John Kingsley (“Joe”) Orton (1 January 1933 – 9 August 1967 ) was an English playwright.
In a short but prolific career lasting from 1964 until his death, he shocked, outraged and amused audiences with his scandalous black comedies. Ortonesque became a recognised term for “outrageously macabre”.
Early Life and Work
William and Elsie Orton married in 1931. Elsie worked in the local footwear industry until tuberculosis cost her a lung; William worked for Leicester Council as a gardener. Their eldest son John was born at Causeway Lane Maternity Hospital, Leicester, into their working-class family. When he was two years old, they moved from 261 Avenue Road Extension in Clarendon Park, Leicester, to the Saffron Lane council estate. Joe 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 became writers. They collaborated on a number of unpublished novels (often imitating Ronald Firbank), and had little success. The rejection of their great hope, The Last Days of Sodom, in 1957 led them to solo works. Orton would later return to the books 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 in order to restrict their outgoings to £5 a week. From 1957–1959, 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.
They would also steal books from the local library and subtly modify the cover art or the blurbs before returning them to the library. 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 for this in May 1962. The incident was reported in Daily Mirror as “Gorilla in the Roses”. They were charged with five counts of theft and malicious damage, admitted damaging more than 70 books, and were jailed for six months (released September 1962) and fined £262. 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 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 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 anymore. 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.
The collection of book covers can be viewed here: http://www.joeorton.org/Pages/Joe_Orton_Gallery13.html
Orton began to write plays in the early 1960s. He wrote his last novel, Head to Toe, in 1961 and had his writing accepted soon afterward. 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 under the direction of 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 and a television play.
Orton’s next performed work was Loot. The first draft was written between June and October 1964 and entitled 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 a six-week tour culminating in a West End debut planned. 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 Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in Bloomsbury, under the direction of Charles Marowitz.
Orton continued his habit of clashing with directors with Marowitz, but the additional cuts they agreed to further improved the play. It premiered in London on 27 September 1966, to rave reviews. Loot moved to the Criterion Theatre in November, raising Orton’s confidence to new heights while he was in the middle of writing What the Butler Saw.
Loot went on to win several awards and firmly established Orton’s fame. He sold the film rights for £25,000 although he was certain it would flop. It did, and Loot on Broadway repeated the failure of Sloane. But Orton, still on an absolute high, proceeded over the next ten months to revise 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 worked on What the Butler Saw.
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.
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.
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 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, Halliwell bludgeoned 34-year-old Orton to death at his home in 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 died first, because Orton’s body was 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 didn’t 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 anti-depressants and barbiturates. The bodies were discovered the following morning when a chauffeur arrived to take Orton to a meeting to discuss a screenplay he had written for the Beatles.
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,’ a line surely worthy of Joe himself, though indicative of the contempt in which Ramsey held the Orton family. She described them as simply “the little people in Leicester”, leaving a cold, nondescript note and bouquet at the funeral on their behalf.
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 wrote a biography of Orton entitled Prick Up Your Ears, a title Orton himself had considered using, in 1978. The 1987 film adaptation is based on Orton’s diaries and on Lahr’s research. Directed by Stephen Frears, it starred Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Halliwell and Vanessa Redgrave as Peggy Ramsay. Alan Bennett wrote the screenplay.
Joe Orton was played by the actor Kenny Doughty in the BBC film Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!, starring Michael Sheen as Kenneth Williams.
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)
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)
1. Stage and Screen Lives, p.249, Oxford University Press, 2001.
2.The Life of Joe Orton
3.The Life of Joe Orton
5. A Times correspondent 19 08 1967 – timesonline archive assessed 27 08 2009
6. “A Ceremony” by Leonie Barnett, Entertaining Mr. Sloane Programme, Ambassadors’ Theatre Group, 2009.’
Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. ISBN 0-521-43437-8.
Bigsby, C. W. E. 1982. Joe Orton. Contemporary Writers ser. 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 ser. NY: Grove P. ISBN 0-394-54241-X.
Coppa, Francesca, ed. 2002. Joe Orton: A Casebook. Casebooks on Modern Dramatists ser. 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 issue of 22 November.
Lahr, John. 1978. Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 0-7475-6014-5.
—, 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 ser. Boston: Twayne. ISBN 0-8057-7034-8.