The subversive genius of Joe Orton

Mel O'Drama

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Nice to see a new piece on Orton, and quite a meaty one too, which actually takes the trouble to interview people who knew him.

One of these days I hope to get round to reading The Orton Diaries and Prick Up Your Ears (I have seen the film version which is excellent).

I probably know Orton best from his frequent mentions in The Kenneth Williams Diaries/Letters. They were good friends and the Edna Welthorpe letters are the stuff of legend.

Fifty years ago the playwright Joe Orton was bludgeoned to death by his boyfriend at the peak of his career. What is Orton's legacy, and what would he have made of the strides towards equality made since his death by gay people in the UK?

Riding high on the success of his latest play, Loot, and waiting for a chauffeur to ferry him to talks about a film he had written for The Beatles, the 34-year-old playwright was attacked as he slept by Kenneth Halliwell at the flat they shared in Islington. Halliwell, who feared Orton had been planning to leave him, then took a fatal overdose.

For Kenneth Cranham, the Olivier award-winning actor and friend of the couple, what happened on 9 August 1967 was hugely personal.

"I still had four grandparents then; I didn't know anyone who had died. So to have one person that I knew so well die and another commit suicide was a living nightmare," he said.

"Everything went into slow motion. In the play [Orton's Loot was being performed at the time of his murder] you were running around with a body in your arms, there were coffins everywhere, and it was [supposed to be] a comedy.

"It was so bizarre."

Born in 1933 as John Orton, he grew up with his three siblings on a Leicester estate typical of those built for workers in the 1920s.

His sister Leonie Orton Barnett has described their home as "drab, soulless and monotonous", epitomising the "worst aspects of Leicester's motto Semper Eadem - always the same".

Orton, whose parents had an unhappy marriage, would leave his hometown at the earliest opportunity. He caught the acting bug in his teens and successfully auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) in London, moving there to study on a scholarship in 1951.

It was at Rada he encountered Halliwell, a troubled man seven years his senior.

"Meeting Halliwell was important because he found a collaborator with a shared sense of humour," said Emma Parker, associate professor in post-war and contemporary literature at the University of Leicester, which houses the Joe Orton Archive and is running a series of events to mark the anniversary of his murder.

"Joe was reading Shakespeare and other writers before he got to London and met Halliwell, so it's not fair to say he learned it all from him, [but] I think they were kindred spirits and they shared a sense of humour."

After leaving Rada, they formed a writing partnership but had little success. The pair often went to bed at sunset to save money on electricity.

In 1962, a bizarre court case would land both men in prison - and ultimately provide the spark Orton needed to break though as a playwright.

The pair had spent more than a year altering library books with garish collages and occasionally obscene text, the targets ranging from biographies and volumes of Shakespeare to novels they viewed as low quality.

Their furtive campaign was eventually rumbled by zealous library staff and they were imprisoned for six months for theft and malicious damage, after a trial that attracted tabloid publicity. Orton believed the severity of the sentence was "because we were queers".

Having gained a degree of separation from Halliwell, after his release Orton began to find success, with The Ruffian on the Stair broadcast on BBC radio in 1964.

Entertaining Mr Sloane, a black comedy that touched on homosexuality and hypocrisy, was widely praised on its release, also in 1964, including by theatre heavyweights such as Terence Rattigan and Tennessee Williams.

The actor Dudley Sutton, who was part of the original cast, said he enjoyed being in a play "that was having a go at the established view of things", and praised Orton's sensitivity as a writer.

"He was so full of life, and I loved the dialogue," he said in conversation with Dr Parker last year.

"To fight the demon of homophobia with a West End comedy was brilliant - I'm very proud to have been a part of it."

Orton's hallmarks as a playwright were black humour, deliberate bad taste, surreal situations and attacks on hypocrisy. His subversive nature helped him to stand out from his peers, with The Times describing Entertaining Mr Sloane as making "the blood boil more than any other British play in the last 10 years".

For Bernard Greaves, a Cambridge architecture student in the mid-60s, Orton's clear-eyed portrayal of aspects of contemporary gay life struck a chord.

"The impact of his plays was enormous," he said.

"I didn't have a large circle of gay friends at that time; I was in the closet living a double life - nearly everybody was, because it was still illegal - but Orton put on stage the reality of what it was like for us in an unvarnished way."

For the playwright's sister, Orton's work helped pave the way for other gay men to be more confident in their sexuality.

"I think people who really understood the writing know that this was somebody original and unique," Ms Orton Barnett said.

"He was so out there with his homosexuality, he was talking about it so frankly, and in such graphic detail, it brought a lot of people out.

"They'd say: 'Joe Orton said it's allowed, so I think it's allowed', and he was so right in being so direct about things.

"I think Joe liked the idea of it being unacceptable, he liked that idea of him being a rebel and being outside of society."

Just weeks before his death, the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised private homosexual acts between gay men over the age of 21, was granted royal assent.

However, with the age limit higher than that for heterosexual sex, and with other restrictions still in place, Ms Orton-Barnett says her brother was not a supporter of the bill.

"I think he liked the mystique about homosexuality, he liked the closeted aspect," she said.

"He wouldn't have gone for the modern gay marriage at all."

Dr Parker agrees, adding that Orton's love of subversion underpins his plays and personality.

"He was kind of queer rather than gay - he liked weirdness and deviance, because 'civilisation' persecuted homosexuals and he thought it was barbaric and didn't want any truck with it," she said.

"It rejected him, and so he rejected it.

"I think his sexuality is really important to his writing and his worldview," adds Dr Parker, who cites Orton as an influence on, among others, contemporary playwrights such as Martin McDonagh and Jez Butterworth, the novelists Jonathan Coe and Jake Arnott, and musicians including Morrissey and the Pet Shop Boys.

"He was a funny writer and full of life, but he was furious about society and sexual inequality; we know that from his diaries and his plays."

Cranham - who said appearing in Ruffian on the Stair aged only 19 "completely changed everything for me" - played Hal in the 1966 West End production of Loot, Orton's satire on the Catholic Church and attitudes to death. (Kenneth Williams had starred in the play's initial, unsuccessful, run in Cambridge the year before.)

"Paul McCartney said that to him theatre meant a sore arse, but he wanted Loot to go on for longer," the actor said.

"It shows Joe wrote plays for all people, and there was a connection between them and him.

"Joe always used to say he was from the gutter, but he just knew what real life was like."

Orton's star continued to rise after his death, with his final play What the Butler Saw - a farce that turns its guns on power and a psychiatric profession that treated homosexuality as a mental illness - becoming a stage success (although Up Against It, a film written for The Beatles, never reached the screen).

What the Butler Saw has been performed in Orton's hometown to mark 50 years since his murder, and several revivals over the years have helped to maintain his status as an iconic figure in British theatre.

Ms Orton Barnett argues that her brother's plays and posthumously published diaries give him a similar standing to some of the giants of literature.

"I always say the equivalent of Shakespeare in the 1960s was Harold Pinter, and Joe was the Christopher Marlowe - he died a violent death, but he was really important culturally," she said.

"He didn't conform at all - he always said that he writes the truth."

For Cranham, who was among stars including Pinter and Donald Pleasance to attend Orton's atheist funeral service, the playwright's unerring brilliance as a writer of farcical satire remains a loss keenly felt by British theatre.

"I wish we could have known what would have happened to him as an older writer," he said.

"He was a great writer, and could have done so much."

Mel O'Drama

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The death of Joe Orton - archive, August 1967
How the Guardian reported the death of Joe Orton, 50 years ago, from his funeral to the legal problems with his will

On 9 August 1967, the playwright Joe Orton was murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in their Islington flat. The following day, Guardian theatre critic Philip Hope-Wallace wrote, “Joe Orton had an irreverent eye and a splendid ear for comic dialogue. It was ruthless, mordant, epigrammatic, and formal in a way which caused people to make comparisons to Oscar Wilde.”

Joe Orton’s funeral, which included Beatles music and verse, took place a week later. Before this though, it became apparent there were legal problems regarding his will.

Legal problem of Orton will
By Dennis Barker
The Guardian, 15 August 1967

Joe Orton, the playwright, and Kenneth Halliwell, who shared his tiny flat in Islington for eight years until they were both found dead in it last week, left their estates to each other. This will provoke one of the most complex and unusual pieces of legal argument for years about the future of literary property.

Mr Orton, aged 34, was found dead with head injuries on Wednesday. A bloodstained hammer was nearby. Mr Halliwell, aged 41, the man who, friends say, taught Orton all he knew about writing until Orton’s increasing success made him feel irrelevant. was found dead of an overdose of drugs near Orton.

Their flat was at one time decorated from floor to ceiling with cut-outs from coloured magazines, and both went to prison in 1962 for defacing library books. Mr Orton said afterwards that prison had been good for his writing.

Considerable sums of money will be involved in the inheritance. The film rights of Loot, the play which derided death and the police, will alone bring in £100,000. Both Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane are published in book form, and a new play, Crimes of Passion, will be published in the autumn.

A friend of both of them said yesterday:
Orton was making big sums of money and was living in one room in Islington. Halliwell, though he considered himself the failure, was also making sums of money through writing and his art works. You can guess what sort of amount of money is involved already.

There is also the recently completed play, What the Butler Saw. Mr Orton was in negotiation with Oscar Lewenstein over the rights, but had not actually signed a contract. This copyright, with the remaining rights in the works for which contracts already exist, will almost certainly go to either the Orton or Halliwell families, according to whether Orton or Halliwell is legally held to have inherited the property of the other.

In general terms, in the event of a double death with cross-wills, the estate would go, in law, to the person who died last, and thereafter to his next of kin. It is also the legal position that a murderer may not inherit the property of his victim, if he is found to be sane at the time of the crime. If he is found to be not of sound mind at the time of the crime, he may inherit.

Both the Orton and the Halliwell families were legally represented when the inquest on the two men opened yesterday at St Pancras coroner’s court, behind gasholders, railway sidings, and steel yards – the sort of environment in which Mr Orton, born at Leicester, wrote about corruption, deception, and death with the apparent ease of a flip joke.

The St Pancras deputy coroner, Dr J. D. K. Burton, took less than three minutes to open the inquest and adjourn it until September 4. The doctor who was to give medical evidence was abroad on holiday. Only evidence of identification was given. Mr Douglas William Orton, of Ambleside Drive, Leicester, a plumber, identified his brother – John Kingsley Orton as the court list officially had it. Mr Orton, a small man in a navy blue suit and an RAF blue shirt, left the witness box in a matter of seconds.

Mr Halliwell was identified by Miss Margaret Ramsey, Mr Orton’s agent. She, too, left the box within seconds. It only remained for the coroner to announce the adjournment and to apologise for starting the court a quarter of an hour late – a touch that almost certainly would have appealed to the playwright’s disbelief in the expected order of things.

While the legal position has still to be established, there will be a secular funeral service for Mr Orton at Golders Green Crematorium on Friday. Mr Harold Pinter, the playwright, and Mr Donald Pleasence, the actor, will speak in an informal order of service. Mr Halliwell’s funeral will be strictly private.

Mr Orton’s works will long survive him, commercially, although no unexpected finds of full-length plays are expected. A number of snippets, which may or may not be capable of performance. have been impounded by the police in the course of investigations, and will not be released until the coroner’s jury returns its verdict in September. Among people at the coroner’s court yesterday was Mr Peter Willes, head of plays at Rediffusion, the commercial television company. Mr Orton had two plays due to appear on television – Funeral Games and Entertaining Mr Sloane, the play about the competition between a woman and a homosexual for a young thug, which first made him famous.

The will was published in April 1968.