John Kingsley Orton (who later changed his name to Joe Orton to avoid any confusion with playwright John Osborne) was born to William and Elsie Orton in a working-class area of Leicester, England. After failing the eleven-plus examination, he enrolled in Clark’s College, a commercial school where one of his teachers described him as “semiliterate.” Seeing the theater as a way to escape the drudgery of the menial jobs he was forced to take, Orton joined the Leicester Dramatic Society in 1949 and acted in several small roles in other amateur theatrical groups. In 1950, he was accepted to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which he entered in 1951. It was there that he met a fellow student-actor, Kenneth Halliwell, who became Orton’s friend, lover, and roommate for the rest of his life.
After receiving his diploma from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Orton worked briefly as an assistant stage manager for the Ipswich Repertory Company and then rejoined Halliwell in London in 1953. They began collaborating on a series of novels, all of which were turned down for publication. In 1959, Orton, aided by Halliwell, began stealing and defacing books from the Islington and Hampstead libraries. Orton, who would remove the photographs and illustrations from the books and then replace them with his own creations, would also write false blurbs and summaries; after replacing the books on the shelves, he would stand and watch people’s reactions to his...
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John Kingsley Orton, who adopted the name Joe, wrote most of his plays in a frenzy of creative activity between 1963 and 1967. Three of these—Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot, and What the Butler Saw—were highly successful. Orton developed a method of writing in which dramatic violence is masked by a socially correct dialogue. The dialogue belies the underlying horror of the macabre situations he depicts. With this technique, which was critically heralded (although rejected by early audiences), Orton exposes the social schizophrenia that typifies the characteristically polite, unruffled people who ignore unpleasantness, pretending that it does not exist even though it lurks beneath their very noses. He pushes irony to extremes previously unreached in the drama of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Noël Coward, to whom Orton is often compared.
Orton was the first of William and Elsie Orton’s four children. His father was a gardener for the municipality in which he lived, his mother a machinist. Early ill health made Orton’s schooling irregular and barred him from entering a grammar school, which would ultimately have provided him entry to a university. Orton became interested in drama in his teens and spent his free hours working with amateur groups. At the age of eighteen he went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. There in May, 1951, Orton met Kenneth Halliwell, eight years his senior; by mid-June, he and Halliwell had become lovers and were living together. Halliwell supported the two of them on a small inheritance, and they collaborated on writing novels and plays, works that were not published.
In 1957 Halliwell and Orton had...
(The entire section is 700 words.)