The themes and meanings of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane are more numerous, darker, and more important than may be readily apparent. The play is known for its implied commentary on society’s attitude toward homosexuals and heterosexual practice out of wedlock; but certain other, perhaps less obvious messages are even more fundamental.
Sloane comments on the emptiness of life, and how the characters attempt to distract themselves from it with material objects. “Kath’s house in Entertaining Mr. Sloane is in the middle of a rubbish dump. Everyone who enters it is tainted with a sense of waste. The characters live off the scraps of life and their conversation consists of vernacular throwaways. In a society without a heroic mission, surrounded literally by industrial rubbish, Sloane becomes his own most valuable project. He is a model of narcissistic noncommitment.” (John Lahr, Prick up your Ears, U. of California Press, 2000, p. 148) Ed brags about his two cars and two bank accounts (Entertaining Mr Sloane, 50th Anniversary Edition, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 64, 95); Sloane is delighted with a potential gift of a sports car from Ed (p. 94); Kath fusses over her garden gnome and shepherdess figurine (pp. 81, 115). When Sloane is about to abandon her, Kath asks him if the color of the curtains in his room is the problem (p. 126). Ed forges a relationship with Sloane by offering him the various, partly leather components of a chauffer’s uniform (p. 64).
Self-delusion in supposed love relationships is a stronger theme. Sloane is obviously an amoral, manipulative, self-serving person, with little genuine affection to offer, yet both Ed and Kath want to consider him their lover. After learning that Sloane is having sex with Kath, Ed condemns him; then, after Sloane pleads for pity, Ed forgives him; Sloane then ostensibly accepts Ed as “a pal,” “one of my mates”; their relationship is to continue. Ed reacts with enough emotion that it’s clear he wants more than sex from Sloane, though the audience easily perceives Sloane as a manipulative, self-serving person (pp. 100-103). Kath displays even more need for Sloane and, even after Sloane chooses Ed over her, even after Sloane attacks her physically, she says, “I’ll still forgive and forget” (p. 132) and asks Sloane, not Ed, to help her up (p. 133). One may be left wondering if all romantic relationships are to a great extent delusory.
Lack of morality is another theme of this dark comedy. Despite Ed’s abundant preaching about principles (p. 118, for example) and Kath’s pronouncements against perjury (p. 130, “I’m a firm believer in truth”), both ultimately decide to falsify their accounts of their father’s death to save Sloane from prison, in order to keep him as a supposed lover. As both Ed and Kath may be perceived as somewhat normal individuals in some ways, this outcome calls into question the entire justice system—how often is testimony false?
Our play also suggests that people repeat their past behaviors no matter how disastrous the results. Sloane has already killed one man unintentionally with his fists (p. 107); when Sloane later attacks Kemp, death again isn’t Sloane’s intention but is the result (pp. 108-109, 111). Ed and Kath, prior to getting involved with Sloane, created a love triangle including one Tommy; as with Sloane, a problem pregnancy was one outcome (pp. 86-87). Kemp’s sternly unforgiving side is also repeated. Years earlier, after catching Ed in bed with another young man, Kemp broke off with his son Ed for 20 years (p. 45). On realizing that Sloane has killed a man, Kemp tells Sloane he’ll report Sloane to the police and is beaten to death as a result (pp. 108-109). One might well agree that Kemp would be right to report the killing, but the point is that Kemp behaves sternly and punitively in the two incidents and suffers terrible consequences. Thus all the characters repeat their past behaviors and suffer as a result; one of Orton’s meanings may be that humans fail to learn.
Finally, the denial of serious problems is also a theme of this comedy. The final spoken line is Ed’s “Well, it’s been a pleasant morning. See you later.” (p. 136) when his father has just been killed by Sloane and he and Kath have just arranged a sharing of Sloane’s services, by means of blackmail. At the final curtain, Kath enjoys a sweet. Her chattering about the garden gnome and ceramic shepherdess, her reassuring Sloane, “You’re not that type of young man” after Sloane has beaten her father, her calmly going about housework just after Sloane has seriously assaulted her father (pp. 111-112) convey the theme of denial.
And so Sloane may be one of the most nihilistic plays in existence. By emphasizing certain problems, however, it may serve as one starting point toward self-awareness and consequent improvements in our attitudes and actions. Granted that few of us are as extreme as the characters, we may share some of their flaws in less blatant ways.
The Edge of the Universe Players 2