Joe Orton’s Loot premiered on 1 February 1965 at the Theatre Arts, Cambridge, before embarking on a short provincial tour. This is an original rehearsal script of the play, produced in late 1964–early 1965. It was sent between Loot’s stage manager, Michael Codron, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which exercised stage censorship until 1968.

Two versions of Loot exist. Notoriously, this version – the first – was poorly received. Even Orton regarded it as a failure, writing to his partner, Kenneth Halliwell, ‘The play is a disaster’.[1]

In 1966, Orton heavily revised the script to great success, winning the prestigious Evening Standard Award for Best Play. This is the version known today.

What evidence of Loot’s 1965 failure can be found in this script?

There were two significant factors that contributed to Loot’s failure in 1965.

Firstly, Orton frantically rewrote the script throughout rehearsals and the production run, pushing the cast to breaking point. This script clearly shows Orton’s frenzied process: there is typewritten text, handwritten additions, crossed-out passages and many stapled paper inserts – as well as annotations made by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, circling passages that Orton had to rewrite.

Even after these revisions, it could be argued that Loot remained too long in length and too slow in pace. For example, Act 2 opened with Fay asking Hal to unlock the cupboard, where, unknown to the audience, the corpse is hidden. In the 1966 version Orton moves this scene to the middle of Act 1, therefore bringing forward a key piece of action and plot development. Orton became far bolder in the 1966 rewrite, too: here, for example, Orton explains Truscott’s ‘true’ identity early on, whereas this is left unstated in the successful 1966 script.

Secondly, it is widely regarded that Kenneth Williams was miscast as the corrupt and violent Inspector Truscott. Williams, famously known for the comic, camp and innuendo-heavy Carry On films, resorted to ‘hamming’ (exaggerated acting) for laughs. But Orton’s 1965 script also contained more slapstick humour that Williams presumably ‘played up’ – such as at the end of Act 1, where Truscott clings ‘with one hand to the drainpipe’ while climbing up the outside of McLeavy’s house.

Moreover, the whole cast and production team struggled to find the right approach. In Loot, Orton radically reinterpreted farce by combining artificial dialogue and comic precision with absolute realism. In Orton’s words: ‘Unless Loot is directed and acted perfectly seriously the play will fail’.[2]

How different is Loot’s original ending?

This script contains two endings written by Orton – neither of which he kept in the revised 1966 script.

In the original ending (found in typescript), no arrests are made. Instead, there is an imminent marriage, and the criminals display conventional signs of remorse (Fay weeps, and Dennis and Hal hang their heads in shame). There is neither a sense of ‘justice served’, nor the outrageous inversion of authority and moral order as found in the 1966 version.

On top of the typescript, sheets of paper have been inserted containing a redraft in pen. In this version, Truscott orders the arrest of Fay, Hal and Dennis, and McLeavy remains free and unharmed. This ending, therefore, affirms society’s assumption that the police and judicial system are ultimately a power for ‘good’.

In contrast, Loot’s 1966 ending is dark and unsettling, despite the overarching humour. Set against a decade rocked by political and judicial scandals such as the ‘Profumo affair’, Loot’s topsy-turvy world challenges the foundations of society, asking us to question the appearance of ‘sanity’ versus ‘madness’ and to interrogate accepted ‘truths’. The law-abiding McLeavy is arrested and, Truscott implies, will soon be murdered in police custody. Through Truscott, Orton scathingly represents a corrupt, tyrannical state that operates in the ‘honest name’ of law, order and religion. But Orton also depicts McLeavy and – by implication – the audience colluding in their own oppression by conforming to social norms and placing total trust in an idealised English state.

[1] Letter from Joe Orton to Kenneth Halliwell, 9 February 1965.

[2] Joe Orton, quoted by John Lahr in ‘Introduction’, Joe Orton: The Complete Plays (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 20.