He can 'buttle' with the best of them

A 'butler for a week' learns much about the honorable (but outdated?) profession.

It isn't given to everyone to be a butler for a week. Actually, it wasn't given to me – I was part time. I was what one might call an acting butler.

The play, by Somerset Maugham, was "The Constant Wife." Set in the 1920s, it's a call for female equality; an amusing challenge to conventional assumptions of the period about wifely rights, freedoms, and behavior.

I got the role of the butler (called Bentley) because nobody else wanted it. He has few words to utter. But I think the other club members had forgotten the words of Konstantin Stanislavsky: "There are no small parts, there are only small actors. Today Hamlet, tomorrow a walk-on, but even as a walk-on you must become an artist."

This butler is a walk-on all right: He walks on and walks off again – quite a number of times. Mostly, he announces people. Occasionally he is given an order, to which he invariably replies, with practiced respectfulness, "Very good, Sir" ("Madam" or "Miss"), and then sets sail for the exit. He's never on stage for more than a minute. It is possible he could be taken out of the play and no one would notice the difference.

But I am glad he was kept in our production. And I am glad to have played him. Butlers are – well, were – a wonderful breed. Ever so humble, ever so proud, imperturbable, discreet, knowing nothing, knowing everything.

The butler's sense of his indispensability was always a part of his act – an essential ingredient in a household's continual stage performance, otherwise known as everyday life. But by the period of this play, I suspect he was already something of an outdated luxury. However, he remained blithely unconscious that his days were numbered, that the play would soon end. Hilaire Belloc commented aptly:

In my opinion, Butlers ought
To know their place, and not to play
The Old Retainer night and day.

One night, an Englishman from the audience buttonholed me. He recounted a phrase used by P.G. Wodehouse, that doyen of butler-invention, to describe Beech, the butler, entering a room – "in a procession of one."

Thereafter I thought of that imposing description as I opened the doors to enter and exit. I also thought of how a butler called Bentley might move. He would coast, purringly, I felt, with suave ease – a kind of motionless motion – like the car of the same name.

Later, I discovered that Wodehouse had not, in fact, originated the quoted phrase. It was a nice case of larceny as the sincerest form of flattery. Who was it that said writers and artists steal from other writers and artists and call it "paying tribute"?

P.G.'s tribute was to Dickens, who first applied "a procession of one" to Mrs. Hominy in "Martin Chuzzlewit." I am not saying Wodehouse stole it wittingly. It was probably stored in his memory bank. His peculiar genius hardly required conscious plagiarism.

At any rate, no one could fault some of his other sublime butler evocations, such as "The butler loomed in the doorway like a dignified cloudbank" or "Ice formed on the butler's upper slopes."

In the hierarchical class structure of Wodehouse's comic fiction, butlers recurred unforgettably. Only a writer who had known the type firsthand could characterize it with such absurd accuracy. Jeeves, in particular, is unsurpassable.

It is probably impossible for someone acting a butler on stage not to give his characterization a Wodehousean tinge.

But other butlers came up in conversation and research as rehearsals progressed: the stiffly proper butler (with a secret past) played by Alan Bates in the film "Gosford Park." The even stiffer, rigidly loyal Stevens in "The Remains of the Day," played with impeccable reserve by Anthony Hopkins. A surprisingbutler played by John Gielgud in a film encounter with Dudley Moore. And loads of stage butlers.

One of my favorites, and not at all an "old" retainer, is "the admirable Crichton" of J.M. Barrie's play. He is 30 and, shipwrecked on a desert island with his aristocratic employers, proves that circumstances determine status. He soon becomes "the boss."

So I had a rich mine of precedents open to me. Does art follow life, or life art? As I had such a small part, I agreed to act as production assistant through the rehearsal period. The PA rounds up actors when needed, phones ones who have failed to turn up, keeps the snack supply well stocked in the clubhouse kitchen – is, in fact, rather like a butler in permanent attendance.

Then, during performances, I discovered that small, intermittent parts demand constant attention. Actors with longer parts and longer breaks could spend time chatting in the green room. The butler needed to be close by – in the wings for the entire play, always at the ready.

In a manner of speaking, I (the actor) was doing what I suspect "old retainers" have done down the years: I was listening at the door. Then I would coast onstage, pretending I hadn't the faintest idea what dramas had been unfolding therein. I did know, of course. But that's acting. And that's butlers.

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