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.
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.
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.
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.