John Kingsley “Joe” Orton was born on 1st January 1933 – 9 August 1967) was an English playwright and author. His public career was short but prolific, lasting from 1964 until his death three years later. During this brief period he shocked, outraged, and amused audiences with his scandalous black comedies. The adjective Ortonesque is sometimes used to refer to work characterised by a similarly dark yet farcical cynicism.
Early Life and work
Orton became interested in performing in the theatre around 1949 and joined a number of different dramatic societies, including the prestigious Leicester Dramatic Society. While working on amateur productions he was also determined to improve his appearance and physique, buying bodybuilding courses, taking elocution lessons, and trying to redress his lack of education and culture. He applied for a scholarship at RADA in November 1950 and was accepted, and left the East Midlands for London, however his entrance was delayed until May 1951 due to appendicitis.
Orton met Kenneth Halliwell at RADA in 1951 and moved into a West Hampstead flat with him and two other students in June of that year. Halliwell was seven years older than Orton, however they quickly formed a strong relationship and became lovers. After graduating, both Orton and Halliwell went into regional repertory work: Orton spent four months in Ipswich as an assistant stage manager; while Halliwell worked in Llandudno, Wales. They both returned to London and began to write together, collaborating on a number of unpublished novels but had no success at gaining publication. The rejection of their final joint work, ‘The Last Days of Sodom’, in 1957 led them to pursue writing as soloists once more. Orton’s last novel being ‘The Vision of Gombold Proval’ (published as ‘Head to Toe’) in 1959, before he moved on to writing play scripts; in fact many of his novel manuscripts show glimpses of his stage play style and are believed to have been used to inspire a great many of his plays.
Orton began to write plays in the early 1960s, and eventually, in 1963, the BBC paid £65 for the radio play ‘The Ruffian on the Stair’, broadcast on 31 August 1964, before it was substantially rewritten for the stage in 1966. Orton revelled in his achievement and poured out new works; completing a new play, ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’, by the time ‘Ruffian’ was broadcast. Shortly after sending a copy to the theatre agent Peggy Ramsay in December 1963 it premiered at the New Arts Theatre on 6 May 1964. The play – which was produced by Michael Codron – received reviews which ranged from praise to outrage. Although ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’ lost money in its three-week run, the critical praise from playwright Terence Rattigan ensured its survival, who invested £3,000 in it to keep it running. The play was transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End at the end of June and to the Queen’s Theatre in October. ‘Sloane’ tied for first in the variety Critics’ Poll for “Best New Play” and Orton came second for “Most Promising Playwright”; and within only a year, ‘Sloane’ was being performed in New York, Spain, Israel, and Australia, as well as being made into a film (after Orton’s death) and a television play.
Orton’s next performed work was Loot, which he wrote the first draft of between June and October 1964 and was originally called ‘Funeral Games’, but was later changed under Halliwell’s suggestion. The play is a parody of detective fiction, darkly satirising established ideas on death, the police, religion, and justice. After numerous reworks, directorial changes, and failed attempts at taking off, the play finally reached success and went on to win several awards, eventually influencing him to sell the film rights for £25,000. Although, when Loot was performed on Broadway in 1968, repeated the failure of Sloane, and the film version of the play was not a success when it surfaced in 1970.
Orton was on a high after the reception of Loot, and over the next ten months, he revised his novels ‘The Ruffian on the Stair’ and ‘The Erpingham Camp’ for the stage as a double called ‘Crimes of Passion’, wrote ‘Funeral Games’, wrote the screenplay ‘Up Against It’ for the Beatles, and his final full-length play ‘What the Butler Saw’. Orton was working hard, energised and happy; Halliwell was increasingly depressed, argumentative, and plagued with mystery ailments. Orton’s once controversial farce What The Butler Saw debuted in the West End after his death in 1969 – opening at the Queen’s Theatre with Sir Ralph Richardson, Coral Browne, Stanley Baxter, and Hayward Morse.
On 9 August 1967, Kenneth Halliwell bludgeoned 34-year-old Orton to death at their home at 25 Noel Road, Islington, London, with nine hammer blows to the head, and then committed suicide with an overdose of 22 Nembutal tablets washed down with the juice from canned grapefruit. Investigators determined that Halliwell had died first, because Orton’s sheets were still warm.
The 22 November 1970 edition of The Sunday Times reported that on 5 August 1967, four days before the murder, Orton went to the Chelsea Potter pub in the King’s Road, where he met friend Peter Nolan, who later gave evidence at the inquest that Orton told him that he had another boyfriend and wanted to end his relationship with Halliwell, but did not know how to go about it. It became apparent that Halliwell had felt increasingly threatened and isolated by Orton’s success, and had come to rely on antidepressants and barbiturates. In fact the last person to speak to Halliwell was his doctor, who arranged for a psychiatrist to see him the following morning. He spoke to Halliwell three times on the telephone, the last call being at 10 o’clock, where Halliwell took the psychiatrist’s address, and said: “Don’t worry, I’m feeling better now. I’ll go and see the doctor tomorrow morning”. The bodies were discovered the following morning when a chauffeur arrived to take Orton to a meeting with director Richard Lester to discuss filming options on Up Against It. Halliwell left a suicide note, informing police that all would be explained if they read Orton’s diaries, “especially the latter part”. The diaries have since been published.
Orton was only 36 years old when he died. At the suggestion of one of Halliwell’s relatives, Ramsey arranged for Orton’s and Halliwell’s ashes to be mixed together. Halliwell’s funeral was held in Enfield, the only mourners were three relatives, who he had not seen for years and Peggy Ramsey, who had organised the funeral. Orton’s funeral was the next day, attended by his family, the cast of Loot, Ramsey and some friends and colleagues from the theatrical profession. As the coffin was brought in Orton’s favourite Beatles song, A Day in the Life, was played with the psychedelic passages crudely removed.
Fred and Madge (written 1959, published 2001)
The Visitors (written 1961, published 2001)
The Ruffian on the Stair (first performance 1964) Radio play
Entertaining Mr Sloane (first performance 1964)
Loot (first performance 1965)
The Erpingham Camp (first performance 1966)
The Good and Faithful Servant (first performance 1967)
Funeral Games (first performance 1968)
What the Butler Saw (first performance 1969)
Up Against It (screenplay)
Head to Toe (published 1971)
Between Us Girls (published 2001)
Lord Cucumber and The Boy Hairdresser (co-written with Halliwell) (published 1999)
‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’