Yesterday, had he not died in 1967, would’ve been the 79th birthday of my favorite, English, comic playwright, Joe Orton (provided he didn’t pass away for some other reason in the intermediate years).
John Kingsley “Joe” Orton was born 1 January in Leicester to William A Orton and Elsie M Orton (nėeBentley). Joe’s father worked as a gardener for the Leicester County Borough Council whilst his mom was in footwear until tuberculosis (and the subsequent removal of a lung) led to an early retirement. When Joe was two his family moved from Clarendon Park to the Saffron Lane council estate where the family was soon rounded out by the addition of Douglas, Marilyn, and Leonie.
After several serious bouts of asthma, Orton left school and took a position as a junior clerk making £3 a week in 1947. Over the next couple of years he developed an interest in improving his physical state and in theater. In pursuit of the former he took up body building, in pursuit of the former he joined several dramatic societies and local, amateur productions. He also wished to continue his education and began attending Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London on scholarship in 1951.
At school Orton met a well-off aspiring writer, Kenneth Halliwell. The two fell in love and moved in together, sharing a flat in West Hampstead flat with two other students. After graduation, Orton worked for a stint as an assistant stage manager in Ipswich whilst Halliwell’s work to him to Llandudno, Wales. When they both returned to London, they collaborated on several novels in imitation of Ronald Firbank. In 1957, when their last collaboration, The last days of Sodom was just as unpublished as their previous works, they decided to work solo. Orton wrote his first play, He wrote his first play, Fred and Madge, and his last novel, The vision of Gombold Proval, in 1959.
The couple lived off Halliwell’s shrinking inheritance, unemployment and occasionally worked proper jobs to afford a small flat in Islington (N1, Noel Road, 25). During this period they also borrowed books from the local library and altered the dust jacket art and blurbs on more than 70. They were caught in 1962 and the incident was reported in the Daily Mirror in an article titled, hilariously, “Gorilla in the roses.” Their sentence was a fine of £262 and a six month stint in prison. Ironically, today some of the book covers (some of which are very much in the vein of subversive surrealist collage) are exhibited in the Islington Museum.
Orton’s was wit was darkened and honed by his harsh treatment for his and Halliwell’s prank and when he was released his writing had an increased sense of urgency. In 1963, the BBC paid him for The ruffian on the stair, which was broadcast the following August. By then, Entertaining Mr. Sloane had premiered to a mixture of rave reviews and moral outrage — some of which was fanned by Orton, who would sometimes write letters to publications under the guise of the easily-scandalized alter egos, including Edna Welthorpe.
His next play, Loot, was rushed into production to capitalize on Orton’s growing fame and received mixed reviews (and re-workings). What the butler saw followed, along with other plays, and even a screenplay for a Beatles film, titled Up against it. Some works, such as The good and faithful servant and Funeral games aired as teleplays on ITV.
As Orton was celebrated for and propelled by his success, Halliwell plunged into deep depression, which was likely exacerbated by his glaring and total lack thereof. There was also word that Orton had found a new boyfriend and was planning on leaving Halliwell. On August 1967, Kenneth Halliwell beat Orton to death with nine hammer blows to the head before fatally overdosing on 22 pentobarbital tablets washed down with the syrupy juice of canned grapefruit. Halliwell left a note that his actions would be explained by reading Orton’s diary. Their bodies were discovered by a chauffeur, who’d come around to take Orton to a meeting with Richard Lester, director of The Beatles’ films. Orton was cremated and at the service, the great Harold Pinter read the eulogy and a recording of “A day in the life” played.
In 1978, John Lahr wrote a biography of Joe Orton titled Prick up your ears. In 1987 it was adapted into a great Stephen Frears-directed film starring Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as Halliwell. The phrase, “prick up your ears,” had originally been conceived by Orton as “prick up your erse” as an unpublishable title. In the Adam & the Ants song, “The Magnificent Five,” Ant sang “Long ago in London town/A man called Ant sat deeply sighing/He was wondering/Which side of the fence he was on/Prick up your ears.” In the 1990s, someone once remarked that Pulp‘s Jarvis Cocker was a mix of Joe Orton and Alan Bennett.
Although Orton’s humor is sometimes compared to that of Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde, the two authors’ tones are recognizably different enough to warrant the existence of both “Wildean” and “Ortonesque” as non-interchangeable terms.
Orton Square, Leicester with the Curve Theatre and Athena (source: Steve Cadman)
In Leicester, a former industrial area has been redeveloped as a cultural quarter. The pedestrian concourse in front of the Curve Theatre opened as “Orton Square” in 2008.
Orton and Halliwell’s former residence, marked by a circular plaque between the windows
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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