Flashback: Eric Idle’s Only Stage Play and How It Got to Germany

It was 40 years ago today, that Monty Python’s Life of Brian – the best known film by the British comedy troupe – was shown for the first time. The movie about Brian, a guy born on the same day as Jesus in a neighbouring stable and mistaken for the Messiah throughout the film, premiered in five theatres across the United States on August 17, 1979. Monty Python – the group was John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle. They had made themselves a household name with their  TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which premiered on British television in 1969. Their oeuvre mainly concentrated on TV, films, touring stage shows and records. Still today, they are certainly recognized as one of the most influential comedy groups of the late 1900s. In 2005, three of them were voted into the list of the Top 30 comedians of all time by other comedians from the UK and the USA.

Lesser known is the fact that one of the members of Monty Python – the one who was voted number 21 in aforementioned list – also wrote a stage play, that was produced in the London West End in 1982.

I was, at the time, engaged in English Drama Group of Münster University and in the spring of that year discovered what would become my favourite role I ever played on stage. As I usually did more than once a year during the 70s and 80s, I spent a few weeks in Britain. When browsing through some record shops in Soho one day, a poster for a play by Eric Idle caught my eye. The English Drama Group were, needless to say, all fans of English humour and comedy – Monty Python were cited regularly. Hardly having seen the advert, I had already bought a ticket for the play – hoping but not foreseeing, that I would spend one of the most amusing evenings in theatre at the Globe a couple of days later.

Revolving around a hilariously played protagonist William Rushton – long time radio and TV comedian – I saw what has been described as ”A satirical look at British social and political mores“, with all the Idle humour you could wish for. Every character in this comedy-cum-mystery is a little more than a bit over the top, mostly a bunch of upper class loonies (not quite as overplayed as in the Pythons’ sketch Upper Class Twit of the Year, but you get the picture).

The scene of Pass the Butler is the country home of the Charles family. Sir Robert Charles (a Tory) is Minister of Defence and Deputy Prime Minister of the UK – but he is dying, having suffered a heart attack about a year ago, which has successfully been withheld from the public until this day. He is on life support, laid in a coffin in the middle of the estate drawing room (i.e., the middle of the stage). The family have decided to pull the plug – it’s Sir Robert’s birthday and everyone gather in the room; Lady Charles, heir apparent Hugo (38), his twin sister Annabel (29); their younger brother Nigel, an Oxford student of Zen buddhism; Kitty, a nanny not just a little hard of hearing but also seemingly quite dim-witted; Ronnie, a politician friend of Sir Robert’s; and Butler, the butler. But right before the ceremony of switching Sir Robert off, they get the message, that the Prime Minister has died and Sir Robert is the new Prime Minister. They wait, yet within minutes, the life support machine stops – the Prime Minister has mysteriously been murdered by other means.

A police inspector had arrived on the scene beforehand, pretending to be a journalist, as well as a reporter claiming to be the police and they all together try to solve the riddle of the murder. In the evolving confusion, it is revealed that Sir Robert is not Sir Robert, but – no, no spoiler, just a word that Idle is playing on the themes of transvestism and transgendering. (Just a reminder: at the time, Margaret Thatcher was the first female British Prime Minister.) During the course of the rest of the farce, almost everybody learns that they are not who they and the audience believed they were – a typically Pythonesque chaos.

Critics did not give the play all the recognition it deserved. The first production was by the Cambridge Theatre Company in 1981 and it was then brought to the Globe in the West End in early 1982. Michael Coveney in the Financial Times reviewed its opening night as ”…a cheap reproduction of Joe Orton, combining elements of Loot and What the Butler Saw in a flagrantly tactless exercise of misguided hommage.“ The Daily Telegraph confirmed it to have ”an atmosphere of skyborne lunacy … splendidly nonsensical … kept its first night audience laughing continuously.“ The Harvard Crimson decided that “Idle uses the opportunity to take pot shots Americans, the British government, and the class system while moralizing on euthanasia;” whilst “the abrupt, anticlimactic denouement fails to resolve all the political and moral issues it raises. But as entertainment, Pass the Butler is more than satisfying.”

Pass the Butler only lasted in the Globe for less than five months. But it has been around time and again since then. One of the latest productions to be found on the web was by the Brighton Theatre Company from Brighton, Melbourne, Australia, in November 2018.

However, I at least was enthused and bought the book the next day, took it home to Münster and suggested it be our next production. The troupe was as positive about this as me, and thus it came to pass that, as far as I know, Pass the Butler had its German premiere on the Studiobühne of Münster University in February 1983, with yours truly thoroughly enjoying the part of Hugo, based on a fantastic Willie Rushton in the original.

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