Joe Orton Orton, Joe - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Joe Orton 1933-1967

(Full name John Kingsley Orton) English playwright, novelist, and scriptwriter.

The following entry provides criticism on Orton's works from 1965 through 2002. For further information on Orton, see CLC, Volumes 4, 13, and 43.

Orton was best known for his iconoclastic plays which demonstrate the absurdity of life. The term “Ortonesque” has come into common parlance as a description of the kind of black humor his plays exhibit.

Biographical Information

Orton was born on January 1, 1933, to working-class parents in Leicester. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he met Kenneth Halliwell, who was to become his longtime homosexual partner. Halliwell introduced Orton to the world of classical drama and encouraged his literary inclinations. Orton worked as an assistant stage manager in Ipswich before returning to London, where he collaborated with Halliwell on several novels. He and Halliwell each served short prison sentences in 1962 after they were convicted of damaging numerous library books by removing color plates to use for art work in their home. Orton's first play was broadcast on the BBC in 1964, after which he wrote a number of full-length dramas and several short ones for television. In 1967 Halliwell, depressed and envious of Orton's burgeoning success, beat Orton to death and took his own life immediately afterwards.

Major Works

Orton's short career was marked by considerable success. He thrived in a theatrical atmosphere which had welcomed other cynics such as Harold Pinter, whose plays revolved around characters who cause tension by annoying people and disrupting their lives. Orton's first play, The Ruffian on the Stair (1964), is Pinteresque, with its depressive protagonist trying to avenge a history of incest with his older brother. In Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964), a murderer is blackmailed by his victim's nymphomaniac daughter and homosexual son into granting them sexual favors. Loot (1965) has a number of corrupt and greedy characters, along with some farcical elements which also appear in Orton's last work, What the Butler Saw (1969), staged after Orton's death. This play, set in a psychiatric clinic, is a parody of the work of French playwright Georges Feydeau. Orton's one-act plays, generally considered of lesser importance, were originally seen on television. The Erpingham Camp (1966), based on Euripides's Bacchae, takes place in a British holiday camp. The Good and Faithful Servant (1967) deals with the meaningless and cyclical life of an injured factory worker. Funeral Games (1968), also produced after Orton's death, is a satire on religion. A few posthumous works have appeared, such as Head to Toe (1971), a fantasy novel about a man who traverses a giant's body. The Orton Diaries, a compilation of diaries written between 1966 and 1967, was published in 1986. Up against It (1979) a screenplay commissioned and later rejected for a film starring the Beatles, became the basis of a musical in the 1990s. A novel, Between Us Girls (1998), and two more plays, The Visitors (written in 1959), and Fred and Madge (written in 1961), were published in 1998.

Critical Reception

At first, the frank language, offbeat characters, and disdain for middle-class morality in Orton's plays caused shock and outrage among critics and audiences. Orton himself contributed to this controversy with pseudonymic, tongue-in-cheek reviews of his own work. In general, however, critics have praised Orton as a major talent cut off before his time. Most have written about his dark view of the world, and some have noted his debt to earlier generations of playwrights and to Pinter, his contemporary. Others have stressed the influence of his relationship with Halliwell on his work, as well as his candid treatment of homosexual themes. Critics have often agreed that Orton wrote well-structured, witty plays which provided trenchant commentary on the contemporary scene. Several book-length critical biographies of Orton added to his reputation in the 1980s and 1990s, as did several plays based on his life. Notable among these was Diary of a Somebody, a play by Orton's friend, diary editor, and biographer John Lahr. A film version of Lahr's biography also brought Orton's name to even more public attention.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Entertaining Mr. Sloane (play) 1964

*The Ruffian on the Stair (play) 1964

Loot (play) 1965

*The Erpingham Camp (play) 1966

The Good and Faithful Servant (play) 1967

Funeral Games (play) 1968

Until She Screams (play) 1969

What the Butler Saw (play) 1969

Head to Toe (novel) 1971

Joe Orton: The Complete Plays (plays) 1976

Up against It: A Screenplay for the Beatles (screenplay) 1979

The Orton Diaries (diaries) 1986

Between Us Girls (novel) 1998

The Visitors and Fred and Madge (plays) 1998

*These works performed as Crimes of Passion, 1967.

Glenn Loney (essay date November 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Loney, Glenn. “Entertaining Mr. Loney: An Early Interview with Joe Orton.” New Theatre Quarterly 4 (November 1988): 300-05.

[In the following essay, a report of a 1965 interview, Loney and the playwright talk about Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Orton's interest in the works of Jane Austen, the genre of black comedy, Orton's brief history in the theater, and other subjects.]

Every summer, drama teachers desert American college campuses in search of meaningful change or new experiences. Some paint their houses. Others fly off to London to see Broadway's newest hits before they arrive in New York. This has been going on for a long time now. In July 1964, as I was frantically making up my list of what to see in the West End and at Stratford, trying to cram in as many plays as possible, I found a curious photo in a Sunday arts section. It showed a pert young man in T-shirt, jeans, and tennis-shoes, casually stretched out on a bed with turned-down sheets. The wall behind him was a psychedelic riot of Old Master art images. (And not, as some who but dimly remember this photo insist, a collage of body-builders. That must have been another part of the wall.)

The caption revealed that this was a new young playwright who had recently been endorsed and encouraged by Terence Rattigan—whose own reputation was not then at its zenith. Indeed, the fledgling author had some pages of manuscript spread out on the bed, but he was looking neither at them nor at the camera. His gaze was directed stage-right, as if seeing something of which he slightly disapproved. The playwright was Joe Orton, and his new black comedy—the catchword was itself new—Entertaining Mr. Sloane was to open in the West End at Wyndhams Theatre, after a successful showing at the Arts.

At that time, Dudley Sutton, either clad in black leather or out of it entirely, was something of a surprise, especially when Madge Ryan and Peter Vaughan, as sister and brother both fascinated by Mr. Sloane's boyish but sinister allure, manoeuvred for his favours. Some may remember that incarnation of Sloane as having been successful, but in fact it ran only 152 performances. It did excite a lot of comment and controversy. Who was this new writer? No one seemed to know very much about him.

Then, on 12 October, 1965, Entertaining Mr. Sloane opened on Broadway at the venerable Lyceum Theatre, built in 1903, and once Daniel Frohman's repertory playhouse. Alan Schneider was directing, with Sheila Hancock as the amoral sister Kath. During rehearsals, I asked Schneider if I could talk with Orton about the play. I seemed to be one of the few New York theatre journalists (or drama teachers) who liked the play, or even knew about it. Schneider was delighted and arranged a talk backstage.

Burrowing through some old files, looking for clippings about Peter Brook, I discovered the transcript I made of that interview, on 9 October 1965. It has never been published—for the production opened to scathing, outraged reviews and rapidly closed after thirteen ill-attended performances. Orton had already gone back to London. By the time I had transcribed the tape, no one wanted to hear anything about either Mr. Sloane or Mr. Orton.

I cannot remember what I expected on my way to interview Orton. The photo-image was clearly etched in my memory, it's true, as well as that of Dudley Sutton, trousers off, getting a bit of a mend from Kath. Perhaps I thought I'd find Orton in black leather, not unlike his Sloane fantasy. In fact, I wasn't quite prepared for the actuality. A very boyish Orton, his face gleaming as if it had been oiled (I think it had been) greeted me warmly. He was togged out in a trim little blue-and-white striped nautical T-shirt and tight trousers. He was charm itself; he fairly twinkled. Sloane, it appeared, was not the only sham-innocent seducer in the Orton stable.

The London production, in my memory, had attained a kind of perfection. Schneider had Americanized the play and the performances somewhat, rather to its detriment I thought. At one point, when Kath was rummaging in a drawer, she pulled out a vaginal douche and waved it around with an apparent thrill of finding an old friend again. I admired Schneider, both as a director and as a friend, but this seemed a bit cheap. Looking at Sloane now, I wonder why I was bothered by this.

Orton certainly wasn't. He loved that bit of business. ‘Oh, that's just wonderful! I wish I'd thought of that. I ought to put it into the acting edition. Alan is a brilliant director! We don't have anybody like him in England anymore. Showy old directors we do have—but someone who will lift a play, bring out everything that is in a play, without imposing his own personality? We have directors like Peter Hall, who have Hamlet play in a red-and-white striped muffler. That's obvious direction. But Alan does the kind of direction a playwright loves. Well, I love it anyway.’

Having watched previous Schneider shows in rehearsal, and talked with some of his actors now and then, I told Orton that some complained that he didn't help them enough—that he let them work out the roles and the conflicts by themselves. Had he found this to be so with Sloane?

‘I've complained of that with directors in England, but I have no complaint with Alan. The things he's invented? I think I would have invented them myself—if I'd thought of them. That is always the best kind of direction.’

But had Schneider cut any of the lines? Possibly to avoid shocking susceptible New York critics?

‘There was one speech cut: that was all. And there were one or two lines that I altered, that an American audience wouldn't get. If they weren't important, and an American audience could “ride over” it—if it was just a typical British phrase—I left it in.’

Kath's revelation of pregnancy to her irate brother was one of these: ‘I've a bun in the oven.’ Not at all an American phrase, but graphic enough as Kath lifted her apron to disclose the results of a magical night with Mr. Sloane. Orton left such lines alone.

His work was just beginning to be discovered by the German theatre, and he noted with elation that Entertaining Mr. Sloane had been shown at the Hamburg Schauspielhaus in the august company of Shakespeare, Molière, and O'Neill. ‘I was really flattered’, he said. ‘I've got a whole thing at home, saying something good goes on here by Molière, and something by Shakespeare, and something by O'Neill, and a slight mention of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which is very amazing. Well, it's nice to be taken seriously. I mean, I'm a serious dramatist.’

I told him that when I'd seen it in London, I thought the play was terrifically funny. But I hadn't seen any deep, dark metaphors or myths in it at all. Then, the day after I'd enjoyed it at Wyndhams, I had lunch with Harold Hobson. At that time, I was doing interviews with young writers and performers for the Christian Science Monitor, and he was its London critic, as well as the London Sunday Times reviewer.

Initially, I had regarded him as conservative, if sometimes eccentric in judgement. On our first meeting, he pointed out to me that he had been often the first of the major critics to spot new playwriting talent. He it was who urged me to interview David Storey, Peter Shaffer, Arnold Wesker, and others. Now, I wondered what he'd have to say about Orton and Sloane, for Hobson was never indecisive about likes and dislikes. He praised it as authentic black comedy. I told Orton this.

‘He's the only critic who spotted what Sloane was. I remember his words. His exact words were, “the Northanger Abbey of the theatre”. This was absolutely amazing. I wrote him a letter, saying that I've always admired Jane Austen's Juvenilia—before she wrote Sense and Sensibility. Northanger Abbey is of course Juvenilia, which she rewrote later in life. It was published after her death. I've always admired Northanger Abbey.

‘She really is one—’ Orton broke off, trying to think of a comparison. ‘I can go overboard on her works’, he limply concluded. ‘Most people read Jane Austen—like people who read Edna Ferber, and only see the chi-chi 1890s side. Northanger Abbey is wonderful because it's a straight novel, and yet it has a wonderful element of Stendahl that you can appreciate. It was really very perceptive of Hobson to recognize this. I admired him for seeing what no one else saw in it.’

This was a time in British theatre when myths and ancient rituals were being recalled, not only to give added resonance to Stratford Shakespeare productions, which were...

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Suzanne McCray (essay date fall 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McCray, Suzanne. “The Unrelenting Pessimism of Joe Orton.” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 10, no. 2 (fall 1984): 37-47.

[In the following essay, McCray discusses the cynicism of most of Orton's work, suggesting that much of it derives from Orton's own life experience.]

I assure you that it is possible to draw poison from the clearest of wells.

Joe Orton to Glen Loney, March 25, 1966

On Jan. 2, 1967, Joe Orton, London's then most promising young playwright, who shocked, instructed, and entertained the theater-going public of the town, wrote in his diary: “In the...

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Peter Walcot (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Walcot, Peter. “An Acquired Taste: Joe Orton and the Greeks.” In Legacy of Thespis: Drama Past and Present, Vol. 4, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan, pp. 99-123. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1984.

[In the following essay, Walcot discusses the “Greek” character of both Orton's work and his relationship with Kenneth Halliwell.]

I always say to myself that the theatre is the Temple of Dionysus, and not Apollo. You do the Dionysus thing on your typewriter, and then you allow a little Apollo in, just a little to shape and guide it along certain lines you may want to go along. But you can't allow Apollo in...

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Sybil Steinberg (review date 5 June 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Steinberg, Sybil. Review of Head to Toe, by Joe Orton. Publishers Weekly 231, no. 22 (5 June 1987): 70.

[In the following review, Steinberg points to the scatological, erotic, and satiric themes in Head to Toe, hailing Orton as an important literary talent.]

A cross between Gulliver and Alice, Orton's unwitting hero, Gombold, begins his journey when he wanders onto the head of a giant, hundreds of miles tall. The trip of the title, and back again, takes long enough for the host-creature to age, long enough for Gombold to have assorted adventures with assorted companions. Mostly he gets into trouble running afoul of unknown conventions, a frequent...

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Gabriele Annan (review date 24 September 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Changeling.” New York Review of Books 34, no. 14 (24 September 1987): 3-4.

[In the following review, Annan touches on John Lahr's biography of Orton and its film version, as well as The Orton Diaries and Head to Toe.]

“I'm inclined to think,” Joe Orton wrote in his diary in March 1967, “that the main fascination of Swift (as with Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan and many other writers and artists) is with his life. His art certainly doesn't warrant the merit attached to him.” It would be ironic if this turned out to be Orton's own epitaph. Doubly ironic, because the two lumpish, lusterless sentences are exactly the kind he was...

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Robert Brustein (review date 17 April 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “Robert Brustein on Theater.” New Republic 200, no. 16 (17 April 1989): 34.

[In the following excerpt from a review of two plays, Brustein comments that, in light of the shock value of contemporary entertainment, Orton's work seems less outrageous than it once did.]

An example of [unrealized promise] is currently on view at the Manhattan Theatre Club in Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw. Orton, who died at 34, was notable for taking the traditional conventions of farce and burlesque and liberating their underground meanings. Sensitive to the sexual and aggressive connotations of the most inoffensive-seeming gags, and particularly fond...

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John Simon (review date 18 December 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Beelzebubee.” New York 22, no. 50 (18 December 1989): 105-07.

[In the following excerpt from a review of several plays, Simon presents an unfavorable assessment of the stage version of Up against It.]

Up Against It was a screenplay, the last work of Joe Orton before his lover murdered him and killed himself. The producer who bought it for a pretty penny did not make the movie (initially intended for the Beatles); whether this was because the scandal proved too great or the script too puny I cannot say. Judging from the musical Tom Ross and Todd Rundgren have fashioned from it, whatever the screenplay may be like, its sleep should not...

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Alan Sinfield (essay date summer 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sinfield, Alan. “Who Was Afraid of Joe Orton?” Textual Practice 4, no. 2 (summer 1990): 259-77.

[In the following essay, Sinfield deals with the ways in which Orton's plays increased awareness of and toleration for homosexual culture, while at the same time limiting his audience.]

OSCAR Wilde:
[Secrecy] seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvellous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it.(1)
JOE Orton:
The whole trouble with Western Society today is the lack of anything worth concealing.(2)

Joe Orton went to study at the Royal Academy for...

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Julian Duplain (review date 5 March 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Duplain, Julian. Review of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, by Joe Orton. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4692 (5 March 1993): 18.

[In the following review, Duplain points to the well-structured plot and comic timing of Entertaining Mr. Sloane.]

“Three repulsive folk well acted”: for once the tone of twee outrage about the state of British morals in the theatre was not being whipped up by Edna Welthorpe (Mrs.) or another of Joe Orton's epistolary aliases. Even as his stomach turned, a contemporary critic (for the Daily Telegraph) had acknowledged what a well-structured play Entertaining Mr. Sloane is. And it is the unwinding of a tight plot with...

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Ted Bain (review date May 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bain, Ted. Review of Up against It, by Joe Orton. Theatre Journal 47 (May 1995): 299-300.

[In the following review of a 1994 Chicago production of Up Against It, Bain says that the former screenplay does not translate easily into the stage version.]

His supposed depravity explicitly countered their good behavior, but for a few short months an odd collaboration was in the works. After Joe Orton wrote Up Against It in 1967 as a screenplay to showcase the Beatles, the script was returned with no explanation, though the inference might be that not all working-class artists have the same intentions in mind. Nonetheless, Chicago's Lookingglass...

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Susan Rusinko (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rusinko, Susan. “What the Butler Saw.” In Joe Orton, pp. 97-115. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

[In the following essay, Rusinko reviews previous critical opinion of What the Butler Saw, connecting the play with a theatrical tradition of farce and with the social unrest of the 1960s.]

… I've published a monograph on the subject [madness]. I wrote it at the university. On the advice of my tutor. A remarkable man. Having failed to achieve madness himself he took to teaching it to others.
And were you his prize pupil?
There were some more...

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Grant Stirling (essay date spring 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stirling, Grant. “Ortonesque/Carnivalesque: The Grotesque Realism of Joe Orton.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 11, no. 2 (spring 1997): 41-63.

[In the following essay, Stirling applies theoretical standards drawn by Mikhail Bakhtin about the plays of Rabelais to those of Orton; while Orton's philosophy is more grim than Rabelais's, he uses the same kind of “grotesque realism” and carnival-like scenarios to comment on the world as he sees it, making his plays more than simply farcical.]

[Joe Orton's] nonconformity was carried to a much greater extent than that of Shakespeare or Cervantes, who merely disobeyed the narrow...

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Jonathan Keates (review date 7 November 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Keates, Jonathan. “The Devious Escape from Leicester.” Spectator 281, no. 8883 (7 November 1998): 54-6.

[In the following review, Keates comments on a posthumous novel, Between Us Girls, and two posthumous plays, Fred and Madge and The Visitors.]

What would have become of John Kingsley Orton if his lover Kenneth Halliwell had not chosen, on 9 August 1967 at 25 Noel Road, Islington, to beat out his brains with a hammer before committing suicide? In a sense the act was, in Cavafy's famous phrase about the barbarians, ‘a kind of solution’, not only, for obvious reasons, to Halliwell's problems with Orton's talent and success, but to certain...

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Patrick O'Connor (review date 12 February 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Connor, Patrick. “Quiet at the Back.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5002 (12 February 1999): 19.

[In the following review of Between Us Girls, Fred and Madge, and The Visitors, O'Connor offers a mostly favorable assessment of all three works.]

Joe Orton kept pages of notes—words or phrases, sometimes scraps of dialogue. As he used them in his plays or stories, he would cross them off. This collage mentality pervades all his work and produces the effect of surrealism that he strove for, though it can induce irritation in the reader. Orton's is the voice from the back of the hall, at first asking pertinent questions and cracking amusing...

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Richard Helfer (review date December 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Helfer, Richard. “Ruining Civilization.” Lambda Book Report 8, no. 5 (December 1999): 25-6.

[In the following review, Helfer says that Fred and Madge deserves staging but is less enthusiastic about Between Us Girls and The Visitors.]

Like Hemingway, Joe Orton is having a prolific posthumous career. Between Us Girls and The Visitors and Fred and Madge are part of a large amount of writing done before Orton's fame.

Between Us Girls is a novel from 1957. Some might be surprised to see an Orton novel, but that was how he started writing, first in collaboration with Kenneth Halliwell, his lover and...

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William Hutchings (review date winter 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hutchings, William. Review of Between Us Girls, by Joe Orton. World Literature Today 74, no. 1 (winter 2000): 160.

[In the following review, Hutchings says that Between Us Girls is noteworthy only as a minor addition to Orton's body of work.]

Written in 1957 and now published for the first time over thirty years after the author's death, Between Us Girls is the first novel that Joe Orton wrote independently of his mentor, lover, and eventual murderer Kenneth Halliwell. Its three-part picaresque plot parodies the familiar chorus-girl-to-movie-star story line of countless film and stage extravaganzas; its narrator, Susan Hope, begins in the...

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Joel Greenberg (essay date spring 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Greenberg, Joel. “Joe Orton: A High Comedy of Bad Manners.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 15, no. 2 (spring 2001): 133-44.

[In the following essay, Greenberg presents an overview of several Orton plays, emphasizing the comedic shock value of Orton's style.]

Joe Orton, dubbed ‘the Oscar Wilde of Welfare State Gentility’ by critic Ronald Bryden, established a new kind of theatre with just three full-length plays and less than a half dozen one-act and radio plays. That so modest a body of work altered the possibilities of stage comedy is remarkable, but that the playwright spent only three years of his life, the last three years (1964-67), in...

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Christopher Innes (essay date 2002)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Innes, Christopher. “Joe Orton (1933-67): Farce as Confrontation.” In Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century, pp. 293-306. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Innes discusses the farcical elements of Orton's plays, noting that his outrageous situations and characters celebrated anarchy in their depiction of the universality of the abnormal and the dishonest.]

Farce gained fresh relevance in the 1960s with Joe Orton's explosive, but short-lived eruption onto the English stage, which paved the way for Peter Barnes (see pp. 352ff. below) and influenced Howard Brenton's first short satirical pieces at the end of...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bigsby, C. W. E. “Selected Bibliography.” In Joe Orton, pp. 78-9. London, England: Methuen, 1982.

Selected list of primary and secondary works.


Charney, Maurice. Joe Orton. New York: Grove Press, 1984, 145 p.

Bio-critical study of Orton which emphasizes the subtexts of Orton's dialogue.

Lahr, John. Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton. New York: Knopf, 1978, 302 p.

Biography of Joe Orton.

Sheperd, Simon. Because We're Queers: The Life and Crimes of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe...

(The entire section is 366 words.)