Monday, June 24, 2013

Understanding "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" or The Importance of Being Experienced

When I first read Joe Orton's first full-length play "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," I was in my early 20s. I knew from the jacket cover that it was a notorious script, full of oedipal transgressions, lecherous characters, death, abusive sexual coercion, etc., etc., but in my youth I found it somewhat difficult to fully understand just why it prompted so many Londoners to storm out of its early productions in a moral tizzy. Hadn't they read the play's reviews? Didn't they come knowing its basic premise? Sure it was outrageous, but that was the fun of it.

Years later I picked up the play for a reread.

This time I was completely scandalized. So many of the passages that I took at face value in my 20s now rang with a salacious double entendre. What the characters were saying (without actually saying it, as is often the case in an Orton play) was truly shocking. What the characters were doing was worse. They were still funny characters, but only because they were so thoroughly depraved, something I missed when I was younger and more intrigued by the play's structure and language.

Orton meant for the play to offend the sensibilities of England's bourgeoisie, if for no other reason than because he wanted them to face their own hypocrisies. Having spent time in prison for a silly crime (defacing library books), he emerged with no social standing at all among polite society, and so had nothing left to lose in holding up a mirror that highlighted the most grotesque of society's behaviors. The play was a very sophisticated skewering of the UK's mores and values in the early 1960's. That sophistication, particularly in his exquisite use of double entrendre and innuendo (such that his characters revealed their true intentions mostly by trying so hard to disguise them), is not only the genius of Orton's work in general, but something that I, in my youth, was not at all prepared to appreciate. It would take having my own youth fade, my own worldly experiences having greatly increased, indeed another 20 years of fully living, before most of what Orton was saying between the lines would become obvious.

I was reminded of my experience with the Orton play by a comment PE Sharpe posted on Facebook. In response to a quote by Hokusai
I have been mad about drawing since I was six years old. By the time I was fifty I had given the public a vast number of drawings, but nothing of what I did before my seventy-third year is worth mentioning. At about the age of seventy-three I had come to understand something of the true nature of animals, plants, fishes, and insects. It follows that by the age of eighty I shall have made further progress, by the age of ninety I shall see into the mystery of thins, and if I live to be one hundred and ten everything I do, even if it is no more than a stroke or a dot, will be alive.
PE wrote, "One can understand neither art nor philosophy in fullness until one has fully lived a life." 

Which isn't to say young artists cannot see and tell the rest of us important things, mind you. Orton wrote "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" at about age 30. But, through his prison experience, he had already experienced more of real life by then than many people twice his age.

It's also not to say there's no point in consuming art or philosophy in one's youth. I loved "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" the first time I read it. It changed my world view, and contributed to the fullness with which I was trying to live my life. It's simply that there was no way I could have appreciated some of its more subtle messages at that age, because I had no way yet to relate to them. 

In the end, perhaps, rather than interpreting this idea as some declaration of superiority of age or experience, which most older people would trade back at least a little for younger bodies, I think it's more an argument for revisiting great works of art and literature throughout one's life. I wouldn't trade the experience of having my jaw drop upon the later reading of "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" (when I realized not only how truly raunchy it was in parts but, more impressively and importantly,  how I had totally missed that in my first read) for anything. It was exhilarating.

It was also much, much funnier the second time around.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of seeing 'The Graduate' as a teenager and then at 50. The first time around I cheered at the end thinking it most romantic. I was disgusted by Mrs. Robinson. At 50 I felt confusion at the end, understood Mrs. Robinson and had an uncomfortable sympathy for her. The film caused me to consider my own progression, the life that was dealt me and the life I chose.

So yes, I agree there is much value in revisiting art - especially the art you've held close.


6/24/2013 08:48:00 PM  

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