AND OEDIPUS - FOUNDLINGS AND SEX - 1 OF 2
I'm going to die, Kath - I'm dying.
Kath (angrily): You've been at that ham, haven't you?
Orton had been at everything when he wrote Entertaining
Mr Sloane. Pastiche of register renders the language slippery
as a bucketful of elvers. At one moment we might find
echoes of popular fiction; at another the language of
the policeman, or of the judge; emotion rampages as in
a B movie romance; the jargon of the advertising world
intrudes; medical advice and pop-psychology take a kick;
journalese suffers (and rightly); cliche is rampant (incidentally
Orton's favourite way of presenting himself to the world);
banal colloquialisms, formulaic speech, straight melodrama,
the language of desire clothed in boredom, double entendres
inverted with a twist: all are part of Orton's box of
tricks. The disjunctive gap between the reality being
described and the tone of the dialogue leaves an audience
unsettled; where does meaning lie in this farrago of fiction?
Who is telling the truth? Is anyone? Solipsism abounds.
"Entertaining Mr Sloane, all proportions
kept, is the Northanger Abbey of our contemporary stage."
(Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times)
Like the bed-sit he shared with Halliwell, obsessively
decorated with contiguously jarring images cut from library
books, Sloane is a brilliantly-executed collage of language,
technique and tradition. It is a bizarre farce that takes
as its fons et origo Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, making the
return of the sexually-active son to the tragic home the
crux of its plot. The setting of Sloane, a house in the
middle of a rubbish dump, is a tragic site resonant of
Orton's hatred of family; a misogynistic homosexual, each
of his plays destroys the idea of family regardless of
the other targets of his rage. Loot (1966) sees a son
hide his mother's body in a wardrobe while he fills her
coffin with the proceeds of a bank robbery. What the Butler
Saw (1967) climaxes with the revelation that a father
has assaulted his daughter, while her twin brother has
photographed himself making love to his mother in the
very place where years ago the missing children were conceived.
Sloane contains a dysfunctional family (Kemp, Kath and
Ed; father, daughter and son), a missing mother (though
Kath takes to the role with gusto), and a cuckoo in the
nest who might just have accidentally roosted in the very
place he ought not.
The values of society? What values? The things
we take seriously will be laughed at in fifty years."
(Orton & Halliwell, The Boy Hairdresser, 1960)
The oddness of Sloane's sexual tuning is marked. In her
teens, Kath has had an illegitimate baby boy by her younger
brother's homosexually dallying 'matie', Tommy. In revenge,
Ed ensures that the child is adopted. Kath loses her dignity,
her lover and her child. Ed loses his soul mate and sets
about a life of betterment through crime. Unmarried at
the ages of forty-one and thirty-seven respectively, Kath
and Ed are locked into a relationship neither wishes to
acknowledge. The possibility of incest is ever before
them. Ed can only function sexually by fucking men who
also fuck his sister; at this remove, sexual memory tracing
Kath's body upon Sloane's in Ed's bed provides an irresistible
illicit thrill. The emotional punch-line of the show comes
in the closing page when with a fine inevitability Kath
and Ed agree to take turns at entertaining Mr Sloane,
six months at a time. It is the final piece in the mosaicist
jigsaw Orton has been constructing. Comparing Pinter's
The Homecoming (1965) to Sloane (1964), Orton wrote: "Harold,
I'm sure, would never share someone sexually. I would.
And so Sloane springs from the way I think. The Homecoming
doesn't spring from the way Harold thinks" (Diary,
11 July 1967). What is peculiar is the disgust expressed
by both siblings at each other's sexual choice; they are
unwilling to admit their needs, cloaking outright insult
behind such euphemisms as 'unnatural' or 'clean living'.
Orton's joke is that sexual appetite is endlessly funny:
a middle-aged woman stalking a boy's cock and an older
man chasing his arse are both without the ability to recognize
the comedy they present to others.
"When you're dead, you'll regret not
having fun with your genital organs." (Orton's Diary,
23 July 1967)
Like Oedipus, Sloane is young and has no family; he acquires
one, and then kills the father. His reward is not just
a Jocasta to bed, but a Creon prepared to ignore crime.
Sophocles' concept of a moral curse that expels Oedipus
from his rediscovered home does not work in Orton's modern
version. Reworking and referencing Sophocles confused
contemporary critics: how did a young working-class convict
stumble across such ideas for his first play? While Orton
liked to pretend that Sloane was his first piece of writing,
he had spent over ten years in a literary apprenticeship
being stuffed full of classical literature by Kenneth
Halliwell. That sense of tradition bears fruit in the
uncomfortable echoes and pressures worked into the text.
Kath says that Sloane reminds her of her lover. He is
the same age her son would be if she had not lost him.
The words 'boy', 'baby', and 'brother' are troublingly
unclear as signifiers in Kath's confused usage. 'Boy'
could refer to boys; it could refer to a son; she also
uses it to mean her teenage lover of twenty years ago,
and she and Ed both use it of Sloane. 'Baby' Kath uses
to mean child, and also sexual partner. If she is having
a baby (and she has already decided it will be a boy),
it will not be a 'brother' for her and Sloane as she claims,
it will be their son. Unless, of course, she has been
reading her Oedipus Rex and realizes what the implications
are. Driven by an urge to replace the child she lost,
Kath has her baby and uses him to give her another baby.
Ed's fury at being caught 'committing some kind of felony
in the bedroom' (homosexuality was illegal in 1964 when
the play was first performed) has fuelled twenty years
of hatred against father and sister. He characterises
his teenage homosexual activity as 'innocent', until Kath
screwed up his relationship with Tommy by allowing heterosexual
knowledge into the closed world of male camaraderie, symbolised
by boxing, football, and the army.