HE WAS NO ORDINARY JOE: during his short but meteoric career as the baddest queer of the postwar British stage, Joe Orton (1933–1967) was getting it both ways. A working-class rebel and an ex-convict, he rubbed elbows with London’s fashionable circle of closeted aristocrats and theatrical big boys. But while the likes of Noel Coward, Mordaunt Shairp (The Greenbay Tree), and Terence Rattigan had mastered the art of suggestion without actually speaking the unspeakable, Orton’s renegade comedies explicitly poked fun at sexual prudery, moralistic attitudes, and bourgeois conventions. He was slim, straight-acting, and attractive. And he claimed to have an enormous cock. Always delighted to shock people, he promiscuously cruised in the public toilets of north London in search of anonymous sex, even though he had already been shacked up with a man, his lover and mentor Kenneth Halliwell, for almost sixteen years. Meanwhile the three major plays on which his notoriety continues to stand—Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964), Loot (1967), and What the Butler Saw (1970)— regularly prowled the commercial stages of the West End.
The contradictions are rife and fascinating. Orton was the most visibly gay mainstream playwright of the 1960’s, and yet Orton never portrayed homosexual love onstage. In fact, he never really wrote what we would now call “gay plays.” And his dramatic concoctions are notably vague or indifferent to gay sexual politics. Nevertheless, Orton daringly challenged dramatic and sexual conventions, prior to the advent of the gay rights movement, which most mark in the U.S. by the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Insisting, for instance, that there should not be “anything queer or camp or odd about” the relationships of Hal and Dennis in Loot, Orton wrote, “Americans see homosexuality in terms of fag and drag. This isn’t my vision of the universal brotherhood. They must be perfectly ordinary boys who happen to be fucking each other. Nothing could be more natural. I won’t have the Great American Queen brought into it.”
By being photographed in his uniform of leather jacket and white T-shirt, he projected an erotic image of tough masculinity that countered the popular stereotype of gay men as effeminate, affluent, sensitive, and weak. “I mean there’s absolutely no reason why a writer shouldn’t be as tough as a bricklayer,” Orton said. But while he imagined himself as an outlaw and intruder—remarkably similar to the teenage hustler Sloane who, at one point in Entertaining Mr. Sloane, is dressed up by the discreet middle-aged homosexual Ed in a leather chauffeur outfit—Orton’s frank and overt representations of gayness have disappointed many progressive thinkers and gay scholars who have since argued that they are less than revolutionary. In his personal life, Orton was openly gay. In his plays, the masculine men—Sloane, Hal and Dennis in Loot, and Nick in What the Butler Saw—are never exclusively gay.
Orton’s 1964 play Entertaining Mr. Sloane signaled the beginning of his active years as a dramatist, which lasted until 1967, when he was murdered in bed. (Halliwell bashed the 34-year-old Orton’s skull nine times with a hammer in their London apartment and then killed himself with an overdose of 22 Nembutal sleeping pills.) Since that first stage success, Orton had styled his roughhouse rebellion along the lines of the British theatre’s prototypical “Angry Young Men.” The crucial twist, however, was that he was angry about the repressive effects of traditional family values and institutional authority on gay men’s sexual aspirations. He manifested that queer rage in the form of anarchic comedies that almost always spilled into murder and violence. Orton’s scripts consistently flirted with illegal acts and themes of incest, sodomy, and pederasty—themes that, when exclusively linked by right-wingers to homosexuality, would repel any self-respecting glaad (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) activist.
Theatre censorship was not struck down in Britain until 1968. Gay liberation was around the corner: thirteen days before Orton’s grisly murder, the 1967 reform bill, which decriminalized sodomy and other male homosexual acts, went into effect. Two days after the bill had become law, Orton happened to come upon a straight couple innocently conversing and enjoying each other’s company out in public. He remarked in his diary: “I saw a young boy, blond and v[ery]healthy-looking, filling a bucket with water on the promenade. As he turned the tap off he looked up. Our eyes met. A great spasm of rage overtook me. I find lust an emotion indistinguishable from anger. Or, at least, anger predominates when I see something I can’t have. I feel I may run mad one day and commit rape.”
Legal emancipation could not quash or appease Orton’s lifetime of anger—it was too deeply ingrained. He was not concerned with social propriety or political correctness; his true dramatic interest rested in an uncertain compound of metaphysical vacuity and sexual aggression, which ultimately may have resided in his psyche. The war of irony and ridicule against heterosexual values that pervades all of his comic works represented the bitter, painful consciousness of a gay man whose normality was always put in question. It is the defiance of a person whose sexuality was outside the law for all but the last days of his life.
Born John Kingsley Orton in the drab, sooty industrial city of Leicester, England, in 1933, Joe Orton never wanted you to forget that he came from the gutter. He grew up an asthmatic and lonely boy that his family members thought (save for his harridan of a mother) was going to amount to nothing. He was a mediocre student. He couldn’t hold down a decent job. In his late teens, however, he showed some pluck: to escape the boredom and banality of his milieu, he joined local amateur dramatic clubs. He took elocution classes and purposefully lost his strong regional accent, which he felt handicapped his aspirations for an acting career. To improve his physique and quite probably to improve his chances of having sex with men, he took up bodybuilding. None of the family knew he was gay until after he died.
The seeds of Orton’s playwriting were planted during a ten-year literary apprenticeship under Halliwell. Soon after nabbing an acting scholarship for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1951, the eighteen-year-old Orton moved into a north London apartment with the 25-year-old Halliwell, who encouraged him to study literature and to write. The two men lived frugally, subsisting on Halliwell’s money or on their income from odd jobs. Mostly they refused to work. Cocksure of their specialness, they did collaborate on many unpublished novels between 1953 and 1963, which were literary pastiches of prose stylists whose epigrammatic qualities they thought campy and frothy. They knew of Oscar Wilde, of course, but they had a bigger hard-on for the Restoration playwrights William Wycherly and William Congreve. And they were convinced that Jane Austen was simply too sensitive to matters of adultery, fornication, and promiscuous relations in English society to be the prim and proper lady of English legend. Their foremost influence, though, was Ronald Firbank (1886–1926), the ingenious writer and humorist who cast a sardonic eye on high-society Edwardians suffering from ennui and moral decay. It was Firbank’s witty, sure-footed indulgences of behavioral excesses that Orton and Halliwell most closely imitated in their collaborative fiction.
Even when the two lovers began writing their own novels solo, neither achieved any success. Orton would later ransack their novels for ideas and put them into stage plays, which Halliwell, as Orton’s dramaturge and co-conspirator, helped shape, frequently supplying their punning titles. Those formative years with Halliwell also inculcated Orton with a riotous penchant for pranks and hoaxes. To satirize the disapproving tastes of the suburban middle class, Orton invented, in 1958, the fictional character “Mrs. Edna Welthorpe,” whom he imagined to be a watchdog of public morals. During the London theatrical run of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, an outraged “Mrs. Edna” submitted a series of letters to the editor of The Daily Telegraph, attacking the play as an “endless parade of mental and physical perversion.” She engaged in a public debate over the decency of what she called “a disgusting piece of filth” with “Peter Pinnell,” “John A. Carlsen,” “Alan Crosby”—all pseudonyms fabricated by Orton.
The nadir in Orton and Halliwell’s rascally activities took place in 1962 when they were both charged with five counts of theft and malicious damage of more than seventy books. They were fined and imprisoned for six months for stealing books, defacing the cover art to decorate their cramped apartment, concocting fake jacket blurbs, and pasting lewd drawings and strange images into books that they returned to the shelves. Standing quietly in the library shadows, Orton would snicker as unsuspecting readers perused the books he had obscenely altered.
Francesca Coppa in Joe Orton: A Casebook (2003) suggests that Orton’s in-your-face sense of humor may have been a mask. The scrapbook Orton himself created for Entertaining Mr. Sloane has the imposing letters “Mr. Sloane” pasted over the picture of a “powerful torso of a muscular man with a gigantic package.” Inside, she reports, a column of newsprint bearing the following quotation was collaged: “I was not nearly so sure of myself as I should have liked, and this made me present a brassy face and pretend to be more hardboiled than I was. I developed a mocking, cynical way of treating events because it prevented them from being too painful.” In a television interview when Orton had become the toast of the West End theatre scene, Orton reasoned that he and Halliwell were imprisoned not for destroying public library property, but “because we’re queers.”
In the artifice of the theatre, where Orton happily flaunted his thuggish brand of comic irreverence, Joe Orton made a clean break. Because of the sexual permissiveness and the burgeoning gay political awareness of the 1960’s, he found that he could fan the flames of scandal, myth, and contradiction without worry, restraint, or guilt. Abandoning novel-writing after his release from prison, Orton increasingly separated himself from Halliwell’s tight grip and transformed himself into a playwright, independently producing scripts that fired up controversy—flames that he himself had stoked. At the suggestion of his new literary agent, Peggy Ramsey—and to avert a name confusion with the other Angry Young Man, playwright John Osborne—Orton changed his first name from “John” to “Joe.” In the 1964 program for Entertaining Mr. Sloane, the 31-year-old Orton’s bio declared that he came out of nowhere, failed in his studies, and had a criminal past. He even spoke of having been married and divorced. “Is that enough?” he wrote, signing off with a disingenuous question.
THE ICONOCLASTIC ORTON persona was his own best invention. It was also the creation of Kenneth Halliwell. Although he was cast as a villain by the theatrical establishment long before the tragedy that ended both their lives, Halliwell was actually instrumental in helping create the popular sense of the “Ortonesque.” Entertaining Mr. Sloane, a comedy of sexual manners about an amoral hustler who worms his way into the hearts and erotic fantasies of a middle-aged brother and sister, brilliantly displays this intensely farcical style. The Orton style was characterized by fast-paced wordplay and an endearing determination to outrage and subvert the audience’s expectations. It was also marked by a surrealistic disconnect between what the characters say and what they actually do, which during the course of the evening becomes increasingly bizarre and absurd. In the celebrated last scenes of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, the brother and sister negotiate a deal to make Sloane their sexual plaything. “One does not kill by anger, but by laughter,” Orton said. “Comedy acts out unconscious wishes supposed in daily life.”
Of course, the media, always hungry for new sensations, ate it all up—and in the process created its own version of Orton. The reviewer Ronald Bryden in The Observer in 1966 dubbed him the “Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility.” It is a pithy quip, and while one can analyze Orton’s plays structurally to show that it actually misses the mark, Bryden’s argument does hold some water because Orton’s last work, What the Butler Saw, was a parody of The Importance of Being Earnest. The truer formulation is that Orton did not write farces—he wrote burlesques. It’s just that they sound and behave like farces. The young Orton seems to say insistently, insolently, “I can do this, old man, and I can do it better!” Although he admired Wilde’s play, Orton tried to avoid the comparison when he told The Evening Standard: “Unlike Wilde, I think you should put your genius into your work, not into your life.”
Orton did not want to be cast, like Wilde, as a homosexual martyr: he did not believe in hiding or cowering in the closet. Nevertheless, the comparison stuck. It became firmly cemented with the scandal of Orton’s tabloid-style murder at the hands of Halliwell, who had become manic-depressive and lethally envious of Orton’s success, as well as being insecure of Orton’s independence of mind. The passage of time allows us to see more clearly the homophobia, hypocrisy, and bias that characterize the interpretations of Orton’s life and work. Like Wilde, as well as many past tragic figures of homosexual culture who meet gruesome deaths, Orton was used by the straight world to stereotype gay life as pathetic and filled with debauchery and empty nihilism. Framed by their deaths, biographies of both Wilde and Orton are darkly resonant of the “crime does not pay” ethos—morality tales about doomed gay lives that the world could not tolerate and that must inevitably implode.
Critical assessments of Orton’s works by gay scholars and historians, on the other hand, are similarly biased. They attack the absence of positive gay role models in them or the lack of a utopian vision of the homosexual (married or not)—as if Orton would ever have been interested in winning an award from glaad. Everyone, gay and straight, has exploited Orton for their own purposes. Inevitably, everyone has been disappointed.
The “Joe Orton” who struts across Entertaining Mr. Sloane like a horny stud tells a different story. He intrigues because he is so clearly a sex-obsessed product of his time. (Did you know that in 2003 England’s department of National Heritage decided to preserve the public toilet in North London where Orton regularly prowled for sex because of its architecture and theatrical history? Upon learning this, Orton’s sister, Leoni, commented that the restoration was a fitting memorial to her brother.) He fascinates because he was oblique enough to have escaped the wrangling of government censors, brave enough to foreground an openly homosexual alternative, and hypermasculine enough to defy the stereotypes of the sensitive queer. He delights because he courted the British intelligentsia. Terence Rattigan, for example, gave the necessary enhancement money that allowed the immediate transfer of Entertaining Mr. Sloane to London’s commercial stage.
The mysterious Sloane is also as clever a theatrical construction as the ruffian dramatist who had unleashed him. He disturbs us because he signifies the enigmatic stranger. He is gorgeous, but he has an air of slack menace. The character seems vaguely familiar, because he was clearly devised and modeled after the brutally classical lines of the protagonists of Harold Pinter’s family-centered dramas like The Homecoming and The Birthday Party.
As in Pinter, the family is the scene of Orton’s travesty: In Entertaining Mr. Sloane, the woman, Kath, is a sex-starved mother looking for both a lover and a son. Her sibling, Ed, is a big brother type with a leather fetish; he can only have sex with the men who also have sex with his sister. A power struggle ensues as they vie for the affections—and the sexual attention—of the young intruder. In this amoral universe, Sloane is neither innocent nor victimized; he is both a fantasy come true and a projection of suppressed desires. Comparing Pinter’s The Homecoming (1965) to Sloane (1964), Orton wrote in his diary: “Harold, I’m sure, would never share someone sexually. I would. And so Sloane springs from the way I think. The Homecoming doesn’t spring from the way Harold thinks.”
Orton’s revolution was that he deliberately upset the metaphysical dramas that both straight and gay dramatists liked to play on audiences by blatantly infusing them with an explicit homoerotic charge. He freed the libido on the stage, placing it front and center. Morality is humbug; anything goes. His work does not conform to the earnestness of today’s gay political ideology (Orton would have balked at gay marriage, for example). Unstable sexuality rules in his zany comedies. The naughty joke is that it is perfectly natural for perfectly ordinary boys to have sex. But watch out for those who are indifferent to the gender of their partners. Certain sexually rapacious bisexuals can be dangerous.
Joe Orton wrote take-no-prisoners social comedies, not manifestos or political tracts. “Sex is the only way to infuriate them,” he once said. “Much more fucking and they’ll be screaming hysterics in next to no time.” Desiring commercial success on his queer terms, he lived and wrote as if he had nothing to lose. He fabricated comic romps that rippled with sex, anarchy, humor, lust, and boys. Like Mr. Sloane, Joe Orton the dramatist was fashioned out of truth, fiction, and lies.
Randy Gener, senior editor of American Theatre magazine, is the author of the plays Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn into Four Pieces, among other works.