Famous Like Me > Writer > O > Joe Orton
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Profile of Joe Orton
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|Also Know As:
|Date of Birth:
||1st January 1933
|Place of Birth:
||Leicester, Leicestershire, England, UK
Joe Orton (January 1, 1933, Leicester, England - August 9, 1967, Islington, London) was a satirical modern playwright. In a short but brilliant career from 1964 until his death he shocked, outraged and amused audiences with his scandalous black comedies. Ortonesque became a recognized term for "outrageously macabre".
He was born John Kingsley Orton in Leicester to a poor working class family and grew up on the Saffron Lane council estate with a younger brother and two sisters - Douglas, Marilyn, and Leonie.
His parents, William and Elsie, had married in 1931, his mother worked in the local footware industry until tuberculosis cost her a lung, his father laboured for Leicester Council as a gardener. They moved into Saffron Lane in 1935. The dull, affectionless, and lacklustre existence of his parents - his small self-effacing father, the false pride, hypocrisy and prentensions of his mother - echoes in many of Orton's later works, as does his "aggressive disdain" for them.
Condemned by his mother as 'gifted', he failed the eleven-plus after extended bouts of asthma but instead of attending a secondary modern he was poorly educated at an unsuitable commercial private school, Clark's College, from 1945 to 1947 before starting menial work as a junior clerk on £3 a week.
Orton became interested in performing and the theatre around 1949 and joined a number of different dramatic societies, including the prestigious Leicester Dramatic Society - although their lack of interest in his meagre talents soon led to Orton's departure, he tended to equate "the size of his ambition with his ability".
While working on amateur productions he was also determined to improve his appearance and physique, buying body-building courses, taking elocution lessons, and also trying to redress his lack of education and culure.
He lost his job and still 'stage-struck' applied for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in November 1950. He was accepted, and left the Midlands for London with little regret. His entrance into RADA was delayed by appendicitis and he joined only in May 1951.
Meeting with Kenneth Halliwell
Orton met Kenneth Halliwell at RADA in 1951, moving into a West Hampstead flat with him and two other students in June. Halliwell was short, balding, insecure, shy, cultured, seven years older than Orton and of independent means - having a substantial inheritance. They quickly formed a strong relationship and became lovers, despite Orton's allegations of sexual incompatibility. Neither did well in their two years at the academy, although Halliwell did rather worse - earning a Certificate of Merit against Orton's Diploma.
After graduating both went into regional repertory work, Orton spent four months in Ipswich as an assistant stage manager, Halliwell in Llandudno. Both returned to London, "their dreams shifted from the stage to the page." They collaborated on a number of unpublished novels (often imitating Ronald Firbank), and had little success but some encouragement. 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 and many show glimpses of his stage play style.
They refused to work confident of their 'specialness', lived on Halliwell's money and the dole, and were forced to follow a quite ascetic life in order to restrict their outgoings to £5 a week. From 1957-59 they worked in six month stretches at Cadbury's to raise money for a new flat. They moved into a small and austere flat in Noel Road, Islington in 1959.
Pranks and hoaxes
A lack of serious work led them to amuse themselves with pranks and hoaxes. Orton created Edna Welthorpe, an elderly 'outraged of-' who he would later revive to stir the controversy over his plays. In another episode, Orton and Halliwell stole books from the local library, and would 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. They were eventually discovered, and prosecuted for this in May, 1962. The incident was reported in the national newspaper the Daily Mirror as "Gorilla in the Roses". They were charged with five counts of theft and malicious damage, admitted damaging more than seventy books and were jailed for six months (released September 1962) and fined £262.
Ironically the books that Orton and Halliwell vandalised have become the most valued of the Islington Library service collection.
Orton as playwright
In the early 1960s Orton began to write plays. He wrote his last novel in 1961 (Head to Toe) and following the praise for a 1962 reject he finally had a work accepted. In 1963 the BBC paid £65 for the radio play The Boy Hairdresser, it was broadcast on August 31, 1964 as The Ruffian on the Stair. 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 The Ruffian on the Stair was broadcast, he sent a copy to the theatre agent Peggy Ramsay in December 1963. She was quick to appreciate its qualities and set it to Michael Codron of the New Arts Theatre, who took up the play for an April/May run in January 1964. The play premiered on May 6, 1964, reviews ranged from praise to outrage. Certain influential theatre figures such as Sir Terence Rattigan ensured his work was performed, there was a clear expectation of good things to come. Sloane lost money in its three week run but Rattigan invested £3,000 and the play transferred to Wyndham's Theatre in the West End at the end of June and to 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. Sloane was being performed in New York (directed by Alan Schneider, it did very poorly), Spain, Israel and Australia within a year as well as being made into a film and a television play.
The chronology of Orton's works becomes a little confusing here, as his next major success, Loot, was written later but performed earlier than the two television plays, The Good and Faithful Servant and The Erpingham Camp. Hence material that seems less Ortonesque, a backwards step in development and skill, is misleadingly positioned.
Orton's next performed work was Loot. The first draft was written between June and October 1964 and entitled Funeral Games, a tile Orton would drop for Halliwell's suggestion but would later reuse. 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 Inspector Truscott has a mere eight lines in the initial first act. Codron had manoevred Orton into meeting his colleague Kenneth Williams in August 1964, they were "immediately sympatico." Orton reworked Loot with Williams in mind for Truscott, his other inspiration for the role was DS Harold Challenor - the utter incompatibility of these two sources was lost to Orton at first.
With the success of Sloane evident, Loot was hurried into pre-production, despite the obvious flaws. Rehersals began in January 1965 with a six-week tour culminating in a West End debut planned. The play opened in Cambridge on February 1 to disasterous and scathing reviews, and not for the content but for the plot, the acting, the bright white set, the entire quality of the piece. Orton, at odds with director Peter Wood over the plot (or lack of same), still tore at the play producing 133 pages of new material to replace or add to the original ninety. The cast were demoralized in rehearsal and uneven and tentative on stage, they were however impressed with Orton's energy and efforts. The play staggered on to more poor reviews in Brighton, Oxford, Bournemouth, Manchester, and finally Wimbledon in mid-March. "Loot was a dead horse, but it continued to be flogged." Orton retired from the fray for a promiscuous, hashish-filled, eighty-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 (April 11-23) at the University Theatre, Manchester. Orton's growing experience led him to cut over six-hundred lines, raising the tempo and improving the characters' interactions. Directed by Braham Murray, with a more sympathetic and less abstract set, the tuned play garnered more favourable reviews. Lewenstein was still a little cool and put the London production in a "sort of Off-West End theatre," the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre, under the direction of the clever and thrusting Charles Marowitz. Orton continued his habit of clashing with directors with Marowitz, but the addition cuts they agreed improved the play further. The London premiere was September 27, 1966, the reviews produced "stunned delight" in Orton. Loot moved to the Criterion Theatre in November, raising Orton's confidence to new heights, "a weird, thrilling, slightly unnerving state of grace," while he was in the middle of writing What the Butler Saw.
Loot went on to win several awards - which had a pleasing effect on the box office - 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. Orton was still on an absolute high and in the next ten months revised The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp for the stage as a double called Crimes of Passion, wrote Funeral Games, the screenplay Up Against It for the Beatles, and completing What the Butler Saw.
The Good and Faithful Servant is a play of transition for Orton. A one-act television play it was first broadcast by Associated-Rediffusion on April 6, 1967, but it was completely written by June 1964. With its low-key bitterness and regret it is tame and naturalistic compared to the joyful macabre heights of his later modern farces, including that which premiered earlier.
The Erpingham Camp, Orton's take on The Bacchae, written through mid-1965 and offered to Rediffusion in October of that year. It was broadcast on June 27, 1966.
Funeral Games is the real linking work between Loot and What the Butler Saw. It was written and four times re-written in July-November, 1966. It was created for a Yorkshire Television series, The Seven Deadly Virtues, Orton's play dealt with charity - especially Christian charity - in a mad confusion of adultery and murder.
In March 1967 Orton and Halliwell had intended another extended holiday in North Africa, Libya on this occasion. The relationship between them had deteriorated so far that they returned home after barely a day. Orton was working hard, energised and happy; Halliwell was increasingly depressed, argumentative and plagued with mystery ailments.
Orton's violent death
In August 1967, Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death with nine hammer-blows to the head and then committed suicide with an overdose of Nembutal tablets. Halliwell, who had supported and loved Orton, felt increasingly threatened and isolated by Orton's success and had come to rely on anti-depressants and barbiturates.
Biography and film
A biography entitled Prick Up Your Ears, a title Orton himself had considered using, was published in the 1970s by John Lahr (son of Bert Lahr).
The 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears is based on Orton's diaries and Lahr's research. Directed by Stephen Frears, it starred Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, and Vanessa Redgrave. Alan Bennett wrote the screenplay. The interior used for Joe and Ken's flat was the actual Islington flat where they lived.
- 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
- Prick Up Your Ears: The biography of Joe Orton, John Lahr, Allen Lane, 1978
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