In his short career, Joe Orton had a sizeable impact on British theatre. As a playwright he specialised in the most scandalous of comedies, and the word Ortonesque is now deployed to describe his brand of dark and cynical farce.
Born John Kingsley Orton on New Year’s Day, 1933, Orton grew up in a working-class family in Leicester. He became interested in theatre while at school and applied to RADA where he met his lover Kenneth Halliwell.
Early in their relationship, Orton and Halliwell collaborated as writers – but they had no success in getting published. In 1962 they were each sentenced to six months in prison. They had been caught taking books from public libraries and altering the cover art and text before returning them to the shelves.
Career as a playwright
Orton turned to writing plays independently in the late 1950s, and everything changed for him after his release from prison. In 1963, his radio play The Ruffian on the Stair was broadcast on the BBC (he would later rewrite it for the stage in 1966). Entertaining Mr Sloane, written in the same year, premiered at the New Arts Theatre in 1964. The critical reception was mixed, but Terence Rattigan was a fan and the play was able to transfer to the West End as a result of his investment.
In order to build on this success Orton’s next play, Loot, was rushed into production. It opened in Cambridge in 1965 to poor reviews. Orton revised the play, and further cuts were made before it opened first in Manchester and then in London in 1966. The play moved to the Criterion Theatre in the West End and won the Evening Standard Award for Best Drama.
In a period of intense productivity that followed, Orton revised some of his earlier work, wrote the screenplay Up Against It for the Beatles, and completed his final full-length play What the Butler Saw.
Death and legacy
On 9 August 1967– when Orton was just 34 – Halliwell murdered Orton at their home in Islington before committing suicide.
Orton’s fame and reputation continued to grow after his death. His last play What the Butler Saw, a farce set in a psychiatric clinic, caused a stir when it opened posthumously in the West End in 1969. Orton’s life and demise were the subjects of John Lahr’s acclaimed biography Prick Up Your Ears, published in 1978. Orton’s diaries were published in 1986 and a film based on Prick Up Your Ears was released 1987 with Gary Oldman in the role of Orton.
Lahr said that Orton’s plays ‘caught the era’s psychological mood, that restless pursuit of sensation whose manic frivolity announced a refusal to suffer’.
Further information about the life of Joe Orton can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.