Orton, Joe (Vol. 4)

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Orton, Joe 1933?–1967

Orton was an English dramatist. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

Joe Orton, the homosexual playwright, was brutally murdered at the age of 34 by his roommate—to whom, it turned out, he had left all his money. The latter was unable to collect because (a) under British law, a murderer cannot inherit, and (b) he had committed suicide right after bludgeoning Orton. So the money went to Orton's father, whom the playwright ridiculed in his plays. A man who dies, and undoubtedly lived, a black comedy, should be able to write a good one; still, Orton's first play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, had struck me as too conventionally commercial for the unconventional attitudes it was promulgating as well as ridiculing; nor did it seem to me as entertaining as its title. Loot, however, is something else again. Its tone and characters are properly absurd, yet they retain a great deal of authentic London lower-class wryness….

What makes Loot a considerable play is its uncompromising yet cheerful rejection of the world. The main targets are Catholicism, i.e., religion; the police, i.e., government; sex, i.e., what we are pleased to call love; people, i.e., all people without exception—stupid, demented, greedy, hypocritical, and vicious: homo (or hetero) homini lupus. When you think about it, no one—not even Beckett, Ionesco, Genet—went that far. And let no one think it is easy to see the world that blackly and still be as jolly, urbane, even amiable about it as our playwright. Merely writing a play that is calculated to offend almost everyone takes courage; to live on and work in a world such as Orton perceived, requires a good deal more. All this, of course, would be scant recommendation if Orton's writing were not, most of the time, breezily, bruisingly equal to his somberly uproarious vision.

John Simon, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1968 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXI, No. 2, Summer, 1968, pp. 325-26.

[Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane] … is about four English working-class people whose expectations are wildly fantasized but, all the same, bitterly low in reach. While the slumberous savagery of the action goes on the characters chat to each other in a mixture of genteelisms, crime journalese, pub-brawl insults and desperately repeated pieties lifted from advice columns….

The language of the text is like parquet over a volcano…. [It] would be possible (but not exact, I think) to argue that this is actually a highly moral piece. If it shows us people with a knee-high view of life, barbarous infants in genteel grownups' carcasses, there could be said to be an implication that the world should have done a lot better by them. Voltaire also wrote about people who are totally disreputable but issues that are absolutely serious. The young Joe Orton, though …, was understandably not yet so sure of what he was doing. Voltaire could shock; so could Firbank, whom Orton admired. But it takes genius to shock. In this text, perhaps, there is only talent, and a strain of the professionally outrageous. There may attach to it, in our heads, the notion that outrageous things ill-done have courage because they repel, but the truth may be that they repel because they are ill-done and not very brave. All the same, the piece is by a young master of artificial diction and ribaldry, a writer whom other writers recognized. Sean O'Casey said cheerfully to me that this was a play to make a man pull his trousers up.

Its trouble is the time's,...

(This entire section contains 1912 words.)

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not Orton's in particular. It can't quite find its own voice. Not only the characters but also the text itself seem to be speaking in quotation marks. Nothing is said directly; everything is on the bias, spoken at a tangent to mock suspect "sincerity." This may be one of the few specifically modern characteristics (cool, for instance, is nothing new; nor is gallows humor). It can impose a terrible load of mannerism on writing, even though one of its causes, paradoxically, is the modern horror of indulging the phony. I believe Orton was a serious-minded man; it is this contemporary problem of utterance that belies his work, this problem of his not seeming to mean a word he says. He would probably have got round it by some technique of his own if life had been halfway forbearing with him. Instead,… he has now posthumously left us [the film version ofEntertaining Mr. Sloane,] a revenge tragedy going on among the antimacassars and the doilies and the ketchup; an analogy of The Cenci, but one that has no comprehension of the blasphemous.

Penelope Gilliatt, "Could-Haves" (1970), in her Unholy Fools: Wits, Comics, Disturbers of the Peace—Film and Theater (copyright © 1973 by Penelope Gilliatt; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of The Viking Press, Inc.), The Viking Press, 1973, pp. 238-42.

Between his first play, The Ruffian on the Stair, produced … in 1964, and his sudden death in 1967,… [Orton] had not only written two of the new dramatists' biggest commercial successes, Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot, but had developed his own unmistakable vision of the world and his own tone of voice as a dramatist—to such an extent that ever after one finds oneself reading actual news stories in terms of a Joe Orton script.

The key to Orton's dramatic world is to be found in the strange relationship between the happenings of his plays and the manner in which the characters speak of them. The happenings may be as outrageous as you like in terms of morality, accepted convention or whatever, but the primness and propriety of what is said hardly ever breaks down. And the gift of Orton's characters for intricate and inventive euphemism, so far from toning down the outrageousness of their actions and ideas, only places it in even stronger relief. Orton was, perhaps first and foremost, a master of verbal style—or of his own particular verbal style. And even during his short public career his mastery of that style may be observed increasing and refining itself….

Like the highly formal language his characters speak, the intricate plots through which they are manoeuvred create a critical distance between play and spectator. One is always aware in Orton that he is using a convention to make his points, even though he himself always insisted that in a very important sense his plays are realistic (the sense, as I understand it, that they embody his observations of what happens within society in the real world and are written in a style which seems to him perfectly natural, however odd it may seem to anyone else). It is a convention suggestive at once of the two surviving genres of truly popular theatre, farce and the whodunnit, both of which require intricate plot and simplified, or at any rate very simple, characterization. It is obviously significant that in later plays he makes the connection explicit; Loot is on one level both a whodunnit and a parody of a whodunnit; What the Butler Saw is both a farce and a parody of a farce….

What is beautifully kept up in Mr Sloane, rather less so in his other plays, is the almost surrealistic dislocation between the most extraordinary and improper happenings and the unruffled propriety of the characters' conversation. The two elements are held in perfect balance….

The play is a comedy of language, but it is also a comedy of manners: the humour derives as much from gradual revelation of character as from the manipulation of spoken words. And formally it is immaculately managed: the clue to its structure is in the title, the meaning of which inexorably shifts in the course of the play from providing entertainment for Mr Sloane to using Mr Sloane as an occasion of entertainment….

It is remarkable … that though they seem to start from the material of camp fantasy, Orton's plays manage completely to transform that material into a serious vision of life, which, however, eccentric—and however comic in its chosen forms of expression—carries complete conviction as something felt, something true.

John Russell Taylor, "Joe Orton," in his The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1971 by John Russell Taylor), Hill & Wang, 1971, pp. 125-40.

Orton's dialogue is a collage of the popular culture. It assimilates advertising jargon, the idioms of the popular press, the stilted lusciousness of Grade-B movies. Like the characters in his plays, a poetry is forged from words debased and thrown-away by the culture. His characters do not speak in the refined, heroic language of Osborne and Arden. Orton does something much more elusive and difficult. He adds his own brand of irony to the colloquial. Fantasy finds its way into the sentences of his characters, and their words stand out like banners flagging their dream to the audience if not themselves….

Entertaining Mr Sloane is Orton's most naturalistic work, and the piece does not use the stage with full playfulness—a fact that Orton recognized. Loot and What the Butler Saw work more boldly with theatrical artifice. Orton considered them an advance, a development in which his dazzling capacity to manipulate words was matched with equally startling talent for constructing hilarious stage images. In Entertaining Mr Sloane, Orton was toying with farce. Kath loses her teeth and is grovelling on all fours at the play's tensest moment. The cut and thrust rhythm of the play's third act dialogue has a potential for mayhem that never gets beyond the vaudeville of långuage to movement….

[It] is as a farceur that Orton's reputation continues to grow. He succeeded in taking a frivolous form and turning it to resonant ends. Conscious of the theatre's literary heritage, his plays extend the style and savagery of Restoration comedy into twentieth century life. With farce, his characters move at a momentum which augurs their disintegration. They defy—in both senses of the word—gravity. Orton's farces carried out Nietzche's commandment in Thus Spake Zarathusra. 'And when I beheld my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn; it was the Spirit of Gravity, through him all things are ruined. One does not kill by anger but by laughter. Come let us kill the Spirit of Gravity.'

Orton waged his war with a clear understanding of his goals. In the three years before his death in June 1967 at the age of 34, his confidence and technique grew. He offered an audience grotesques which, like the gargoyles on a medieval cathedral, forced the viewer to imagine Hell and redefine Heaven. To him, nothing was sacred; but the fury of his attack, its peculiar combination of joy and horror, was not without a broader spiritual motive. Orton wanted to shock the society and also to purify it. On stage, his characters are performing animals. And, once the beast in every man is faced, then tolerance can more easily replace righteousness….

Critics and audiences are now beginning to recognize Orton's staying power. His style is too unique, his humour too side-splitting, his stage metaphors too accurate for him to be relegated to history's rubbish heap. In showing us how we destroy ourselves, Orton's plays are themselves a survival tactic. He makes us laugh to make us learn. There is a salvation in that.

John Lahr, in his "Introduction" (© 1973 by John Lahr) to Entertaining Mr. Sloane, by Joe Orton, Eyre-Methuen, 1964, pp. 5-10.


Orton, Joe (Vol. 13)