The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.