The concept and impact of gender roles in Joe Orton s plays

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 1999 35 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. What are gender roles?

3. The concepts of sexuality and gender in Orton’s plays

4. The Conception of the Characters

5. Sex and Crime in "Loot"
5.1 Fay
5.2 McLeavy
5.3 Hal and Dennis
5.4 Truscott
5.5 The Mummy
5.6 Summary

6. The Triangular Relationship in "Entertaining Mr. Sloane"
6.1 Kath
6.2 Ed
6.3 Sloane
6.4 Kemp
6.4 Kath, Ed and Sloane – the triangular relationship

7. Role Switching and Sexual Identity in “What the Butler Saw”
7.1 Dr. Prentice
7.2 Mrs. Prentice
7.3 Dr. Rance
7.4 Nick
7.5 Geraldine Barclay
7.6 Sergeant Match

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

1. Introduction

There are certain characteristics in Joe Orton’s plays that are very typical and of distinctive significance. The aspect of gender roles is one of those characteristics. The purpose of this paper is to explain, why the aspect of gender roles is so important, which different concepts of gender roles we can distinguish in Orton’s plays and, eventually, to show and explain those different concepts explicitly at three selected plays.

2. What are gender roles?

Before we are going to discuss the impact of gender roles in Orton’s plays, we should give a short definition of what is meant by this term.

Sex and gender are two terms that have to be clearly distinguished from each other. Whereas the term sex means the natural sex of a person, animal or thing, the term gender is aimed at the grammatical and sociological system of sex-references. In the German language, e.g., the grammatical gender of a girl is neuter (das Mädchen) although her natural sex is, of course, feminine. In our context the term gender refers to the different concepts of roles that exist in society, i.e. different sets of norms for behaviour that are associated with being either feminine or masculine and thus create sexual identity. A traditional concept of the feminine role would, for instance, be the one of the housewife and mother, staying at home, cooking and looking after the children. Accordingly, the traditional concept of the masculine role would be the one of the hard-working head of the family. Of course, there are lots of other concepts, some of which we will find in Orton’s plays.

3. The concepts of sexuality and gender in Orton’s plays

Nietzsche distinguishes between two different concepts of sexuality, namely the Apollonian and the Dionysian spirit. He gives the following definitions: “The Apollonian spirit emphasizes individuality and hence self-knowledge , rejecting excess and hubris.” The Dionysian spirit represents “sexual ambivalence and the extreme.”[1] No doubt, Orton tended towards the Dionysian spirit, the disruptive, boundary-breaking power that attacks society’s morality. He once stated himself:

I always say to myself that the theatre is the Temple of Dionysus, and not Apollo. You do the Dionysus thing on your typewriter, and then you allow a little Apollo in, just a little to shape and guide it along certain lines you may want to go along. But you can’t allow Apollo in completely.[2]

The sexuality we find in Orton’s works is aggressive and subversive. It is a challenge to authority, which includes parents as well as God. All kinds of limits and norms are rejected and instead the freedom of imagination and action is supported and celebrated. This works, because a challenge to sexual norms implies automatically a challenge to normative values in general. According to Adorno, the “common ground of Western moralists and ideologists of social realism is a hatred of sex”.[3] This was exactly the vulnerable point, that Orton chose to attack recklessly. In his point of view, a complete sexual licence was the only way to overthrow society as it existed and exists. For Orton, boundaries existed to be violated in order to generate meaning. Dialectics and rational restraints are replaced by erotic and irrational energy.[4] Sex is seen as separated from guilt. It symbolizes the world of impulse with a dreamlike, self-gratifying, wish-fulfilling and narcissistic quality.[5] Orton’s plays disturbed the moral response of his audience and he was a nuisance of a sexual rebel to quite a lot of his contemporaries.

At this point it is certainly important to mention Orton’s own homosexuality, as it had a great relevance for his work. His homosexuality gave him a position somewhere at the edge of society and its norms. From this kind of outside position he could mock on society. Treated with contempt by society himself, he stroke back, attacking a system for which he had no respect, using the art of farce as a very elegant vehicle to do so. He ridiculed a society, which had committed itself to meaning and order, by joyfully introducing disorder, insanity, a careless proliferation of roles, madness, chaos, the subversive and the contingent. Plots and characters are exaggerated to such an extent that they become a parody of reality. At the same time both show a hermetic quality, as in all the plays we have a private world that is closed off against the external world. The expression ‘microcosm’ would probably fit quite well. Incest, as well as the hospital or the camp as a setting all represent this hermetic closure. As for the characters, they try to shut themselves off against reality and self-knowledge by wearing masks.[6] But we will have a closer look at the conception of the characters in the following paragraph.

4. The Conception of the Characters

The characters are, as it is typical for farces, highly stereotyped. In the case of Orton these stereotypes refer to the a limited variety of sexual attitudes and passions that form the prominent character features of each figure. We find lascivious wives, omnipotent super-mothers, lecherous old men, lusty young men as well as fatuous cuckolds and impotent men. They have sexual intercourse anywhere and in any possible variety. Homosexuality, rape and incest appear to be the norm. As stated before, the introduction of the abnormal as a replacement for the norm means an aggressive affront against a complacent middle class.[7]

The concept of mannered hermeticism we also find in the characters. They are stereotypes and as such they are shallow. They do only exist through their masks. Those masks fulfill two functions. On the one hand, this self-display replaces self-knowledge and also serves as a protection against self-knowledge. On the other hand the masks are a defence line against the other characters, in order to keep them from getting to know one’s real self. Nevertheless, we cannot assume that Orton’s characters try to hide a vulnerable humanity behind their masks. It seems that they hardly know what they possibly conceal. They are not the type of people thinking really deep thoughts. They are shallow, typified and chaotic. They often are unable to communicate. They speak but do not understand each other. Their reactions to others as well as their interpretations of the behaviour of others are solely led by their own desires and wishes. Again this is an element of hermetic closure.

We will now have a more detailed look at the specific character types and their verifications in the different plays, in order to supplement this general characterization with a detailed analysis of the characters of each play. We will start with Loot, then continue with Entertaining Mr. Sloane and finally look at What the Butler Saw. These are probably Orton’s best known plays, and the element of gender roles is also rather conspicuous and can be figured out quite well.

5. Sex and Crime in “Loot”

In Loot we have six characters altogether. One of them, Meadows, is of no importance to our analysis, as he appears just a few times. Then we have a professional murderess (Fay), two young bank robbers (Hal and Dennis), a religious, straight man (McLeavy) and a policeman (Truscott). And we have the mummy of the late Mrs. McLeavy. She is, strictly speaking, not a character but interesting for our topic and therefore will be looked at as well.

5.1 Fay

We will begin with the character the play begins with: Fay. Her beautiful, feminine outward appearance and her profession as a nurse evoke the impression of a nice, harmless person, who finds fulfilment in helping people. Actually she is a ruthless, cold and calculating person who murders the people she is meant to care for. She is well aware of her attraction as a woman and uses it as a means to reach her purposes by seducing and flirting with the men she intends to marry and murder. On the other hand her feminine appearance and nurse outfit are a perfect disguise for her evil intentions. Draught describes her like this:

Her physical attractiveness, her pretence of correctness in morals and religion, and her profession as a nurse, all conceal her real character, namely that of a cold –blooded murderess..[8]

We are, of course, especially interested in the gender aspect of this conception of a character. Her outward ‘false seeming’, as Draught calls it, is only false, because it presupposes certain expectations concerning her inner self, which turn out to be wrong afterwards. In general, people working in professions in social welfare are thought of to have a philanthropic attitude towards human beings. Their job is to help people who are sick, old or disabled or in any (social) state of emergency. Very often, these tasks are executed by members of the Church. One would not expect criminal energy in such people as this would form a contradiction to the philosophy of their profession.

(In western culture) the profession of a nurse is traditionally practised by women. There are male nurses as well, but they form a minority. The character features that are thought of as being typically female are such as sensitivity, softness, care (for children and needing people), domesticity, devotion and probably honesty. Fay skilfully supports this cliché. When McLeavy, for instance, asks her what she needs the mummy for, she uses the opportunity to add to her image as a woman committed to helping people.

MCLEAVY. What in heaven’s name is that!
FAY. It’s my appliance.
MCLEAVY. I’ve never seen it before.
FAY. I kept it in my room. It was personal.
MCLEAVY. What is it doing down here?
FAY. I’m going to do some work. For charity.
MCLEAVY. What kind of work?
FAY. I’m making the vestments for Our Lady’s festival. I was commissioned. My altar cloth at Easter brought me to the attention of the Committee.
MCLEAVY. My congratulations. You’ll want plenty of room to work. (To Dennis.) Take Nurse McMahon’s appliance to my study.

(p. 242)[9]

It is very clever of her to mention her involvement in charity and Church activities as this wipes away McLeavy’s doubts, for he is a religious man himself and would not suspect any harm from someone who seems to be a believing Catholic. And Fay was a member of St. Mary’s Convent, where she got a crucifix for good conduct.

She also takes on a fake motherly attitude towards McLeavy, for she says, she wants to sort out a new woman for him, better than his late wife. But it becomes clear that she wants to become his new wife herself. And she starts slipping into this role without McLeavy being able to stop her. She puts on Mrs. McLeavy’s slippers, later on she wears her dress (a fact that is interpreted at once by Truscott as an indication for her contemplation of marrying McLeavy) and of course she behaves herself like a Mrs McLeavy. While pretending to identify with the traditional role of women (“I ask for nothing. I’m a woman.”, p. 219) she tells McLeavy what to do, how to talk to his son and behaves herself authoritative towards Hal and Dennis. Fay is a very self-assured and authoritative person, in general. Towards the end of the play she more or less presses McLeavy to propose to her on his knees. The only character that seems to be equally strong is Truscott. He reveals the secrets of her past as a murderess and is about to arrest her, when he comes across the money and decides to take his share of it.

5.2 McLeavy

McLeavy was a married man who is now a widower. He has a son, Hal and is the “leading Catholic layman within a radius of forty miles”. He met his wife at an informal get-together run by a Benedictine monk. Although financially well off and respected for his social position, he is a weak person who is unable to educate his son or to keep Fay away from him. On the contrary: she makes him kneel to propose to her, although he has no inclination to do so (p. 219). He seems to be quite naive and introverted, not quite aware of what is going on around him. Charney describes him as a person with a total lack in imagination and generosity.[10] The only thing he seems to be really devoted to are roses. He does not notice that the mummy’s eyes are of a different colour than his wife’s natural eyes. He remarks that the black dress suits Fay very well without noticing that it belongs to his late wife.

His weak character has a physical equivalent: McLeavy is impotent. He says so himself at the beginning of the play “A second wife would be a physical impossibility”(p.196). Later on, Hal puts it this way:

HAL. I’m surprised he should wish to marry again. He couldn’t do justice to his last wife.”


It becomes clear, that he cannot answer the norm of what is considered to be a “real man”. His impotence means a denial or lack of sexual identity as a man and makes him asexual. This impotence, of course, is opposed by Dennis’ sexual potency. He boasts himself with raping women, as he considers it a proof of his superiority to them and of his sexual potency. The characters in the play all seem to consider this as an indication for masculinity. The contrast makes clear, that McLeavy is not manly at all.

5.3 Hal and Dennis

Hal is the son of McLeavy, Dennis works for the undertaker and is his friend. The both are lovers. But whereas Dennis is definitely homosexual, Dennis is bisexual. He made five women pregnant and boasts with the raping of women. Hal is deeply in love with Dennis. He adores him. He watches his rapes and assists him in the bank robbery. Both share a chauvinistic attitude towards women as they think rape a blessing to a woman (p. 224). And, of course, they never involve any women in any of their “unsavoury” businesses (p. 241). When Hal notices Dennis’ growing interest in Fay, he becomes increasingly jealous but accepts Dennis’ wishes as he accepts everything Dennis does.

Hal shows some similarities to his father in his character. He is unable to lie and his devotion to Dennis is honest. Dennis is described as a luxurious young lad with a vivid sexual life (5 pregnancies). Truscott accuses him of scattering his “seed along the pavements without regard to age or sex” (p. 244). His attraction to Fay is of a sexual nature, whereas she wants his money. Hal’s wishes are sexually orientated as well: He wants to take Dennis to a certain brothel, run by young Pakistanis who do it for sweets. With the money from the bank robbery he wants to open a brothel himself with all sorts of girls. Hal wants to rebel against the life and values of his father. He thinks him unmanly and is too ashamed of him to bring friends to their house. He is proud of his father, though, when he lies to Truscott. But Hal does not feel any love for his father as he is prepared to send him to prison.


[1] Bigsby, C.W. E; Joe Orton, London, 1982. (p. 66)

[2] ebenda, p. 66

[3] ebenda, p. 66

[4] ebenda, p. 68

[5] Charney, Maurice; Joe Orton, London, 1984. (p.100)

[6] Charney, p. 68f.

[7] Page, Adrian (ed.); The Death of the Playwright?, Basingstoke, 1992. (p. 154)

[8] Draudt, M.; “Comic, Tragic or Absurd? On Some Parallels between the Farces of Joe Orton and Seventeenth – Century Tragedy”
in: English Studies, 59/1978 (p. 213)

[9] Orton, Joe; The Complete Plays, London, 1996. (All following page references for play quotations refer to this edition)

[10] Charney, p. 93


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Ruhr-University of Bochum – English Seminar
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Orton Advanced



Title: The concept and impact of gender roles in Joe Orton s plays