Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282
Joe Orton’s identity as a gay working-class playwright is reflected in his work, Loot. The story is of a sum of money that is stolen from a bank by Dennis and Hal. Dennis and Hal must protect their treasure from Fay, a serial-killer who marries men and then takes their money after killing them. They must also watch out for Inspector Truscott who with some payment assists Hal and Dennis in avoiding arrest. Throughout the play, Orton questions what it means to be a criminal. Hal and Dennis are humanized while characters like the police inspector are brought into question. There is no clear line of good and bad. In this dark story, everyone is a criminal. This aligns with Orton, who has his own history with the label criminal. Orton was sentenced to six months in prison for defacing a library book. However, he interpreted this as punishment for his homosexuality. Like Orton, his characters come to question what it means to be a criminal and what constitutes crime. In many ways, Loot is an early critique of the police force and its biased practices. While the police force claims to be nobel, Inspector Truscott is a fake. Similarly, Fay claims to be a “nice person” however, she turns out to be a serial killer. Her character defies all norms and facades that society is faced with. As a woman, it is assumed that she is a dutiful wife and caretaker. Even more so, Fay is a nurse. This compels the reader to think of her as someone who solves problems rather than start them. Yet, Fay is a cold-blooded murderer. She defies each of the assumptions made about her.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766
Loot is, superficially, a play about the burial of Mrs. McLeavy, a middle-class British woman just deceased. The play opens immediately before her funeral. Her husband and her nurse, Fay, are onstage with the coffin, which stands on trestles. As the action develops, Mrs. McLeavy’s son, Hal, is introduced. The audience by this time has learned that Fay, in her mid-twenties, has been widowed seven times. Accounts are soon given of what widowed her so regularly, including references to two husbands who disappeared and are presumed dead. Fay obviously hastened all of them to their reward.
Fay wears Mrs. McLeavy’s slippers, and as the play progresses, she dons other articles of the dead woman’s clothing. Fay wants to marry Mr. McLeavy, and she goes so far as to demand, before the funeral, that he propose marriage to her on bended knee. The club she holds over him is that on her deathbed, Mrs. McLeavy changed her will, leaving everything to Fay. McLeavy can share in his wife’s bequest only if he marries Fay. Fay’s reward is that, marrying McLeavy, she will stand to inherit everything he has, and it is clear that in Fay’s capable hands, he will not reach a more advanced age than he has already achieved.
The McLeavy’s son Hal, a ribald youth whom Fay, a devout Roman Catholic, scolds for making the priest work twenty-four hours a day simply to hear his confessions, does not plan to attend his mother’s funeral. His friend and sometime lover, Dennis, works with the mortician who will lay the woman to rest. Dennis soon arrives and provides the information that he has had sex with Fay beneath a picture of the Sacred Heart and that he and Hal have just robbed a bank and have to do something about hiding the money before Truscott, a police inspector masquerading as a Metropolitan Water Board inspector, comes nosing about close to the cupboard in the McLeavy house where the loot has been stashed.
The solution is simple: Dennis, who is in charge of sealing the coffin, will simply remove Mrs. McLeavy from it, put her remains in the cupboard, and put the loot in the coffin, in which it will receive the full rites of the Roman Catholic Church and a respectable Christian burial. Much of the remainder of the play is a parody of detective melodramas. The corpse, nicely embalmed, has been stripped of all of its organs, which are in a separate coffin to be buried with the first so that at the resurrection, Mrs. McLeavy will be complete and able to function well.
By the time Truscott arrives, the corpse has been stripped of its clothing and such other parts as can be removed—props such as a glass eye and false teeth, which become playthings thrown from person to person onstage as the play progresses. The telling evidence, Mrs. McLeavy’s body, is to be weighted with ballast and dumped in a river inconveniently distant from the deceased’s residence.
Truscott, with his Holmesian nose for crime, is on to two vicious felonies: a bank robbery and the murder of Mrs. McLeavy by Nurse McMahon. He sniffs around for evidence, usually missing by a split second the corpse’s sequestration in the cupboard, in the coffin, or behind a screen. Orton keeps the audience on tenterhooks.
Meanwhile, on the way to the church, the hearse is broadsided by a vehicle run amok, killing the mortician. The coffin, however, is made of solid stuff and, even though set alight by the accident, protects its precious cargo. Finally, however, as in all good melodramas, truth will out. Fay, certainly nobody’s fool, has already discovered Hal and Dennis’s scheme, but they buy her silence. Then Truscott learns the truth, finding the corpse behind a screen, which gives him great negotiating powers. He strikes a deal for a portion of the loot, pins Mrs. McLeavy’s murder on Mr. McLeavy—who is led away protesting—and, after assuring Hal that he can arrange to have his father dispatched to join his mother in paradise, tries to recruit Hal and Dennis as policemen.
Hal, now having the McLeavy house to himself, invites Dennis to move in with him. Fay reminds him that when she and Dennis marry, they will have to move out. Hal does not see the need, but Fay explains to him that people would talk and that they must keep up appearances. With that platitude reflecting conventional working-class, British morality, the final curtain is rung down.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346
In its initial productions on the road in 1965, Loot was a failure because the cast acted it farcically yet formally rather than seriously. Joe Orton was insistent that the play could not succeed as the farce he intended unless the acting was totally serious. A director out only to exploit the play’s humor and to get laughs does the play an injustice. Peter Wood, the play’s original director, staged the production according to formal conventions reminiscent of eighteenth century drama. Orton accepted this approach until he realized that it was not succeeding. Wood’s response to hostile reaction from audiences was to make the production even more formal, increasing audience hostility. Moreover, the original production employed an art nouveau set, and the characters were dressed largely in black and white. The set was visually pleasing but competed with the play for attention, and created significant problems. Orton knew instinctively that the play’s chief aim had to be cerebral rather than humorous, although humor necessarily served as a vehicle. He knew that the set could not be permitted to upstage the dialogue.
Before the play reached London, its direction was transferred to Charles Marowitz. Orton had done considerable rewriting, heightening the humor of the glass eye scene by bringing it up again late in the play (when Truscott stumbles on the eye). He also added McLeavy’s arrest after the out-of-town tryouts. Marowitz made the sets naturalistic. In the out-of-town productions, the coffin had been part of the furniture of the art nouveau set; in Marowitz’s production, it was a coffin with a macabre, melodramatic horror attached to it, which was precisely what the play demanded.
A major problem involved getting audiences to accept the presence of a corpse onstage, particularly a corpse that was shifted from place to place. The problem was solved by swathing Mrs. McLeavy in bandages so that she resembled an Egyptian mummy, to which the dialogue frequently compares her. Audience acceptance is swift enough to permit the outrageous tossing about of her removable parts later in the play.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 94
Sources for Further Study
Fraser, Keath. “Joe Orton’s Brief Career.” Modern Drama 14 (1971): 414-419.
King, J. Kimball. Twenty Modern British Playwrights: A Bibliography, 1956-1976. New York: Garland, 1977.
Lahr, John. Introduction to Joe Orton, the Complete Plays. London: Eyre Methuen, 1976.
Lahr, John. Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton. New York: Knopf, 1978.
Orton, Joe. Interview by Giles Gordon. Transatlantic Review 24 (1967): 93-100.
Orton, Joe. The Orton Diaries. Edited by John Lahr. London: Methuen, 1986.
Rusinko, Susan. Joe Orton. Boston: Twayne, 1995.
Taylor, John Russell. The Second Wave: New British Drama for the Seventies. London: Eyre Methuen, 1978.