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.
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.
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.