate” Tommy) before. Kath then becomes pregnant by Sloane, just as she did by Tommy. Starved for affection, randy but determined to put on a coy demeanor, Kath refuses to see herself as she really is, pretending to be young, innocent, and respectable. In the case of Kemp’s death, she comically and pathetically denies the reality of her father’s condition as long as she possibly can. Superficially comical, Kath is perhaps, deep down, quite as cruel, vicious, and heartless as her brother. Orton’s biographer, John Lahr, explained that Kath is ironically modeled on Orton’s mother, Elsie, who professed an abhorrence of human sexuality and was herself, like Kath, the possessor of a complete set of false teeth.


Kemp is the elderly father of Kath and Ed, the pathetic occupant, with Kath, of the household that Sloane joins. Hard of hearing and weak of eyesight, Kemp recognizes Sloane as the murderer of his former boss—a photographer who picked up the hitchhiking Sloane, photographed him, and then took Sloane for a burglar as Sloane got up in the night to destroy the incriminating photos. For the last twenty years Kemp has not been on consistent speaking terms with his son, Ed, but he breaks his silence in an attempt to accuse Sloane as a murderer and the culprit in Kath’s pregnancy.

Stubborn and ignorant of his own vulnerability, Kemp challenges Sloane at the end of Act II, refuses to accept Sloane’s appeal for silence, and dies after Sloane beats him. Kemp is probably the most “decent” character in the play and its only genuine victim. He is modeled after Orton’s own father, who also was almost blind and referred to as “Dadda.”


Sloane is the sexually opportunistic, lower-middle-class young man who comes to the home of Kath and her father as a lodger, accidentally kills Kemp at the end of Act II, and ends up as an alternating sexual partner to the blackmailing brother and sister duo of Ed and Kath, living with one for six months and then the other for the next six months. A handsome, amoral, self-serving, aggressive, and potentially violent young man without much education but with considerable street smarts, Sloane is capable of turning nearly any situation to his own advantage. He either achieves his greatest Page 165  |  Top of Articlevictory at the end of the play or suffers his ultimate defeat, depending on how one interprets the play’s last scene. As Lahr reported in Prick up Your Ears, Orton “saw himself as the physical prototype for Sloane,” the most notable clue being the careful attribution to Sloane of the “delicate skin” that Orton was so vainly proud of in himself.



Orton’s most obvious subject in Entertaining Mr. Sloane is sexual appetite. With the exception of the aged Kemp, the characters are so preoccupied with their sexual needs that by the end of the play they appear completely self-centered, frighteningly insensitive, and almost subhuman.

Kath is the one most openly hunting for sexual satisfaction. Having met Sloane that afternoon in the library, she invites him to consider her home as an alternative to his present lodgings. When Sloane says in his fourth speech of the play, “I can’t give you a decision right away,” Kath says “I’d be happy to have you.” The sexual pun on “have” is obvious, and Sloane gets the message. After a brief silence he says “are you married?” and the question is equivalent to “are you sexually available?” This is the fictional counterpart of the real-life “pickups” that Orton describes so explicitly in his writings in The Orton Diaries. In the pre-AIDS homosexual world, Orton was outrageously promiscuous to the point of obsession, and in the characters of Entertaining Mr. Sloane he portrayed a similar kind of sexual obsession.

Ed is the most circumspect in his expression of sexual needs, but the onset of his sexual interest in Sloane is as rapid as Kath’s. When he first meets Sloane, Ed is intending to dismiss the prospective lodger from his sister and father’s house, but Ed only gets the word “I” out of his mouth before he begins to assess Sloane as a potential sexual partner. Sloane reads the signals immediately and is “smiling” as Ed’s conversation probes for information about Sloane’s availability as a sexual partner.

Sloane, of course, is initially the sexual predator, par excellence, as he is willing to serve either

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Read John Lahr’s biography of Orton, Prick up Your Ears (1978) or view the 1987 film version of the biography to gather more specific information on Orton’s upbringing and relationship with his parents, family, and friends. Discuss how these relationships are reflected in the characters, plot, humor, and tone of Entertaining Mr. Sloane.
  • View the film version of Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Compare it to your reading of the stage version and discuss the ways in which the film version either succeeds or fails to represent your experience of the play. Decide to what extent the differences between the two versions are related to the differences between the stage and film.
  • Research the history of homosexuality on stage in twentieth century theatre to see how Orton’s portrayal of homosexual behavior relates to the ground-breaking representations of homosexual characters in the 1960s and succeeding decades.
  • Research the state of sexual permissiveness in the 1960s. You may also want to compare it to the relative openness about sexuality in the 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Find specific examples that illustrate permissiveness (or the lack of it) and research explanations for why this openness should change from decade to decade.

sex and by Act II is out cruising for additional women. But with the death of Kemp, Ed and Kath surpass Sloane in darkly comic obsessiveness, for they show no concern for the passing of their father and immediately use the event to further their sexual claims on Sloane. As the third act unfolds, Ed and Kath have completely forgotten their newly deceased father and are jockeying for sexual supremacy with Sloane. As the play ends, the predatory Sloane becomes a thoroughly “kept” man, and Kath and Ed are comically reduced to a parody of sexual appetite: Ed callously ends the play with the incredibly incongruous line, “Well, it’s been a

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An example of the forthright sexuality in Ortons play: Sloane (Peter McEnery) toys with Kath (Beryl Reid) in a scene from the 1970 film adaptation An example of the forthright sexuality in Orton’s play: Sloane (Peter McEnery) toys with Kath (Beryl Reid) in a scene from the 1970 film adaptation

pleasant morning” and Kath settles on the sofa eating a piece of candy.

Appearance and Reality

If the intensity of these characters’ sex drives makes them funny, what makes them even funnier is their attempt to hide their obsessions. While Kath is seducing Sloane, she generally pretends to be coy or describes her affections as “motherly.” When Sloane responds aggressively to her sexual hints, Kath pretends to be outraged (“Mr. Sloane—don’t betray your trust”) while soon giving him all the “go ahead” signals he might need: “I must be careful of you. Have me naked on the floor if I give you a chance. If my brother was to know. . . . Would you like to go to bed?” Perhaps the most deftly comic treatment of Kath’s hypocrisy occurs at the end of Act I when Kath greets Sloane in a transparent neglige and tells him “I’m just at a quiet bit of knitting before I go to bed.” She then realizes that she has only one knitting needle and must search in the junk of the living room to find its mate.

Ed’s approach to masking his sexual rapacity is more subtle. After he’s decided in his first interview Page 167  |  Top of Articlewith Sloane that he wants the young man as a sexual partner, Ed offers Sloane gifts to appeal to Sloane’s mercenary interests. Whereas Kath tries to entice Sloane with the promise of sexual availability and motherly shelter, Ed is simply willing to buy Sloane’s body, but like Kath, Ed wants to appear shocked when the conversation and action gets too explicit. Near the end of the first interview, Ed fantasizes about Sloane’s undergarments—“do you wear leather . . . next to the skin? Leather jeans, say? Without . . . aah” and when Sloane gets explicit, finishing Ed’s incomplete sentence with the fantasy Ed had in mind—“pants?”—Ed retreats into his pose—“Get away! (pause) The question is are you clean living? You may as well know I set great store by morals. Too much of this casual bunking up nowadays.”

Sloane is more honest in his sexual behavior, but he also pursues his sexual interests with hypocrisy—most clearly when he’s at a disadvantage and must pretend to be repentant in order to maintain his easy life. This happens first in the second act when Ed discovers that Sloane has used Ed’s car to romance the hostess at one of the nighteries he’s visited. Once caught, Sloane says “would you accept an unconditional apology. . . . It won’t happen again. . . . I respect you.” The humor of this comes from the audience’s realization that Sloane respects no one and will always be an inveterate philanderer. Perhaps the only thing funnier is that Ed chooses to believe Sloane, against all evidence, because Ed’s sexual need is so great.

In his initial interrogation of Sloane, Ed apologizes for Kath’s behavior and when Sloane says, “she seems all right,” Ed says, “you can’t always go on appearances.” Ed’s rejoinder could be taken as Orton’s abiding comic concern: what “appears to be” is usually a pose to hide one’s real feelings—feelings which are usually dominated by sexual drives, self-interest, and the desire for power.

Morals and Morality

A more conventional playwright might turn this attempt to hide sexual obsession into a moral stance, permitting or even leading the audience to make judgments about the destructiveness and folly of this behavior. But Orton’s thematic approach seems to be to attack conventionality itself, and while he revels in the comic hypocrisy of his characters he doesn’t mean to suggest that their behavior ought to be “normal.” For Orton, the obsession with normality is far worse than the obsession with sex, which he seems to find fairly innocuous. In fact, the obsession with normality not only causes the hypocrisy but perhaps also adds to the intensity of the rapacious sexual behavior as characters respond to the repression of their instinctive sexual needs.

As a victim in his personal life of conventional moral judgments about homosexuality, Orton seems to suggest that conventional notions of morality ought to be challenged in order to encourage fresh thinking and to break the complacent certainty of the middle class as to what is right and wrong. The most effective way to force this thought process on his audience is to present them with outrageous behavior, entice them to laugh at it, and then refuse to give the audience the satisfaction of a moralistic ending that would reinforce the status quo of conventional morality. At the end of Entertaining Mr. Sloane Kemp’s death will go unexamined by the police, as will Sloane’s earlier killing, and the sexual triangle that has been established might continue to satisfy the sexual needs of these characters indefinitely.



Paradoxical as it might sound, the pivotal point in the comedy of Entertaining Mr. Sloane is the killing of Kemp at the end of Act II. This genuinely violent scene challenges the customary light tone of comedy and initiates the creation of that special “Ortonesque” quality for which Orton’s plays would soon become famous.

As Kemp enters at the end of Act II, Sloane slams the door behind him and stalks the old man, who backs away and pathetically calls for Ed, the son he has barely spoken to for the last twenty years. Sloane wrenches Kemp’s walking stick away from him, ordering Kemp to sit in a chair, and when Kemp attempts to leave, Sloane pushes him back into the chair and shouts “what you been saying about me?” Every time Kemp attempts to rise during the interrogation, Sloane pushes him back down and menaces him until Kemp reveals that the authorities have fingerprints from the crime scene where his former boss was killed. This information puts Sloane at a disadvantage, and he confesses to the killing in an attempt to gain Kemp’s silence. Page 168  |  Top of ArticleWhen it’s clear that Kemp will not cooperate, Sloane turns vicious again, pushing Kemp back into the chair and once again taking his walking stick from him, this time throwing it out of reach. He twists Kemp’s ear, saying “you make me desperate. I’ve nothing to lose, you see.” He knocks Kemp behind the sofa and kicks him repeatedly. This is not the “safe” physical violence where masters and servants from the comedies of Moliere or Shakespeare hand out beatings. This is genuine violence that threatens to replace laughter with serious apprehension and concern. It is only at the end of this violent scene that Orton permits the audience to laugh, coaxing out of them nervous laughter when Sloane finally prods the unconscious Kemp with a gentle kick of his boot and says, “eh, then. Wake up. (Pause.) Wakey, wakey.”

Black Humor

This strange, Ortonesque sense of humor is generally referred to as “black humor,” the kind that attempts to shock the audience into laughing at what is essentially grotesque and horrifying. This dark humor receives its full expression in Act III when Kath, Ed, and Sloane respond to Kemp’s death with varying forms of apathy, self-interest, and uncivilized human behavior.

Act III begins with Kath, Ed, and Sloane huddling over Kemp’s body and Kath saying “somebody fetch his tablets.” However, in response to this request “nobody moves” and the stage picture immediately communicates both laughter and these characters’ self-interest and lack of compassion. Ed soon exits with Kemp, and when Ed returns (fairly quickly) he reports that Kemp is dead (did Ed finish him off?). Ed’s only concern now is how he can use the incident to gain control over Sloane. Though Kath may subconsciously suspect that Kemp is dead, she carries on as if her father is merely ill. She is darkly funny because her activities are so disconnected from her very recent concern for her father: she now does housecleaning, worries about Kemp getting toffee stuck in his teeth, and hums “The Indian Love Call.”

The distressed Sloane is a figure of dark comic fun as the tables are turned on him and he frets about the possibilities of facing the law, but the grim humor really heats up when Sloane figures out how to extricate himself. Sloane tantalizes Ed by playing the role of penitent and subservient sexual slave—sitting beside Ed, Sloane lays a hand on Ed’s knee and simply says “I accept responsibility.” Reassured in his power and control, Ed says, “Good. Remove that hand, will you?,” and the laughter comes from seeing Ed resume his pretense of strict morality while his father lies dead upstairs. The mutual posing—Ed as a wounded man of high moral fiber, Sloane as a genuine penitent—then leads to naughty double entendre that shocks the laughing audience into accepting both the characters’ obsession with sexual pleasure and their indifference to the fresh corpse. “I’d wear my jeans out in your service. Cook for you” says Sloane, and Ed responds “I eat out.” Just before Kath enters screaming, having discovered Kemp’s body, Ed and Sloane are talking in sexual code—“only women drink tea in bed” says Ed and Sloane rejoinders, “you bring me my tea in bed, then. Any arrangement you fancy.”

Kath puts a final touch on this dark laughter when she reveals her insensitivity to the death of her father. Initially, she appears genuinely concerned that her father has died, but the audience is shocked into laughter with lines from her such as, “will I have to send his pension book in?” and “I shall never get in my black [dress]. I’ve put on weight since we buried mamma.” Her self-interest, along with Ed’s and Sloane’s, is summed up perfectly by Ed’s strangely comic line, “I would never suggest deceiving the authorities under normal circumstances. But we have ourselves to think of.” Kath’s specific brand of self-interest is funny because in this final scene she is so changeable. She agrees to make Kemp’s death seem like an accidental fall down newly polished stairs, reneges when she is rejected by Sloane, and then resumes the lie when Ed’s plan for sharing Sloane makes the lie convenient again. It is moral flexibility like this that gives rich humor to lines like Kath’s “respect the truth always. It’s the least you can do under the circumstances.”

Perhaps the most difficult laughter to assimilate in the final scene is Ed and Sloane’s cruelty toward Kath. Ed forces Kath to face the reality of her middle-aged figure, dragging her in front of the mirror. When he says “you’ve nothing to lure any man,” she asks pathetically, “is that the truth, Mr. Sloane?” and Sloane casually answers, “more or less.” The audience is forced to laugh at both Sloane’s unexpected bluntness and Kath’s comeuppance. At the same time the audience feels sympathy for her, and in the background is always the reminder of her insensitivity to her father’s death. It is this kind of multi-layered complexity of humor that gained Orton his stature as a significant figure in twentieth-century drama.

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The Decriminalization of Homosexuality in England

The mid-to late-1960s are often thought of as an era of sexual permissiveness (a concept often labeled “free love”). During this time, many young people questioned what society had labeled sexually taboo. At times they openly flouted sexual convention in an attempt to force society to reevaluate and loosen established mores. Events often called “love-ins” encouraged casual sex with multiple partners. Many others resisted the free love movement and vocally criticized the permissiveness as evidence of a decline in moral standards. In Entertaining Mr. Sloane Orton gleefully challenges the status quo. His three main characters openly pursue heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual satisfaction without being subjected to any moralistic judgment (at least within the fictional realm of the play).

The most inflammatory sexual pursuit of Orton’s characters was the implied homosexual activity between Eddie and Sloane. Homosexuality had a long history of social and legal condemnation in England and the implicit sexual relationship between Sloane and Eddie as well as the real-life relationship between Orton and Kenneth Halliwell were still punishable offenses when Entertaining Mr. Sloane appeared in London in 1964. By Orton’s death in 1967, however, British legislation responded to continued appeals for tolerance by decriminalizing homosexuality in private life, opening the door to even more permissive attitudes in subsequent decades.

The social and legal hostility toward homosexuality goes back at least as far as England’s King Henry VIII, who initiated legislation enacted by Parliament in 1533 that made homosexual acts punishable by death. In 1861 life imprisonment was substituted for the death penalty and in 1885 the Criminal Law Amendment Act reduced the maximum penalty to two years with hard labor for homosexual acts that did not involve anal intercourse. It was under this legislation in 1895 that the famous British playwright Oscar Wilde was convicted and sentenced to prison for his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. It was this same criminal code under which Orton was living and writing in the mid 1960s.

The turning point in the decriminalization of homosexuality began in 1954 when a government-appointed group called the Wolfenden Committee began research that would lead to a report in 1957 recommending in part that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private no longer be considered a criminal offense. Parliament initially rejected the recommendations involving homosexuality, and it took another decade for public sentiment to insist on the legal relief embodied in the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967. And even this law still included significant restrictions and exclusions. As a minor under the age of 21, Mr. Sloane’s sexual activities in the play would still have made him and Eddie liable to prosecution, though in 1967 the sexual practices of Orton and Halliwell, as consenting adults in private, would have finally become safe from prosecution.

This liberalization, of course, was only the beginning of social and legislative reform. As Jeffrey Weeks points out in Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800, by 1965 the percentage of those favoring homosexual law reform in Britain had jumped from a figure of only 25% in 1957 to 63%. Of that number who favored reform, however, 93% remained convinced that homosexuality was “a form of illness requiring medical treatment.” The Gay Rights Movement initiated in the United States in the late 1960s continued to question the old concept of sexual “normalcy,” and even the AIDS crisis (a situation that many conservative and religious leaders proclaimed as a divine judgement that homosexuality was wrong) could not extinguish the increasing momentum for homosexual rights. In part through works such as Orton’s, an openness toward sexuality helped foster growing acceptance of the homosexual orientation. Orton’s success in introducing homosexual themes in his drama paved the way for similar portrayals in subsequent films (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), television shows (Ellen), and nearly all other forms of popular culture.


In early 1963, the Beatles were one of several bands performing in small nightclubs in their hometown of Liverpool, England, but by December of 1963 their first megahit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” turned them into an international phenomenon. In 1964, the year that Entertaining Mr. Sloane debuted, the Beatles began their domination of the world’s pop scene with their first trip to America for a tour and a landmark appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. At these concerts, the predominantly teenage audiences erupted in hysterical screaming that all but drowned out the music. Reminiscent of the

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  • 1964: Last Exit to Brooklyn by American novelist Hubert Selby is published. A London court will convict Selby of obscenity but he will win a reversal on appeal. Entertaining Mr. Sloane, like all of Orton’s unconventional and purposely provocative plays, was often charged with being obscene, and though his plays were never brought to court they were all subject to the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain.

    Today: The Theatres Act of 1968 abolished the Lord Chamberlain’s role as official censor for stageplays and allowed a much more explicit treatment of sexuality on stage. In today’s climate of increased sexual openness, Orton’s plays might still seem shocking to some but would no longer be considered obscene except by a small minority.
  • 1964: Playwright John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence is produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre. In 1956, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had revolutionized British theatre, and though by 1964 Osborne’s influence had begun to wane, he was still important enough to lead John Orton to change his name to Joe Orton to avoid being confused with the celebrated playwright of the 1950s.

    Today: After a long period of inactivity as a playwright in the 1970s and 80s, Osborne’s last play, Dejavu (produced in 1992), attempted to rejuvenate his literary reputation but failed. Billed as a sequel to Look Back in Anger, Dejavu closed after a short run and Osborne died in 1994 without returning to his former glory. In 1971, distinguished British critic John Russell Taylor had written in The Second Wave that in Entertaining Mr. Sloane “Orton managed to write the first solid, well-managed commercial play which belonged, specifically and unmistakably to the post-Osborne era.”
  • 1964: Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night was released in August as a film vehicle for the phenomenally popular Beatles. Orton would himself be commissioned to write a script for the musical group, but his Up against It was rejected as not wholesome enough for the commercially successful lads from Liverpool.

    Today: The Beatles are a legendary part of music history and are influential to millions of listeners and musicians. Unlike many popular groups from the 1960s, the Beatles music sounds as fresh and contemporary today as it was when it was released. The band continues to attract new fans.
  • 1964: The “Profumo Affair” was still powerfully affecting the British psyche. Profumo had admitted to an adulterous affair with Christine Keeler, a 21 year-old model, and the scandal was laced with the suggestion of a possible breach of security since Miss Keeler had been having a simultaneous affair with a Soviet diplomat. The Profumo affair affected Britons for years as it revealed a disparity between surface respectability and the vaunted image of governmental integrity.

    Today: Sexual scandals of British figures in high places continue to occur, most recently among the British royal family itself, but they now seem less shocking as they are calmly assimilated by the tabloid hungry public. As John Lahr put it in Prick up Your Ears, “in retrospect, the Profumo affair [now] seems trivial. The overreaction of the British public was a barometer of the society’s nervousness about the future of its ruling Establishment. Sexuality represented a threat to the old order.”
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adulation showered in earlier generations on figures like actor Rudolph Valentino, singer Frank Sinatra, and performer Elvis Presley, this hysteria was of some concern to those who thought the response indicated a serious breakdown in cultural values. Since the hysteria took its strongest form in women and teenage girls, many commentators saw the adulation as an unusually public expression of sexual longing. Others saw the enthusiasm as a distressing substitute for spiritual values, a concern that was exacerbated some years later when John Lennon casually suggested that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus Christ. Still others interpreted the whole phenomenon as a dismissal of convention, established authority, and the status quo—a charge that was reinforced by the Beatles’ unconventional clothes and androgynously long hair.

As the Beatles’ popularity grew, they became known not only for their own music, which had become ambitious and adventurous in ways never imagined on the pop landscape, but as lightning rods for other areas of pop culture. With their considerable stature, the group made millions of people aware of obscure artists such as Peter Max, musicians like Ravi Shankar, and independent filmmakers such as Richard Lester (who directed the group’s film debut, A Hard Day’s Night and its follow-up Help!). More than any band before them, the Beatles became a pop culture entity whose compliments and endorsements could bring fame and fortune to the artist upon whom they were bestowed.

Orton’s role as a champion of the unconventional soon brought him into contact with these famous musicians from Liverpool; it was no wonder that they should think of the iconoclastic author of Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot as the possible creator of their next film. In a personal interview described in Orton’s diaries and quoted in Lahr’s biography of Orton, a meeting between Orton and Paul McCartney revealed that McCartney, a rare theatre goer, had found Loot “the only play he hadn’t wanted to leave before the end.” Commissioned in 1967 to write the screenplay for the follow-up to Help!, Orton came up with Up against It. The script was laced with cross dressing, murder, adultery, and imprisonment. The Beatles, however, eventually rejected this script as too unconventional even for their iconoclastic and controversial image. In 1991, musician Todd Rundren (who, with his band Utopia, once released an album of intentionally Beatlesque songs titled “Deface the Music”) would resurrect Up against It as a stage musical, the results of which he released as an album titled Second Wind.


Entertaining Mr. Sloane has generally been overshadowed by what are now considered Orton’s more mature and more clearly “farcical” plays, Loot and What the Butler Saw. However, when Orton’s first full-length play premiered, eminent British playwright Terence Rattigan called it (in a letter to Orton quoted by Lahr) “the most exciting and stimulating first play . . . that I’ve seen in thirty (odd) years’ play going.” And while reviewing the 1981 Off-Broadway revival of the play, New Yorker theatre critic Edith Oliver, while admitting the superiority of Orton’s later efforts, exclaimed, “but what a debut!”

As with all of Orton’s purposefully shocking plays, Entertaining Mr. Sloane aroused violently mixed reactions in its initial production. Some reviews referred to him as a bright new figure in the theatre world while others blanched at the play’s amorality, noting that the play’s homicide (Kemp’s death) was unaccompanied by any moral judgment. Still others, like the anonymous critic for the London Times, tried to ride the fence, saying “the coarseness is sometimes offensive but it is characteristic of the offensive people who use it; it is theatrically valid.” As Lahr pointed out in Prick up Your Ears, Orton “enjoyed the hostility as much as the praise, bad reviews featuring [in his scrapbook] as prominently as raves.” The most negative review for the initial production at the New Arts Theatre came from one W. A. Darlington, in the conservative Daily Telegraph, who asserted that “not for a long time have I disliked a play so much as I disliked Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane. I feel as if snakes had been writhing round my feet.” As Lahr reported, Orton responded to this vitriol by writing his own mock condemnation of the play for the “Letters to the Editor” section of The Daily Telegraph, assuming the pseudonym of Mrs. Edna Welthorpe and declaring that she was “nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion.” As the war of opinions raged, Rattigan saw in Orton’s first play the style of William Congreve (Love for Love) and Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest). Rattigan put up half the money for a transfer from the production’s small, fringe venue at the New Arts to the Wyndham Page 172  |  Top of ArticleTheatre in the fashionable West End. There, Darlington reviewed the play a second time and found the characters still “shameless and repulsive in the extreme” but grudgingly admitted that his interest was this time “held throughout” (as quoted by Lahr).

Though the play continued to be very controversial during its run at the Wyndham, this major West-End production made Orton an overnight sensation. His play was soon slated for publication as the best new play of the year, and Orton was frequently labeled the year’s most promising playwright. As Lahr summarized in his biography, “Orton, who had been surviving on three pounds a week until his first royalty check, found his weekly earnings to be as much as 239 pounds. The play was sold to Paris in August, and the next year to Spain, the United States, Israel, and Australia. It would be made into a film and a television play. Orton had arrived in the style of his comedy—with a vengeance.” As Lahr further pointed out, Orton “relished the scandal” that Entertaining Mr. Sloane had provoked because it “proved the comic truth of his play: that the culture hid its violence behind a show of propriety.”

The first American production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane opened on Broadway in October of 1965, attracting large preview audiences and the approval of established playwrights such as Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), and Peter Shaffer (Equus). The reviews for the American debut, however, were largely negative. Norman Nadel for the World Telegram and Sun said the play had “the sprightly charm of a medieval English cesspool,” while John McClain of the New York Journal American suggested (as quoted by Lahr) that “if this is [England’s] best play of any year they are in serious trouble.” Howard Taubman of the New York Times called it “a singularly unattractive play.” The production closed after thirteen performances. But the outraged Taubman continued his indictment of the play even after it closed, writing an essay in the Sunday New York Times that labeled Entertaining Mr. Sloane “nihilistic” and (in a blatant self-contradiction) “too insignificant to merit further belaboring.” This prompted a response in the same paper a week later from Orton’s director, Alan Schneider, who expressed confidence in the play’s “ultimate vitality and durability in the history of contemporary drama.”

The American vindication of Entertaining Mr. Sloane came in 1981 when an Off-Broadway revival succeeded where its earlier Broadway production had failed. New York Times reviewer Mel Gussow called the revival a “blissfully perverse comedy of bad manners,” concluding that “today, posthumously, Orton’s reputation is secure.” Edith Oliver wrote in the New Yorker that this “first of Joe Orton’s high comedies of lowlife” was “a minor classic.” Referring to its 1965 Broadway flop, she added, “one wonders how so many people in New York could have failed to recognize its quality at once.” And Robert Asahina, writing for the Hudson Review concluded that “Entertaining Mr. Sloane is still an insightful commentary on the sexual and social role confusion that is considerably more widespread now than when it was written.”

Orton’s first produced play has survived all of its controversial productions and continues to be revived in theatres around the world. Clearly less farcical than Loot and What the Butler Saw, Entertaining Mr. Sloane is now considered less typical of his style than Orton’s last two major plays but still “Ortonesque” in its provocative content and style.


Terry R. Nienhuis

Nienhuis is a Ph.D. specializing in modern and contemporary drama. In this essay he discusses the moral dimensions of comedy and their relevance to Orton’s first full-length play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

The rebellious and comical style that Joe Orton is most famous (or infamous) for does not surface in its complete form until his last two major plays, Loot and What the Butler Saw. His first major play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, however, ultimately embodies enough of the qualities noticed by his critics and seen throughout his works to illustrate the central artistic issue in Orton’s drama. Is Orton a master satirist and farceur, a ground-breaking comic genius, or a disenchanted man-child metaphorically throwing rocks at the establishment?

Known now mainly for his wildly extravagant farce, Orton’s absurd tendencies do not get liberated in Entertaining Mr. Sloane until Act III, most notably when—in the struggle with Sloane—Kath’s false teeth fall out of her mouth and roll under the sofa. Up until this point in the play, Orton’s comic skill is manifested mainly in bizarre situations and

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  • Loot (1965) and What the Butler Saw (1969) are Orton’s most famous plays and works that clearly show his mastery of stage farce.
  • Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage (1992), by Nicholas de Jongh is a thorough and interesting history of the portrayal of homosexual characters in theatre.
  • The Orton Diaries, (1986) edited by John Lahr, records the last eight months of Orton’s life from December 1966 to August 1967, and includes entries from the diary Orton occasionally kept as an adolescent. Alarmingly explicit in its references to sexuality, these diaries create a portrait of Orton that helps the reader understand the audacious tone and themes of his plays.
  • The Room (1957) and The Birthday Party (1958) are two plays by fellow British dramatist Harold Pinter that clearly influenced Orton’s early work. The Homecoming (1965) is a Pinter play that also involves an “intruder” and sexual sharing.
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) by Oscar Wilde is a late nineteenth-century comedy of manners that set a brilliant standard for verbal wit that Orton perhaps comes close to matching. In a now widely quoted phrase used in a review of Loot, London theatre critic Ronald Bryden dubbed Orton the “Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility.”
  • Not Now Darling (1967) and Run for Your Wife (1983) by Ray Cooney are more conventional, commercial British farces that simply seek to entertain their audiences with fast-moving plots and jokes that resemble television sitcoms. While A Little Hotel on the Side (1894) or A Flea in Her Ear (1907) by the French “Father of Modern Farce,” Georges Feydeau, demonstrate how sex can be treated almost antiseptically in farce. Hay Fever (1925) or Private Lives (1930) by Noel Coward show classic British farce that focuses more on witty dialogue than sexual commotion.

strikingly incongruous dialogue. Until the end of Act II, Orton’s comedy is fairly conventional in the sense that it follows the fairly standard models of the comic world.

Kath, for instance, is conventionally comic in the way she pretends to more refinement and propriety than she actually possesses. This is clear from the subtle but effective opening lines of the play when Kath is proudly showing off her ordinarily middle-class home as if it were a lavishly furnished mansion: “This is my lounge . . . I should change the curtains. Those are our winter ones. The summer ones are more of a chintz.” The audience laughs at this dialogue out of a sense of superiority because it immediately sees the disparity between Kath’s pretensions and the reality of her life. And implicit in this laughter is a subtle moral judgment—that human beings ought to be honest with themselves and not give in to shallow aspirations for social status. In the rest of the play, Kath’s comic posturing grows even funnier as she constantly attempts to hide her ravenous sexual appetite behind a facade of “motherly” affections. And for most of the play Ed generates much of the same kind of laughter for many of the same kinds of reasons.

Sloane, however, is a more disturbing figure in Orton’s comic world because it is clear from the beginning that he is genuinely dangerous. He is not a clumsy pretender who is easy to see through, and his opportunism is not amateurish and silly; he is an adept conniver who appears able to get anything he wants, a potent force for potential evil who has killed once and will kill again. What’s more, he is sociopathically devoid of conscience or morals; he sees any act as acceptable as long as it gets him what he desires.

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Comedy thrives on the threat of pain and unhappiness, but in the classic comic world there is a tacit agreement with the audience that the pain and unhappiness will not be enduring or genuine. In fact, part of the audience’s superiority as witnesses to a comedy is their understanding that the problems the characters are fretting over will eventually be solved and seem insignificant in the glow of the comic resolution. But when comedies get more “dark,” as in Shakespeare’s problem farces like Measure for Measure or in existentialist comedies such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the specter of real pain and unhappiness rises to threaten the typical reassurance of the comic world. Very few comedy writers can successfully include real and enduring pain—much less death—in their comic worlds because human beings take genuine pain and death very seriously and will have to consider themselves insensitive if they laugh at such subjects. Orton, of course, was well aware of the boundaries of comedy and purposely sought to upset this tacit agreement with the audience about ultimate safety, forcing his audience to laugh where he knew they would find their laughter ultimately uncomfortable.

This happens most notably in Entertaining Mr. Sloane when Kemp dies at the end of Act II. Nearly blind and deaf, physically weak to the point of “shuffling” when he walks, Kemp seems perhaps mentally impaired as well, “a slate off” as Sloane puts it. Victimized by his own children, Kemp is an outcast in his own house, soon bound for an old-folks home, and he ultimately strikes the audience as a pathetic figure, not suitable as an object of ridicule; laughter at Kemp’s expense will make the audience seem cruel. But in forcing laughter on his audience Orton does not permit it to extend Kemp any sympathetic feelings. The height of Kemp’s pathos perhaps comes in an exchange with Kath in Act I when he says “I’m all alone. . . . You don’t love me. . . . I’m going to die, Kath. . . . I’m dying” and Kath angrily responds, “You’ve been at that ham haven’t you?” The incongruity of her response is cruel but also irresistibly funny and the audience’s complicity through their laughter tests the boundaries of comedy. These boundaries are more severely tested at the end of Act II when Kemp actually dies at the hands of the smoothly vicious Sloane. Kemp is the only one of the characters in the play who is concerned with conventional morality. When he recognizes Sloane as the murderer of his former boss, he is determined to notify the police, even when Sloane first bribes and then threatens him. When there’s a question of justice to be met, Kemp refuses to be concerned with his own safety or with practicality, but Orton does not permit his audience to admire these qualities. Instead, in Kemp’s death, Orton introduces genuine pain and injustice into his comic world and, by presenting the event in a humorous context, provokes unsettled feelings for many viewers.

Those critics who most admire Orton’s work, like his biographer John Lahr, often see Orton as an accomplished satirist. They see him savagely attacking the hypocrisy of conventional middle class values and expertly demonstrating that beneath the facade of respectability and refined language the characters are frequently, if not exclusively, self-centered. Lahr illustrated this admiration for Orton by beginning his introduction to the collected plays with these words: “like all great satirists, Joe Orton was a realist. He was prepared to speak the unspeakable; and this gave his plays their joy and danger. He teased an audience with its sense of the sacred, flaunting the hard facts of life people contrived to forget. There were, for Orton, no ‘basic human values.’ Man was capable of every bestiality; and all moral credos were heroic daydreams, the luxury of affluence.”

But satire in its highest form, like comedy, always entails a moral purpose, implicit as it might be in the hands of great artists. The classic satirists like Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Moliere, or Richard Brinsley Sheridan used ridicule to point out a divergence from common sense or some rational norm. They hoped, through their attacks on the foolish and wayward to lure people back into the fold of sensible behavior. Pope, for example, hoped to reconcile warring families when he wrote The Rape of the Lock and Moliere was suggesting that idealism could be carried too far when he wrote The Misanthrope. Does Orton have a similar satiric purpose?

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While Orton’s supporters admire his wit and humor, a fairly significant number of Orton’s critics have contended, as Lahr himself admits, that Orton had no moral purpose in his writing, that his comedy was “anarchic,” to employ a commonly-used term, implying a complete denial of moral absolutes or belief in behavioral norms. These critics often offer alongside a clear appreciation for Orton’s genius a tempering reservation about the ultimate artistic value of his work, often suggesting that his comedy reflects more of the adolescent’s need for rebellion than the satirist’s desire to reform.

Benedict Nightingale, for example, in Encounter, wrote that Orton’s celebration of “the tripes, the glands and, of course, the genitals . . . [the] delight in the overthrow of reason and the breakdown of order . . . can, as I say, prove liberating, even exhilarating, in the theatre. [But] there is also something about its greedy, sticky-fingered hedonism that can only be called infantile.” In another essay in the New Statesman, Nightingale put Orton’s work in the larger context of the comic tradition, stating that while comedy can be cynical and cruel, it is rarely presented in such extremes as evidenced in Orton’s work. Nightingale felt that the playwright had “an indiscriminate scorn for most things human, from institutions to affections.” In this world neither reason nor concern for one’s fellow human has a place, and the pursuit of one’s singular pleasure is all that matters. As the critic summarized, “It is this gleeful nihilism that characterises Orton—this that makes him fascinating and, to me, repellent and suspect. Could it be that, as a promiscuous homosexual and onetime jailbird, he found it necessary to prove that the world’s judges, coppers, civil servants, psychiatrists and sturdily married heterosexuals were no better than himself? If everyone else is bad, it’s easier to live with one’s own excesses. If everyone else is telling lies about themselves, one can at least congratulate oneself on one’s honesty.” Nightingale closed his assessment by stating that despite being “a sparkling comedian and a smirking hooligan,” the critic saw “more complacent hedonism than reformist zeal in his work.”

Martin Esslin, renowned theatre critic and author of the seminal book, The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), expressed similar reservations about the nihilistic qualities of Orton’s world. In an essay entitled “Joe Orton: The Comedy of (ill) Manners” in Contemporary English Drama, Esslin asserted that Orton’s satiric attacks were “merely for the elation of having got away with it.” Comparing Orton’s work with the “savage indignation” of writers like Jonathan Swift, Esslin found that in Orton “rage is purely negative, it is unrelated to any positive creed, philosophy, or programme of social reform.” Esslin suggested that “behind Orton’s attack on the existing state of humanity in the West there stands nothing but the rage of the socially and educationally under-privileged. . . he articulates, in a form of astonishing elegance and eloquence, the same rage and helpless resentment which manifests itself in the wrecked trains of football supporters, the mangled and vandalized telephone kiosks and the obscene graffiti on lavatory walls.” Comparing Orton’s work to the ground-breaking dark comedy of Samuel Beckett, Esslin suggested that “this is neither the bitter laugh of which Beckett speaks, the laugh about that which is bad in the world . . . but the mindless laugh which . . . amounts to no more than an idiot’s giggle at his own image in the mirror.”

Finally, C. W. E. Bigsby, author of Joe Orton in the “Contemporary Writers” series, found Orton’s art merely “a provocation, an act of revenge, a deliberate flouting of authority and flaunting of his own exhibitionist tendencies.” And in what could perhaps equally be said of Entertaining Mr. Sloane Bigsby says of Loot “it was very clearly an act of public revenge for the humiliations society had inflicted upon him in an equally public way . . . it was a play that very deliberately set out to flout all normal standards of good taste.”

Nightingale perhaps summed it up best: “as it is, we are left with a tantalizing, maddening blend of wit, the agent provocateur and the child hoodlum: enough to keep critical discussion and disagreement on the bubble for a long time.”

Despite the mixed feelings of these critics, there are many others who perceive Orton’s work as social reportage, a presentation, in the extreme, of middle class life as it truly exists beneath its homogenous veneer. While a certain amount of bitterness in the playwright’s message is undeniable (as Bigsby contended), Orton’s bile can be attributed to the incongruity of the lifestyle in which he was raised and, during his younger years, was prohibited to speak of. Orton sought to expose middle class conformity, to strip away the superficial normalcy so many sought to preserve. He wanted to show that humor and pain, farce and death, can often occur simultaneously. Above all, Orton targeted those who publicly claimed high morals while privately pursuing their whim despite the cost to others. By

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illustrating this hypocrisy with dark humor, forcing the audience to laugh (and often cringe) at such behavior, Orton hoped to strip away such superficiality in both his targets and even, perhaps, in his audiences.

Source: Terry R. Nienhuis, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

Ben Brantley

Brantley reviews a 1997 production of Orton’s play, praising the staging for preserving the playwright’s clever wordplay while also enhancing the theatrical experience with new sensorial touches.

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Source: Ben Brantley, “A Houseguest Inspires Not So Maternal Feelings” in the New York Times, February 22, 1997, pp. C13–14.

Bert Cardullo

Cardullo examines the aspects of Orton’s play that qualify it as both a “wildly funny” farce and a “profoundly disturbing” social commentary. Discussed are such elements as Sloane’s sexual malevolence and the Oedipal relationship that is hinted at between Kath and Sloane.

In his introduction to Joe Orton: The Complete Plays, John Lahr wrote that “Sloane feels no guilt

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and his refusal to experience shame is what disturbs and amuses audiences. Sloane is a survivor whose egotism is rewarded, not punished.” Sloane implies that he is egotistical, excessively self-loving, because he became an orphan at an early age: “It was the lack of privacy [in the orphanage] I found most trying. (Pause.) And the lack of real love.” He has no relatives; his parents both died at the same time when he was eight years old. Sloane may amuse as well as disturb audiences, but the vision behind Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964) is wholly disturbing.

The only husband and wife mentioned in the play are Sloane’s parents—and they seem to have killed themselves. Kemp is Kath and Ed’s father, but he and his son haven’t spoken for 20 years, and his daughter treats him as if he were a naughty little boy. Kath and Ed allow Sloane to get away with killing their father in return for sexual favors: he will spend six months of the year with Kath and six months with Ed “as long as the agreement last.” The first man Sloane killed was Kemp’s boss, who was apparently a homosexual. Sloane says that the boss “wanted to photo me. For certain interesting features I had that he wanted the exclusive right of preserving. You know how it is. I didn’t like to refuse. No harm in it I suppose. But then I got to thinking.” Kath, at 41 or 42, is old enough to be Sloane’s mother. In fact, she had a son when she was young by Tommy, Ed’s best friend and lover at the time. She says to Sloane, “You’re almost the same age as he would be.” Kath gave the boy up for adoption and she and Tommy never married. The implication is that Sloane is her son. Sloane, Ed’s new lover, gets Kath pregnant; they won’t marry either, and she will probably give her baby up for adoption. Ed arranged the adoption of Tommy’s son, and there is no reason to believe that he will not do the same for Sloane’s—Ed refers to the baby Kath is carrying as “him.”

Sloane’s ego is rewarded, then, by other egotistical, unloved characters: all three substitute sex for Page 178  |  Top of Articlelove. It is no accident that the Kemp home stands alone in the midst of a rubbish dump—“it was intended to be the first of a row,” says the old man. It is a home without love that begets a bastard who himself begets a bastard. John Lahr said that Orton, in his depiction of characters like Kath, Ed, and Sloane, “was not being heartless, merely accurate”: in their rapaciousness, ignorance, and violence, these people are the representative products of our age. No wonder Orton has an old woman make “a special trip [all the way from Woolwich] with her daughter in order to dump a bedstead” outside the Kemp house: it is as if the woman is exhorting her daughter not to risk the marriage bed in times inhospitable to families and children, times peopled by the likes of this dwelling’s occupants.

In her last conversation with Ed, Kath, wanting to spend time with Sloane that should be allotted to Ed according to their agreement, says, “It deepens the relationship if the father is there [present at the birth of his child].” Ed replies, “It’s all any reasonable child can expect if the dad is present at the conception. Let’s hear no more of it.” This is wildly funny. But it is also profoundly disturbing, because prophetic: writing a parody on the Oedipal theme in 1964, Orton foresaw at the same time the age of testtube babies, sperm banks, single-parent families, and homosexual fathers and mothers.

Source: Bert Cardullo, “Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane” in the Explicator, Volume 46, no. 4, Summer, 1988, pp. 50-51.


Asahina, Robert. Review of Entertaining Mr. Sloane in the Hudson Review, Winter, 1981-82, p. 568.

Darlington, W. A. Review of Entertaining Mr. Sloane in the Daily Telegraph, May 7, 1964.

Esslin, Martin. “Joe Orton: The Comedy of (ill) Manners” in Contemporary English Drama, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, Holmes & Meier, 1981, pp. 95-107.

Gussow, Mel. Review of Entertaining Mr. Sloane in the New York Times, May 21, 1981, p. C28.

“Hard to Define Triangle” in the London Times, May 7, 1964, p. 20.

Lahr, John, editor. “Introduction” in Joe Orton: The Complete Plays Grove, 1976, p. vii.

Nadel, Norman. “‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ Opens” in the New York World-Telegram & The Sun, October 13, 1965.

Nightingale, Benedict. “The Detached Anarchist: On Joe Orton” in Encounter, March, 1979, pp. 55-61.

Nightingale, Benedict. “Orton Iconoclast” in the New Statesman, July 18, 1975, p. 90.

Oliver, Edith. “Re-enter Mr. Sloane” in the New Yorker, July 6, 1981, pp. 51, 54.

Schneider, Alan. “Mr. Sloane’s Director Talks Back” in the New York Times, October 31, 1965, section 2, p. X5.

Taubman, Howard. Review of Entertaining Mr. Sloane in the New York Times, October 13, 1965, p. 41.

Taubman, Howard. “Aiming at Easy Targets” in the New Times, October 24, 1965, section 2, p. 1.

Taylor, John Russell. “Joe Orton” in The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies, Methuen, 1971, p. 140.

Weeks, Jeffrey. Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800, Longman, 1981, p. 265.


Bigsby, C. W. E. Joe Orton, Methuen, 1982.

A sophisticated scholarly analysis of Orton’s work that places Entertaining Mr. Sloane in the context of postmodernist thought. Difficult reading but essential for the advanced study of Orton’s drama.

Charney, Maurice. Joe Orton, Grove Press, 1984.

In a chapter on Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Charney focuses on the characters’ use of language as a way of hiding their true selves.

Dean, Joan F. “Joe Orton and the Redefinition of Farce” in Theatre Journal, December, 1982, pp. 481-92.

An article that examines the ways in which Orton altered the practice of stage farce to take it beyond the conventional boundaries of light entertainment.

Lahr, John. Prick up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, Knopf, 1978.

The definitive biography of Joe Orton, written by the son of the great comic actor, Bert Lahr (he played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz). Very readable and an indispensable guide to any question involving Orton’s life and work. Contains passages from the The Orton Diaries.

Nakayama, Randall S. “Domesticating Mr. Sloane” in Theatre Journal, May, 1993, pp. 185-96.

This article is a portrait of Orton that offers a different perspective from the one found in Lahr’s biography.

Rusinko, Susan. Joe Orton, Twayne, 1995.

An accessible critical biography of Orton with a useful chapter on Entertaining Mr. Sloane that puts the play in the context of Orton’s life and other works.

Sypher, Wylie. Comedy, Johns Hopkins, 1956.

A collection of three classic essays examining the theoretical (and moral) bases of comedy: George Page 179  |  Top of ArticleMeredith’s “An Essay on Comedy,” Henri Bergson’s “Laughter,” and Sypher’s own “The Meanings of Comedy.” Provides an excellent understanding of comedy in fiction, giving the reader a strong background with which to analyze Orton’s work as it fits into the concept of comedy.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692800019