John Kingsley Orton (1933-1967) had a meteoric rise in British theater, with three hit plays produced in the 1960s.
John Kingsley (Joe) Orton was born in Leicester on January 1, 1933, the oldest of four children of a working-class family. His father was a low-paid gardener for the city; his mother worked in a hosiery factory until vision problems made it necessary for her to leave that job, after which she became a charwoman.
Although the family was not a close-knit one emotionally, the older son was his mother's favorite, and after Orton completed his required schooling she arranged to have him attend a commercial college, where he was a student from 1945 to 1947.
It was in 1949 that he developed the desire to act, or at least to be involved in the theater in some capacity. He joined the Leicester Dramatic Society and two other local drama groups, but was cast only infrequently and then usually in minor roles. The following year he took private elocution lessons, principally to purge himself of his Leicester accent, and applied to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), where he was accepted. In 1951 he moved to London.
In his first year at RADA Orton met Kenneth Halliwell, a fellow-student there. Halliwell was seven years older and was sophisticated and well-educated, especially in the Greek and Roman classics. They began a homosexual relationship which lasted for 16 years, and Halliwell's influence on the younger man was profound.
From an upper-middle-class family, Halliwell was no stranger to violent death. When he was 11 his mother was stung on the inside of her mouth by a wasp and, highly allergic to the toxin, choked to death. When he was 23 his father committed suicide, leaving him with a modest yearly income.
Orton acted successfully at RADA, but began to have misgivings about a career as an actor. Thus, when he finished his course there in 1953 he took a position for the spring and summer as the assistant stage manager of the Ipswich Repertory Company. He found this work not to his liking either and returned to London.
For most of the next decade he and Halliwell collaborated on a series of novels and literary experiments which were submitted to publishers but not accepted. They included The Silver Bucket (1953); The Mechanical Womb and The Last Days of Sodom (1955); The Boy Hairdresser, a satire in blank verse (1956); Between Us Girls, a diary novel (1957); and The Vision of Gombold Proval, written by Orton alone (1961).
While they were writing these books, they amused themselves in other ways. In 1958 Orton created the fictional Mrs. Edna Welthorpe, a writer of letters to the newspapers whom he used as an outraged critic of his work after he achieved fame; she was joined later by the imaginary Donald H. Hartley, an Orton booster. In the period from 1959 to 1961 he and Halliwell took books from the Islington public libraries, rewrote the blurbs on the inside of the dust jackets to make them either absurd or obscene, and simultaneously stole 1,653 plates from art books from which they constructed a floor-to-ceiling collage in their apartment. Both were arrested, charged with doing 450 English pounds in damage, convicted, and sent to prison for six months. Orton was unrepentant.
Orton achieved his first breakthrough in 1963. His play The Ruffian on the Stair, based on the novel The Boy Hairdresser, was accepted for television by the BBC, and his first full-length play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, was sent to an agent; both were presented the following year.
The Ruffian on the Stair shows the strong influence of Harold Pinter, one of the few modern dramatists whom Orton admired (along with Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw), and its opening lines, a conversation between the protagonist and his wife, set the tone for all of Orton's work to come:
Joyce: Have you got an appointment today?
Mike: Yes. I'm to be at King's Cross station at eleven. I'm meeting a man in the toilet.
Joyce: You always go to such interesting places.
As John Lahr summarized it in his introduction to the complete plays, "Orton's plays put sexuality back on the stage in all its exuberant, amoral and ruthless excess. He laughed away sexual categories."
This unique perspective was reinforced by Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which opened in London on May 6, 1964. It is the story of a handsome young man who has committed a murder and is taken into the home of Kath, the epitome of bourgeois hypocrisy, and her aged father, Kemp. Sex between Sloane and Kath begins at once. Soon there appears on the scene Kath's brother Ed, who also has designs on the young man. Kemp recognizes Sloane as the murderer and Sloane kills him. Kath and Ed agree to cover up the murder of their father if Sloane consents to spend six months of every year with each of them.
Sloane demonstrates the validity of Maurice Charney's assessment, "All of his most vigorous characters are vulgar in the literary sense of the term: they pretend to a refinement, tact and gentility that they do not at all have." His characters and his play appealed to the British theater-going public. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Alan Brien observed, "Mr. Orton is one of those rare dramatists who create their own world and their own idiom," while prominent playwright Terence Rattigan wrote, "I fell wildly in love with Entertaining Mr. Sloan. … I saw style—a style, well, that could be compared with the Restoration comedies. I saw Congreve in it." At season's end, Sloane tied for the best new British play in Variety's London Critics' Poll, but, taken to New York, it fared badly and closed after a short run, the World Telegram and Sun critic commenting that it "had the sprightly charm of a medieval cesspool."
In the early months of 1964 Orton wrote The Good and Faithful Servant, which was televised three years later. His most serious work, it owes something to the lives of his parents as it covers the last working days, the retirement, and the death of a loyal employee of a large corporation. Although it contains some humorous lines, it is essentially a picture of a life pathetically spent.
Later that year he completed his second major work, the full-length play Loot. The principal characters are Hal McLeavy and his lover Dennis, who have robbed a bank and are planning to escape to the Continent. Their project is complicated by the death of Hal's mother, whose body is in the house. Also present are the mother's former nurse, Fay, who wants to marry the widower McLeavy, making him her eighth husband in the past ten years, and the stupid, vicious, and venal policeman Truscott. In the end the two boys, Fay, and Truscott split the loot and the innocent elder McLeavy is arrested and taken off to prison.
Loot premiered on September 27, 1966, and was a hit. Ronald Bryden in The Observer wrote that it "establishes Orton's niche in English drama," and at season's end it won both the Evening Standard award and the Plays and Players award for the best play of the year.
In 1965 Orton wrote another television play, The Erpingham Camp, strongly influenced by The Bacchae of Euripides; it was produced the following year. Another television drama, Funeral Games, was written in 1966 and produced two years later.
Late in 1966 Orton began his third full-length play, What the Butler Saw, the first draft of which was completed in July of 1967; simultaneously he worked on a comedy, Up Against It, based on The Silver Bucket, for the Beatles, although eventually their managers rejected it.
But as Orton's celebrity increased, relations between him and Halliwell became more and more strained. As the playwright's exuberance grew, the older man was increasingly depressed and withdrawn and there were indications that Orton planned to leave him. On August 9, 1967, Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer and then committed suicide.
Chief among Orton's works posthumously presented was What the Butler Saw, produced in 1969. A farce with a small debt to the French dramatist Georges Feydeau, it takes place in the office of the psychiatrist Dr. Prentice, whose wife is a nymphomaniac, and introduces a girl who is applying for a position as the doctor's secretary and a young hotel page who has arrived to blackmail Mrs. Prentice. The young people are eventually discovered to be the Prentices' children; the question of double incest is raised and the play ends with the holding on high of the genitals of Winston Churchill, taken from a statue which has been blown up.
The play drew highly disparate reviews. Harold Hobson wrote, "Gradually Orton's terrible obsession with perversion, which is regarded as having brought his life to an end and choked his very high talent, poisons the atmosphere. And what should have become a piece of gaily irresponsible nonsense becomes impregnated with evil." On the other hand, Frank Marcus in the Sunday Telegraph observed that it "will live to be accepted as a comedy classic of English literature."
Other posthumous works included the sketch "Until She Screams," revised from The Patient Dowager (1970); Head to Toe, based on The Vision of Gombold Proval (1971), and Up Against It (1979).
The importance of Orton's work seems established. C.W.E. Bigsby calls him "a pivotal figure, a crucial embodiment of the post-modernist impulse," while Charney (quoted earlier) concludes, "Orton no longer seems to be merely a footnote in the history of modern drama but merits at least a significant chapter."
Further Reading on John Kingsley Orton
The definitive biography of John (Joe) Orton is Prick Up Your Ears (1978) by John Lahr, who also edited The Orton Diaries (1986). Excellent analyses of the playwright and his work are Joe Orton (1984) by Maurice Charney and Joe Orton (1982) by C. W. E. Bigsby.