Critical Context

Although Joe Orton, one of the most inventive playwrights in twentieth century British drama, was far from derivative, the extremes to which he took his drama bring to mind some of the more puckish plays in Restoration drama, particularly William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (pb. 1675). Among more modern writers, Orton can be compared to Evelyn Waugh, whose novels A Handful of Dust (1934) and, more particularly, The Loved One (1948), while not quite as outrageous as Orton’s plays, move wittily toward that extreme of social criticism labeled outrageous.

The social criticism of Oscar Wilde, like Orton a homosexual rankling at Britain’s narrow Victorian morality, was less sharp than Orton’s although it aimed at achieving similar ends and, for its day, was almost as outrageous as Orton’s work. Noël Coward used his acerbic wit subtly to eat through the thin veneer of middle-class British morality in such plays as Private Lives (pr., pb. 1930), Blithe Spirit (pr., pb. 1941), and even his patriotic play on the Victorian tradition, Cavalcade (pr. 1931).

Formally, Orton is indebted to the melodramatic writers of detective literature, whom he parodies in much of his work, as well as to such writers in the absurdist tradition as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Kopit, Tom Stoppard, and Edward Albee. In the last analysis, however, Orton was a distinctive talent with a perversely witty view of life’s most serious problems. The age in which he lived shaped him artistically, but he emerged as a playwright and social critic unique in twentieth century drama.