Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Joe Orton

Joe Orton (1933-1967), was an English playwright and author. His prolific three-year public career was cut short by a tragic murder-suicide by his lover, when Orton was only thirty-four years old. During this brief period he shocked, outraged, and amused audiences with his scandalous black comedies.

Born in Leicester (East Midlands) to working class parents, Joe began acting in local productions at the age of sixteen. He determined to improve his appearance and physique by engaging in bodybuilding and elocution lessons, while trying to redress his lack of education and culture. Joe applied for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (London) in November of 1950 and was accepted as a seventeen year old.

Joe met fellow student Kenneth Halliwell (1926-1967) in 1951 at the Royal Academy, and the two became roommates and lovers. Halliwell was seven years older than Orton and of independent means through a substantial inheritance. After graduation, they collaborated on a number of novels, put none found a publisher*. From that point they worked at writing independently. They settled in the Islington neighborhood of London, living off Kenneth’s inheritance, unemployment benefts and brief stints as workers for Cadbury’s chocolatier.

*Two of them – Lord Cucumber and The Boy Hairdresser – were eventually published in 1999.

The couple amused themselves by stealing books from the local library and modifying the covers before returning them. A volume of poems by John Betjeman, for example, was returned to the library with a new dust jacket featuring a photograph of a nearly naked, heavily tattooed, middle-aged man. In 1962 they were eventually discovered and prosecuted for stealing and damaging library books (example at left), charged with five counts of theft and malicious damage. They admitted to defacing more than 70 books and were jailed for six months and fined £262. Orton and Halliwell stated that the sentence was unduly harsh "because we were queers"*.  However, prison would be a crucial formative experience for Orton, and the isolation from Halliwell would allow him to break free of his lover creatively. Orton developed a cynicism of the corruptness, priggishness and double standards of a purportedly liberal country.

As Orton put it, “It affected my attitude towards society. Before I had been vaguely conscious of something rotten somewhere, prison crystallized this. The old whore society really lifted up her skirts and the stench was pretty foul... Being in the nick (jail) brought detachment to my writing. I wasn't involved anymore. And suddenly, it worked.” He had found his literary voice.

*The book covers that Orton and Halliwell vandalized have since become a valued part of the Islington Local History Centre collection. Some are exhibited in the Islington Museum.

Orton began writing plays, and it was as a playwright that he met with success. In 1963 the BBC paid £65 for a radio play that was broadcast the following year. This play, The Ruffian on the Stair, was substantially rewritten for the stage in 1966. Orton reveled in his achievement, and new works poured forth. He had completed Entertaining Mr. Sloane by the time Ruffian was broadcast. He sent a copy to a theatre agent in 1963, and it was produced on the stage in 1964 under the direction of Michael Codron. Reviews ranged from praise to outrage.

Portrait of Orton by Lewis Morley: 1965

Entertaining Mr. Sloane lost money in its initial three-week run, but critical praise from playwright Terence Rattigan ensured its survival. The play was transferred to Wyndham's Theatre in the West End and later to the Queen's Theatre. Significantly, Entertaining Mr. Sloane tied for first place in the Variety Critics' Poll for "Best New Play" and Orton himself won second place as "Most Promising Playwright." Within a year, Entertaining Mr. Sloane was being performed in New York, Spain, Israel and Australia. As well it was soon made into a film and a television play.

Orton's next performed work was Loot, a wild parody of detective fiction, peppered with the blackest farce and jabs at establishment ideas on death, the police, religion and justice. However, the performances in regional theatres met with scathing reviews, and it was obvious the play needed extensive reworking. Instead, Joe and Kenneth took a head-clearing 80-day holiday in Tangier, Morocco, after which Joe finally did the work necessary to improve the play. A completely revamped Loot opened in London’s West End in late September, 1966, to rave reviews. Loot went on to win several awards and firmly established Orton's fame. In January 1967, Loot was awarded the London Evening Standard award for Best Play of 1966. Much to Halliwell’s disappointment, Orton took his agent Peggy Ramsay to the awards ceremony. Orton went dressed in Halliwell’s striped suit, and Orton and Ramsay were announced as ‘Mr. & Mrs. Orton’. Ramsay had said to Orton, “I’ll be your wife for the afternoon”. The incident left Halliwell vexed and aggrieved.

The problem was, less than a year later Orton (shirtless in photo) was dead.  Halliwell (at right) had been unable to deal with his own failure when measured against Orton’s new-found fame. Halliwell became increasingly depressed, argumentative and plagued by mystery ailments. He had felt threatened and isolated by Orton's success and had come to rely on anti-depressants and barbiturates. On August 9, 1967, Kenneth Halliwell bludgeoned 34-year-old Orton to death at his home in Islington with nine hammer blows to the head. He then committed suicide by an overdose of Nembutal. Investigators determined that Orton died first, because Halliwell's body was still warm when the police arrived. The two bodies were discovered the following morning when a chauffeur arrived to take Orton to a meeting with director Richard Lester to discuss filming options on one of his plays.

Four days before the murder, Orton went to a pub to meet his friend Peter Nolan, who later gave evidence at the inquest that Orton had told him that he had another boyfriend and wanted to end his relationship with Halliwell, but did not know how to go about it. As for Halliwell, the last person to speak with him was his doctor, who arranged for a psychiatrist to see him the following morning. He spoke to Halliwell three times on the telephone, the last call at 10 o'clock. Halliwell took down the psychiatrist's address and said, "Don't worry, I'm feeling better now. I'll go and see the doctor tomorrow morning."

Halliwell left a suicide note, informing police that all would be explained if they read Orton's diaries, "especially the latter part". The diaries have since been published. Nevertheless, Orton’s star continued to shine in posthumous first performances of Funeral Games (1968) and What the Butler Saw (1969).

What the Butler Saw (BBC production)

John Lahr (son of Bert Lahr, of The Wizard of Oz fame) wrote a biography of Orton titled Prick Up Your Ears. The 1987 film adaptation is based on Orton's diaries and Lahr's research. It starred Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Halliwell and Vanessa Redgrave as Peggy Ramsay, Orton’s theatrical agent. Alan Bennett wrote the screenplay.

All agree that the light of a supremely talented playwright had been prematurely and tragically extinguished.

Trivia: The adjective “Ortonesque” is sometimes used to refer to works characterized by a dark yet farcical cynicism.


  1. A remarkable man. If only he had lived longer... RIP Jx

  2. I saw the film, Prick Up Your Ears, and it was very sad. So young, so handsome and so talented. He died way too soon.