Joe Orton

English playwright and author Joe Orton, was brutally murdered 9 August 1967. Born 1 January 1933. His public career was short but prolific, lasting from 1964 until his death. 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. He attended a writing 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 They collaborated on a number of unpublished novels (often imitating Ronald Firbank), and had little success.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 inIslington in 1959.

A lack of serious work led Orton and his friends 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 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 stealing and damaging library books 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 sentenced to prison 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 what he considered 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. A collection of the book covers is available online.

Orton began to write plays in the early 1960s. He wrote his last novel, The Vision of Gombold Proval (posthumously published as Head to Toe), in 1959, and had his writing accepted soon afterward. In 1963 the BBC paid £65 for the radio play The Ruffian on the Stairbroadcast 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 farceand 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. Sadly Orton was brutally murdered on 9 August 1967, a0when Kenneth Halliwell bludgeoned 34-year-old Orton to death at his home in 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.

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