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Orton in 1964
|Born||John Kingsley Orton
1 January 1933
|Died||9 August 1967
Islington, London, England
|Partner||Kenneth Halliwell (1926–1967)|
John Kingsley "Joe" Orton (1 January 1933 – 9 August 1967) was an English playwright and author. His public career was short but prolific, lasting from 1964 until his death three years later. During this brief period he shocked, outraged, and amused audiences with his scandalous black comedies. The adjective Ortonesque is sometimes used to refer to work characterised by a similarly dark yet farcical cynicism.
Orton was born at Causeway Lane Maternity Hospital, Leicester, to William A. Orton and Elsie M. Orton (nėe Bentley). William worked for Leicester County Borough Council as a gardener and Elsie worked in the local footwear industry until tuberculosis cost her a lung. When Joe was two years old, they moved from 261 Avenue Road Extension in Clarendon Park, Leicester, to the Saffron Lane council estate. He soon had a younger brother, Douglas, and two younger sisters, Marilyn and Leonie.
Orton attended Marriot Road Primary School, but failed the eleven-plus exam after extended bouts of asthma, and so took a secretarial course at Clark's College in Leicester from 1945 to 1947. He then began working as a junior clerk on £3 a week.
Orton became interested in performing in the theatre around 1949 and joined a number of different dramatic societies, including the prestigious Leicester Dramatic Society. While working on amateur productions he was also determined to improve his appearance and physique, buying bodybuilding courses, taking elocution lessons, and trying to redress his lack of education and culture. He applied for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in November 1950. He was accepted, and left the East Midlands for London. His entrance into RADA was delayed until May 1951 by appendicitis.
Orton met Kenneth Halliwell at RADA in 1951 and moved into a West Hampstead flat with him and two other students in June of that year. Halliwell was seven years older than Orton and of independent means, having a substantial inheritance. They quickly formed a strong relationship and became lovers.
After graduating, both Orton and Halliwell went into regional repertory work: Orton spent four months in Ipswich as an assistant stage manager; Halliwell in Llandudno, Wales. Both returned to London and began to write together. They collaborated on a number of unpublished novels (often imitating Ronald Firbank) with no success at gaining publication. The rejection of their great hope, The Last Days of Sodom, in 1957 led them to solo works. Orton wrote his last novel, The Vision of Gombold Proval (posthumously published as Head to Toe), in 1959. He would later draw on these manuscripts for ideas; many show glimpses of his stage-play style.
Confident of their "specialness", Orton and Halliwell refused to work for long periods. They subsisted on Halliwell's money (and unemployment benefits) and were forced to follow an ascetic life to restrict their outgoings to £5 a week. From 1957 to 1959, they worked in six-month stretches at Cadbury's to raise money for a new flat; they moved into a small, austere flat at 25 Noel Road in Islington in 1959.
Crimes and punishment
A lack of serious work led them to amuse themselves with pranks and hoaxes. Orton created the alter ego Edna Welthorpe, an elderly theatre snob, whom he would later revive to stir controversy over his plays. Orton chose the name as an allusion to Terence Rattigan's "Aunt Edna", Rattigan's archetypal playgoer.
From January 1959, they began to surreptitiously remove books from several local public libraries and modify the cover art or the blurbs before returning them to the shelves. A volume of poems by John Betjeman, for example, was returned to the library with a new dustjacket featuring a photograph of a nearly naked, heavily tattooed, middle-aged man. The couple decorated their flat with many of the prints. They were eventually discovered and prosecuted in May 1962. They were found guilty on five counts of theft and malicious damage, admitted damaging more than 70 books, and were sentenced to prison for six months (released September 1962) and fined £262. The incident was reported in Daily Mirror as "Gorilla in the Roses".
Orton and Halliwell felt that that sentence was unduly harsh "because we were queers". However, prison would be a crucial formative experience for Orton; the isolation from Halliwell would allow him to break free of him creatively; and he would clearly see what he considered the corruption, 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 crystallised this. The old whore society really lifted up her skirts and the stench was pretty foul.... Being in the nick brought detachment to my writing. I wasn't involved any more. And suddenly it worked." The book covers that Orton and Halliwell vandalised have since become a valued part of the Islington Local History Centre collection. Some are exhibited in the Islington Museum.
A collection of the book covers is available online.
Orton began to write plays in the early 1960s. Eventually, in 1963, the BBC paid £65 for the radio play The Ruffian on the Stair, broadcast on 31 August 1964. It was substantially rewritten for the stage in 1966.
Orton revelled in his achievement and poured out new works. He had completed Entertaining Mr Sloane by the time Ruffian was broadcast. He sent a copy to theatre agent Peggy Ramsay in December 1963. It premiered at the New Arts Theatre on 6 May 1964, produced by Michael Codron. Reviews ranged from praise to outrage.
Entertaining Mr Sloane lost money in its three-week run, but critical praise from playwright Terence Rattigan, who invested £3,000 in it, ensured its survival. The play was transferred to Wyndham's Theatre in the West End at the end of June and to the Queen's Theatre in October. Sloane tied for first in the Variety Critics' Poll for "Best New Play" and Orton came second for "Most Promising Playwright". Within a year, Sloane was being performed in New York, Spain, Israel, and Australia, as well as being made into a film (after Orton's death) and a television play.
Orton's next performed work was Loot. The first draft was written between June and October 1964 and was called Funeral Games, a title Orton would drop at Halliwell's suggestion but would later reuse. The play is a wild parody of detective fiction, adding the blackest farce and jabs at established ideas on death, the police, religion, and justice. Orton offered the play to Codron in October 1964 and it underwent sweeping rewrites before it was judged fit for the West End (for example, the character of "Inspector Truscott" had a mere eight lines in the initial first act).
Codron had manoeuvred Orton into meeting his colleague Kenneth Williams in August 1964. Orton reworked Loot with Williams in mind for Truscott. His other inspiration for the role was DS Harold Challenor.
With the success of Sloane, Loot was hurried into pre-production despite its obvious flaws. Rehearsals began in January 1965, with plans for a six-week tour culminating in a West End debut. The play opened in Cambridge on 1 February to scathing reviews.
Orton, at odds with director Peter Wood over the plot, produced 133 pages of new material to replace, or add to, the original 90. The play received poor reviews in Brighton, Oxford, Bournemouth, Manchester, and finally Wimbledon in mid-March. Discouraged, Orton and Halliwell went on an 80-day holiday in Tangier, Morocco.
In January 1966, Loot was revived, with Oscar Lewenstein taking up an option. Before his production, it had a short run (11–23 April) at the University Theatre, Manchester. Orton's growing experience led him to cut over 600 lines, raising the tempo and improving the characters' interactions.
Directed by Braham Murray, the play garnered more favourable reviews. Lewenstein, still a bit cool, put the London production in a "sort of Off-West End theatre," the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre in Bloomsbury, under the direction of Charles Marowitz.
Orton clashed with Marowitz, although the additional cuts they agreed to further improved the play. This production was first staged in London on 27 September 1966, to rave reviews. Ronald Bryden in The Observer asserted that it had "established Orton's niche in English drama". Loot moved to the Criterion Theatre in November where it ran for 342 performances. This time it won several awards, and he sold the film rights for £25,000. Loot, when performed on Broadway in 1968, repeated the failure of Sloane, and the film version of the play was not a success when it surfaced in 1970.
Orton was on an absolute high after the reception of Loot. Over the next ten months, he revised The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp for the stage as a double called Crimes of Passion, wrote Funeral Games, wrote the screenplay Up Against It for the Beatles, and his final full-length play What the Butler Saw.
The Erpingham Camp, Orton's take on The Bacchae, written through mid-1965 and offered to Rediffusion in October of that year, was broadcast on 27 June 1966 as the "pride" segment in their series Seven Deadly Sins. The Good and Faithful Servant was a transitional work for Orton. A one-act television play, it was completed by June 1964 but first broadcast by Associated-Rediffusion on 6 April 1967.
Orton wrote and rewrote Funeral Games four times from July to November 1966. Created for a 1967 Rediffusion series, The Seven Deadly Virtues, Orton's play dealt with charity—especially Christian charity—in a confusion of adultery and murder. Rediffusion did not use the play; instead, it was made as one of the first productions of the new ITV company Yorkshire Television, and broadcast posthumously on 26 August 1968.
In March 1967, Orton and Halliwell had intended another extended holiday in Libya, but they returned home after one day because the only hotel accommodation they could find was a boat that had been converted into a hotel/nightclub. Orton was working hard, energised and happy; Halliwell was increasingly depressed, argumentative, and plagued with mystery ailments.
Orton's once controversial farce What The Butler Saw debuted in the West End after his death in 1969. It opened at the Queen's Theatre with Sir Ralph Richardson, Coral Browne, Stanley Baxter, and Hayward Morse.
On 9 August 1967, Kenneth Halliwell bludgeoned 34-year-old Orton to death at their home at 25 Noel Road, Islington, London, with nine hammer blows to the head, and then committed suicide with an overdose of 22 Nembutal tablets washed down with the juice from canned grapefruit. Investigators determined that Halliwell had died first, because Orton's sheets were still warm.
The 22 November 1970 edition of The Sunday Times reported that on 5 August 1967, four days before the murder, Orton went to the Chelsea Potter pub in the King's Road. He met friend Peter Nolan, who later gave evidence at the inquest that Orton told him that he had another boyfriend and wanted to end his relationship with Halliwell, but did not know how to go about it.
The last person to speak to Halliwell 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 was at 10 o'clock. Halliwell took the psychiatrist's address, and said: "Don't worry, I'm feeling better now. I'll go and see the doctor tomorrow morning."
Halliwell had felt increasingly threatened and isolated by Orton's success, and had come to rely on antidepressants and barbiturates. The 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 Up Against It. 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.
Orton was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium, his maroon cloth-draped coffin being brought into the west chapel to a recording of The Beatles song "A Day in the Life". Harold Pinter read the eulogy, concluding with "He was a bloody marvellous writer." According to Dennis Dewsnap's memoir, What's Sex Got To Do With It (The Syden Press, 2004), Orton and Halliwell had their ashes mixed and were buried together. Dewsnap writes about Orton's agent Peggy Ramsay: "...At the scattering of Joe's and Kenneth's ashes, his sister took a handful from both urns and said, 'A little bit of Joe, and a little bit of Kenneth. I think perhaps a little bit more of our Joe, and then some more of Kenneth.' At which Peggy snapped, 'Come on, dearie, it's only a gesture, not a recipe.'" She described Orton's relatives as simply "the little people in Leicester", leaving a cold, nondescript note and bouquet at the funeral on their behalf.
Orton's ashes lie in section 3-C of the Garden of Remembrance at Golders Green. There is no memorial.
Orton's legacy stands to live on in his hometown, Leicester; the development of the "cultural quarter" of the city, a former industrial area, continues apace and the new theatre, Curve, the central development in the area, has a new pedestrian concourse outside the theatre's main entrance named "Orton Square". Curve officially opened 4 December 2008.
Biography and film, radio, TV
John Lahr's biography of Orton, entitled Prick Up Your Ears (a title Orton himself had considered using), was published in 1978. The 1987 film adaptation is based on Orton's diaries and on Lahr's research. Directed by Stephen Frears, it stars Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Halliwell and Vanessa Redgrave as Peggy Ramsay. Alan Bennett wrote the screenplay. (Orton's original title, conceived some time before Lahr's book, was to have been Prick Up Your Erse, erse being a pronunciation of arse.)
Carlos Be wrote a play about Orton and Halliwell's last days, Noel Road 25: A Genius Like Us, first performed in 2001. It received its New York premiere in 2012, produced by Repertorio Español.
Two archive recordings of Orton are known to survive: a short BBC radio interview first transmitted in August 1967 and a video recording, held by the British Film Institute, of his appearance on Eamonn Andrews' ITV chat show transmitted 23 April 1967.
- Fred and Madge (written 1959, published 2001)
- The Visitors (written 1961, published 2001)
- The Ruffian on the Stair (first performance 1964) Radio play
- Entertaining Mr Sloane (first performance 1964)
- Loot (first performance 1965)
- The Erpingham Camp (first performance 1966)
- The Good and Faithful Servant (first performance 1967)
- Funeral Games (first performance 1968)
- What the Butler Saw (first performance 1969)
- Up Against It (screenplay)
- Head to Toe (published 1971)
- Between Us Girls (published 2001)
- Lord Cucumber and The Boy Hairdresser (co-written with Halliwell) (published 1999)
- Stage and Screen Lives, 9, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 249.
- Lahr (1978) pp.109–111
- Philip Hoare, "Kenneth Halliwell: lover, killer… artist?", The Guardian, 30 September 2013.
- "Life and Work: 'Because We were Queers': 1 OF 2". Joe Orton Online. 28 April 1962. Retrieved 30 March 2012.
- "Life and Work: 'Because We were Queers': 2 OF 2". Joe Orton Online. Retrieved 30 March 2012.
- "Library books stolen by Joe Orton go on display". Evening Standard. 12 May 2008.
- "Joe Orton Gallery". Joeorton.org. Retrieved 30 March 2012.
- Colin Chambers Peggy: The Life of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent, Nick Hern Books, 1997, pp. 164-65.
- Chambers, p. 165.
- Chambers, p. 166.
- Orton, Joe; Lahr, John (1996). The Orton Diaries. Da Capo Press. p. 266. ISBN 0-306-80733-5.
- Michael Thornton, "Why I blame myself for the murder of Sixties playwright Joe Orton", Mail Online, 4 April 2009.
- A Times correspondent, 19 August 1967 – timesonline archive assessed 27 August 2009.
- Colin Chambers in his biography of Peggy Ramsay disputes the veracity of this anecdote, though not the mixing of ashes. See Chambers' Peggy, p. 168.
- "A Ceremony" by Leonie Barnett, Entertaining Mr. Sloane Programme, Ambassadors' Theatre Group, 2009.
- Golders Green Crematorium guide notes
- "Sobre Carlos Be". Retrieved 3 September 2012.
- "Noel Road 25: a genius like us – Out of the Wings". Retrieved 3 September 2012.
- "Plays produced by Repertorio Español (Spanish Theatre Repertory) since its founding in 1968", 2012. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
- Banham, Martin (ed.), 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43437-8.
- Bigsby, C. W. E., 1982. Joe Orton. Contemporary Writers series. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-416-31690-5.
- Burke, Arthur, 2001. Laughter in the Dark – The Plays of Joe Orton, Billericay, Essex: Greenwich Exchange. ISBN 1-871551-56-0.
- Charney, Maurice. 1984. Joe Orton. Grove Press Modern Dramatists series. NY: Grove Press. ISBN 0-394-54241-X.
- Coppa, Francesca (ed.), 2002. Joe Orton: A Casebook. Casebooks on Modern Dramatists series. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-8153-3627-6.
- DiGaetani, John Louis, 2008. Stages of Struggle: Modern Playwrights and Their Psychological Inspirations, Jefferson: McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-3157-1.
- Fox, James, 1970. "The Life and Death of Joe Orton", The Sunday Times Magazine, 22 November.
- Lahr, John, 1978. Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 0-7475-6014-5.
- --- 1976: Joe Orton: The Complete Plays, London: Methuen. ISBN 0413346102
- --- (ed.), 1986. The Orton Diaries, by Joe Orton. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-306-80733-5.
- ---. 1989. Diary of a Somebody, London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-61180-9.
- Orton, Joe, 1976. The Complete Plays, London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-34610-2.
- Ruskino, Susan, 1995. Joe Orton. Twayne's English Authors series. Boston: Twayne. ISBN 0-8057-7034-8.
- Shepherd, Simon, 1989. Because We're Queers: The Life and Crimes of Joe Orton and Kenneth Haliwell, London: Gay Men's Press: 1989: ISBN 978-0-85449-090-5