Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Tragedy and Soap: Orton's Good and Faithful Servant*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Tragedy and Soap: Orton's Good and Faithful Servant*

Article excerpt

In his essay on Orton' s Good and Faithful Servant Maurice Charney argues that it is, for Orton, a strange sort of play.1 He calls it a " Laodicean tragedy/' on the grounds that " there is no road that could have been taken. The characters are paralyzed, frozen, rendered incapable of any action on their own behalf (Charney 148). Certainly it is a peculiar work in the Orton oeuvre: though not, I think, easily definable as tragedy. But, of course, tragedy itself is not easily definable. Here, as in all cases, we have to ask what sort of tragedy it might be, what its elements are, whether the whole play is governed by tragic shape, and, if not, what relationship tragedy has to everything else. Indeed the play might turn out to be interesting culturally for the ways in which it - so to speak - contains tragedy.

1.

The main character George Buchanan seems to fit into a diligently classical tragic sequence. There is his hubris at his retirement, when he considers himself, erroneously, to be a significant and valued employee of the company, a doorman who "saw the Chairman of the Board several times" (84). He experiences a change of fortune when, after a conversation with someone who claims to have remembered him as an employee, it turns out that the other person thought he was someone different. He comes to realize that the firm to which he was so loyal has next to no memory of him and that the gifts he has been given, as tokens of esteem, are worthless. As a result of this anagnorisis he smashes them apart. From here comes the final catastrophe, when he lies in bed weeping, and then dies. Tucked into an apparently realist television play broadcast in 1967 this quotation of a tragic sequence has an unsettled relationship to what's around it.

For the typical Orton style is also very evident, as in the sequence with Buchanan's newly discovered grandson Ray after a woman has been found under his bed. Edith blames "the sex-education"; Ray says he didn't get any but learnt from other boys, which cues Buchanan's almost inevitable line: "What kind of boys are these that teach each other about the family way?" (75). So, too, there are familiar parody targets, through Buchanan's invocations of the value of a "steady" job and the importance of family, views which can be taken to have been learnt from the "firm" to which he is such a loyal servant. But to these are added other areas of parody. In her speech on his retirement, the manager, Mrs Vealfoy, recalls George taking on "extra responsibilities" at the outbreak of the Second World War: "He shouldered his share of the burden which we all had in those days" (58). This is part of a series of references back to a shared recent past which Edith first mentions, using a standard 1960s cliché: "It was the conditions. You couldn't blame them. We were so frightened in those days." Later Buchanan will also invoke "the conditions" when he contrasts his own hardship with that of Ray (54, 75).

While discourse about "those days" was recognised in the 1960s as the rhetoric of an older wartime generation who censure the young, the play's parodie activity begins somewhere much wilder than this. When Buchanan first meets Edith, "as I came along, there seemed something familiar. Something about your stance. Something that awaked memories" (52). As she scrubs the floor, he relates a meeting with a woman who was "in difficulties by the roadside." Edith gives a cry, then when he names her stands up, with tears glistening in her eyes: "It was me!" He recoils: "You!" She pulls off her plastic glove to reveal the ring on her hand. If we are not already associating this with the language of romantic film, Edith's tale will crank up the pressure. "I was turned out by my father. I wandered for a long time until I found somewhere to have the babies." But these are now dead, "Killed in Italy." "What," asks Buchanan, "were they doing so far from home?" "They were wounded in a skirmish and taken to a peasant's hut for shelter," and there they were inadvertently given water from a poisoned well (52-53). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.