These handwritten letters reveal Joe Orton’s attitudes towards theatre censorship and his vision for the staging of his work.
Following the failure of Loot in 1965 – caused by factors including Orton’s repeated rewrites, the unnatural monochrome set design and the performance of Kenneth Williams, who, miscast as Inspector Truscott, resorted to exaggerated, comic acting – Orton was more determined than ever that his plays must be played with ‘absolute realism’. This approach secured the success of the revised version of Loot that opened in September 1966.
Who is Joe Orton writing to?
The letters were written to Peter Gill, who directed Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair in 1966 and Crimes of Passion in 1967, at the Royal Court Theatre, London.
Orton wrote from Tangier, Morocco, where he and his partner, Kenneth Halliwell, took three long holidays in the summers of 1965–67. They were drawn there, in part, by the relaxed attitude towards homosexuality.
What is Joe Orton writing about?
Morocco also drew in tourists like Orton and Halliwell because of the easy availability of hashish. Orton begins the first undated letter with the disclosure, ‘This letter may make sense or may not. I am very high on a brand of cake which it wouldn’t be possible to purchase even in Fortnum’s ’ [i.e. a cake made from hash; Fortnum & Mason, a premium department store]. As is typical in his writing, this dryly comic remark includes a sneering reference to middle-class respectability.
After praising Gill’s casting for The Ruffian on the Stair (‘The marriage of true minds’), Orton agrees to rewrite the script following the Lord Chamberlain’s report, sarcastically commenting:
We always knew that ‘ignorant fucker’ was like Lamb’s King Lear for the library rather than the theatre. Try if the L.C. will buy ‘ignorant old sod’ or just ‘ignorant sod’ since the word ‘old’ might be subject to his ban.
In the second letter, dated 7 June 1966, Orton insists that actors and directors must take a realistic approach with his work:
Providing you get the actors to understand from the first reading (and even before) that the lines mustn’t be played for laughs I imagine that the play would ‘come off’ satisfactorily. I saw an amateur company perform ‘Sloane’ quite straight – they were terrified, so nervous that their only idea was to get the lines over – no thought of playing for laughs. For long stretches the play worked in a way the West End production never did.
The letter also reveals Orton’s love for his typewriter, which he was frequently photographed with: ‘Please excuse the writing. I haven’t got a proper pen and I’m not used to writing longhand. A typewriter spoils one’.