Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Good and Faithful Servant by Joe Orton

The meaning of work

The play starts and we are already landing in the most exciting part of the Passover Night. Buchanan and Edith meet again after 40 years. The play takes us to the action very fast, without preludes or preparation. The big event is right there, and Buchanan receives the big news of his life from Edith immediately after they meet. Edith was his only love. He finds out that she had twins after he abandoned her pregnant. The twins died in a sanitary system of an alien country and they “produced” a boy, but nobody knows which one of them was the father. The mother of the twins killed herself when she heard that the twins died. Buchanan is a grandfather. Edith breaks all this news to Buchanan very casually in a few lines. The satirical dark humor is very engaging. Buchanan is retiring after 50 years from a firm. Orton’s portrayal of the corporate approach to his worker’s life is very funny. They own his life, they took his arm and they also want the grandchild he just found out he has. Buchanan is retiring after 50 years of working in that company and all he has left is the presents they give him in his retirement party: a bad working toaster and a bad working clock. But the action pretty much stops there. From now on we’ll just follow him to his death.
Buchanan’s life seems meaningless because he devoted 50 years to work for a firm and nobody remembers him. He has nothing left, not even a friend. Orton is not focusing exclusively on corporate work; he is making a statement about work in general.
- I don’t work, says his grandson Ray
- Not work!? (Stares, open mouthed Buchanan), What do you do then?
- I enjoy myself, responds Ray.
- That’s a terrible thing to do… claims Buchanan. (167)
Orton’s sarcastic humor leaves us with two options, enjoy yourself or be a slave of a corporate firm. The beginning is playful, audacious, dark, funny, but then he seems to be telling us a simple statement: work sucks. He leaves us without any creative option besides enjoying yourself, and he has no more humor when describing Buchanan’s life as a retired man.
Not that the play should present a recipe for a happy life, but since it is presenting a recipe for disaster it would probably be great to see a hint of something other than that lonely, unhappy life. Looking at Buchanan’s story you would think that working full time is not a good idea. But Edith, who spent her life working too, scrubbing floors in the same company, seems to be content. Maybe it’s not good for a man, but for a woman it doesn’t seem to be that bad?
On another note: Abandoning your first love pregnant seems like a very bad idea in Durrenmatt’s play The Visit, but in The Good and Faithful Servant the results are very different. Buchanan finds the woman after many years, she is not upset and she becomes his wife, taking care of him on his last days and he also gets a grandson.

Orton, Joe. The Good and Faithful Servant. The Complete Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1977.