Joe Orton Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Joe Orton’s novel Head to Toe (originally entitled “The Vision of Gombold Proval”) was published posthumously in 1971. Up Against It, a screenplay written for the Beatles, was published in 1979, although it was never produced. He also collaborated on several novels with Kenneth Halliwell, entitled “The Last Days of Sodom,” “Priapus in the Shrubbery,” and “The Mechanical Womb”; these were never published.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Joe Orton’s meteoric rise as a dramatist during the mid-1960’s in Britain was the result of the unique and frequently outrageous tone and style of his plays. Called “the master farceur of his age” by John Lahr and “the Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility” by Ronald Bryden, Orton made a radical break with the currently popular naturalistic drama of John Osborne and Arnold Wesker. He was instead influenced by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, although he rapidly moved away from Pinter’s “comedy of menace” to experiment with farce and the brittle epigrammatic style of Oscar Wilde. The verbal wit, aggressive sexuality, and black humor of his dramas created a new critical term, “Ortonesque,” to describe his own style and that of his imitators. The critical reaction to Orton’s drama was and remains mixed; the middle-class audiences that Orton worked so hard to affront frequently reacted with horror and shock to his plays, as did many reviewers. Playwrights as varied as Pinter and Terence Rattigan, however, were impressed by Orton. Loot won the best play of 1966 award from the Evening Standard and was voted the best play of 1966 by Plays and Players. Orton’s body of work is small, consisting of four one-act plays and three full-length dramas, but he gained an international reputation before his premature death. At the time of his murder, he had begun work on a play tentatively entitled “Prick Up Your Ears,” a farce about King Edward VII’s coronation.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bigsby, C. W. E. Joe Orton. London: Methuen, 1982. This brief study contends that Orton developed a style of anarchic farce that was deliberately subversive, not only of the authority figures appearing in his plays but also of language itself and conventionalities of plot and character. Bigsby also relates Orton’s work to developments in postmodern literature and contemporary art. Includes notes, bibliography.

Charney, Maurice. Joe Orton. London: Macmillan, 1984. This introductory overview concisely assesses not only all of Orton’s plays but also his novel Head to Toe and his unproduced screenplay for the Beatles, Up Against It. The final chapter offers a useful definition of “the Ortonesque.” Includes photographs, notes, bibliography.

Lahr, John. Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton. 1978. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. This definitive biography of the playwright, based in part on Orton’s diaries, is indispensable to any study of Orton’s work. It is not only a readable, detailed study of his life but also an insightful critical appreciation of the plays. Includes photographs, notes.

Rusinko, Susan. Joe Orton. New York: Twayne, 1995. A basic biography of Orton that covers his life and works. Includes bibliography, index.

Shepherd, Simon. Because We’re Queers: The Life and Crimes of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton. Boston: Alyson, 1989. A biography that covers the lives of Orton and his partner Halliwell. Bibliography.

Zarhy-Levo, Yael. The Theatrical Critic as Cultural Agent: Constructing Pinter, Orton, and Stoppard as Absurdist Playwrights. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. A look at the connection between absurdism and the theatrical works of Orton, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard. Includes bibliography, index.