Dr James Methven is Dean of Oriel & Lecturer in English, Oriel College, Oxford. He directed and played Ed in the Oxford University production of Entertaining Mr Sloane in 2002 and this piece appeared in the theatre programme.




Kemp: 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.


  Text © Dr James Methven, Orton Quotes: © The Orton Estate  

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