In a short but prolific career lasting from 1964 until his death, he shocked, outraged and amused audiences with his scandalous black comedies. The adjective Ortonesque is now used to refer to something characterised by a dark but farcical cynicism.
John Kingsley Orton was born at Causeway Lane Maternity Hospital, Leicester, to William and Elsie Orton. 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 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.
Joe 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. On 9 August 1967, Halliwell murdered Orton at his home in Islington, London, and then committed suicide with an overdose of 22 Nembutal tablets washed down with the juice from canned grapefruit.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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 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 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,' 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.
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)
Kenneth Halliwell (23 June 1926 – 9 August 1967) was a British actor and writer. He was the mentor, boyfriend and eventual murderer of playwright Joe Orton.
Halliwell's early years were traumatic. In general, he was ignored by his father and pampered by his mother. When he was 11, he witnessed his mother's death at the family home from a wasp sting.
Halliwell was a classics scholar at Wirral Grammar School, where he gained his Higher School Certificates in 1943. Becoming liable for military service in 1944, he registered as a conscientious objector, and was exempted conditional upon becoming a coal miner. After discharge in 1946, he acted for a time in Scotland and then returned home to act in Birkenhead. His father committed suicide in 1949 by putting his head in an oven; Halliwell was the first to find the body the following morning. Afterward, Halliwell moved to London to study drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), having inherited the family fortune.
In 1951, he met Joe Orton, a fellow RADA student. Both men were struggling actors who became struggling writers. However, their common interests led to a lengthy romantic relationship. Halliwell, in the early years, seems to have been something of a tutor to Orton, who had had a rather cursory education, and helped to mould the writing style that would later be called "Ortonesque". The two men collaborated on several novels, including The Boy Hairdresser, which were not published until after their deaths.
In 1962 Halliwell was sent to HM Prison Ford in Sussex for six months for the theft and defacement of library books. (Orton went to Eastchurch in Kent.) Orton's emerging success as a writer, following their release from prison, put a distance between the two men that Halliwell found difficult to handle. Towards the end of his life, Halliwell was on regular courses of anti-depressants.
On 9 August 1967, Halliwell killed Orton with nine hammer blows to the head and then overdosed on Nembutal sleeping pills. Halliwell died first. Their bodies were discovered late the following morning, when a chauffeur arrived at the door of their Noel Road flat in Islington to collect Orton for a meeting with The Beatles regarding a screenplay he had written for them.
Halliwell's suicide note referred to the contents of Orton's diary as an explanation for his actions:
"If you read his diary, all will be explained. KH PS: Especially the latter part."This is presumed to be a reference to Orton's description of his promiscuity; the diary contains numerous incidents of cottaging in public lavatories and other sexual relationships.
In Prick Up Your Ears, the 1987 film based on Orton's life, Halliwell was portrayed by Alfred Molina.
In Fantabulosa!, the 2006 biopic about Kenneth Williams, he was portrayed by Ewan Bailey.
British experimental music group Coil recorded three tracks titled "The Halliwell Hammers" for their 1995 album Worship The Glitch. The two primary members of Coil, John Balance and Peter Christopherson, were romantic partners through most of the band's existence, and much of their work was inspired by or dedicated to gay icons and personalities of the past.
The stage version of Prick Up Your Ears, written by Simon Bent, opened on the West End in London at the Royal Theatre on September 17, 2009. Matt Lucas played Kenneth Halliwell and Chris New plays John Orton. Con O'Neill took over the role of Halliwell after Lucas pulled out. The play closed early, on November 15, 2009.
The Protagonist (circa 1949), unproduced and unpublished play about Edmund Kean.
The Silver Bucket (1953), The Mechanical Womb (1955), The Last Days of Sodom (1955), novels co-written with Orton, all unpublished and now lost.
Priapus in the Shrubbery (1959), solo novel, unpublished and now lost.
Lord Cucumber and The Boy Hairdresser, novels co-written with Orton, published in 2001.
Joe Orton. What more can be said? No this isn’t fiction, but it reads like it is. I wonder what Orton would have accomplished if he had not been murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell in 1967? Joe Orton’s plays had me riveted to the pages. Again I thought, did he dare? Did he make that young man gay in this play? Does anyone know? If they knew would they allow it to be put on in a theater? The secrecy of his character’s desires, the hidden life Orton himself led, all fascinated me. Call it sordid, call it mad, but I gobbled up every word written by Joe Orton and I hope he is never forgotten. --G.A. HauserFurther Readings :
The Complete Plays by Joe Orton
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Grove Press; 1st Grove Weidenfeld evergreen ed edition (January 12, 1994)
Amazon: The Complete Plays
This volume contains every play written by Joe Orton, who emerged in the 1960s as the most talented comic playwright in recent English history and was considered the direct successor to Wilde, Shaw, and Coward.
The Orton Diaries by Joe Orton, edited by John Lahr
Paperback: 310 pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press; First Edition edition (August 22, 1996)
Amazon: The Orton Diaries
”To be young, good-looking, healthy, famous, comparatively rich and happy is surely going against nature.” When Joe Orton (1933–1967) wrote those words in his diary in May 1967, he was being hailed as the greatest comic playwright since Oscar Wilde for his darkly hilarious Entertaining Mr. Sloane and the farce hit Loot, and was completing What the Butler Saw; but less than three months later, his longtime companion, Kenneth Halliwell, smashed in Orton’s skull with a hammer before killing himself. The Orton Diaries, written during his last eight months, chronicle in a remarkably candid style his outrageously unfettered life: his literary success, capped by an Evening Standard Award and overtures from the Beatles; his sexual escapades—at his mother's funeral, with a dwarf in Brighton, and, extensively, in Tangiers; and the breakdown of his sixteen-year "marriage" to Halliwell, the relationship that transformed and destroyed him. Edited with a superb introduction by John Lahr, The Orton Diaries is his crowning achievement.
Because Were Queers Life and Times of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton by Simon Shepherd
Hardcover: 167 pages
Publisher: Heretic Books (June 1989)
Amazon: Because Were Queers Life and Times of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton
Prick Up Your Ears (Oberon Modern Plays) by Simon Bent
Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Oberon Books (April 1, 2010)
Amazon: Prick Up Your Ears (Oberon Modern Plays)
Inspired by John Lahr's biography and the diaries of Joe Orton, this is a darkly funny and moving play. It tells the sensational story behind the life of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, holed up in a tiny flat in Islington, trading well-trodden insults and hilarious put-downs like any old married couple.
More LGBT Couples at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Real Life Romance
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