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Orton, Joe (1933-1967)  

The gay British playwright Joe Orton, an important precursor of the literary movement, is perhaps the finest writer of farce in the twentieth century.

John Kingsley Orton was born in Leicester, England, on January 1, 1933, the son of William and Elsie Orton. He was the oldest of five children and grew up in a working-class neighborhood where his father was a gardener for the city of Leicester. As a student, he was mediocre at best. There were no hints in his unremarkable youth of the witty, sophisticated, controversial, and successful man of the theater Orton would become.

After joining several local theatrical companies, mostly playing insignificant roles, Orton took elocution lessons to get rid of both a slight lisp and his Leicester accent. He had for a time been a student at a business college but was admitted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts after auditioning in 1951.

His move to London was a pivotal moment in his life, serving as the beginning of his real career as a performer and writer and as his introduction to fellow RADA student Kenneth Halliwell, who would become his mentor and lover. Halliwell encouraged Orton to read and study literature and had a great impact on the development of Orton's creative abilities.

Orton worked variously as an actor and stage manager for several years. He and Halliwell collaborated on an unpublished novel, The Boy Hairdresser (1960). They were arrested and charged with defacing books borrowed from public libraries. They used plates from art books to decorate their flat and altered a number of books to make them obscene. They were sent to prison for six months in 1962.

After their release from jail, Orton began to write in earnest, working on his own novel, Head to Toe (published in 1971), and writing plays. As Orton became a famous, though controversial, figure in London theatrical circles, Halliwell grew increasingly alienated and distraught, largely as a result of the continuing rejection he faced as both a writer and a visual artist and of his poor self-image as an older, heavier, and balding companion to the boyish Orton.

In probably the best known event of Orton's life, on August 9, 1967, he was bludgeoned to death in his sleep by Halliwell, who subsequently took a lethal dose of Nembutals.

Orton's life and death have been the subject of three plays: Simon Moss's Cock-Ups (1981); Lanie Robertson's Nasty Little Secrets (1983); and John Lahr's Diary of a Somebody (1987). Stephen Frears directed a film, Prick Up Your Ears (1987), based on John Lahr's superb biography of Orton. The screenplay of the film, by Alan Bennett, was published as well.

At the time of his death, Orton was on the verge of worldwide fame. Loot had been named the Evening Standard's best play of 1966. He had been commissioned to write a script for a movie to star The Beatles--Up Against It (unproduced, though posthumously published, 1979). He was in the final stages of revising What the Butler Saw (1967), often regarded as his best play.

Orton's plays can be read as twisted, exaggerated autobiography. Like the title character in Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1963), Orton was capable of using his physical attractiveness and cheeky charm to get what he wanted from people. The ineffectual Kemp in Sloane--and Buchanan in The Good and Faithful Servant (1964)--seem based on Orton's father. Like Ray in Servant, Orton had been raised with the expectation that he would enter commerce as a clerk.

Orton's first play, The Ruffian on the Stair (1963), is based in rather obvious ways on Harold Pinter's early work, though seen through a decidedly queer consciousness. The play features a number of jokes about sexual encounters in public bathrooms, for example. An incestuous, homosexual relationship between brothers forms the background for the plot.

The unique dramatic style that has come to be called "Ortonesque" is clearly seen in Orton's next play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane. The handsome young drifter Sloane has slept with men and women, modeled for pornographic pictures, and eventually is shared sexually by a middle-aged brother and sister after he murders their father.

The lurid events of the play are undercut by the deadpan reactions the characters have to what happens. Rarely does the dialogue veer away from meaningless, polite, bourgeois conversation, even when sex or violence is imminent.

The juxtaposition of outrageous events with mundane language is at the heart of Orton's comedic style. His characters strive to maintain social poses while seducing, destroying, deceiving, or murdering each other.

In Loot (1966), Orton focuses on the homosexual character Hal, who robs banks and even uses his own dead mother's corpse as a vehicle for his underhanded, criminal enterprises.

What the Butler Saw (1967, posthumously produced in 1969) is Orton's most Wildean play, a savage farce with underlying social commentary. The play features cross-dressing, outrageous sexual innuendo, and the debunking of cherished British national myths such as the heroism of Winston Churchill.

Surely Orton is rightly seen as an important precursor by the contemporary queer literary movement. His work is remarkably open in its sexuality. But Orton is important not only for his role in queer theater, but also as perhaps the finest writer of farce in the twentieth century.

Don S. Lawson


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Bigsby, C. W. E. Joe Orton. London: Methuen, 1982.

Charney, Maurice. Joe Orton. New York: Grove, 1984.

Clum, John. Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Curtis, David. "Those Awful Orton Diaries." Sacred Heart University Review 7.1-2 (Fall-Spring 1986-1987): 40-51.

de Jongh, Nicholas. Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage. London: Routledge, 1992.

Esslin, Martin. "Joe Orton: The Comedy of (Ill) Manners." Contemporary English Drama. C. W. E. Bigsby, ed. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981. 95-107.

Gallix, Andrew. Joe Orton's Comedy of the Last Laugh. New York: Garland, 1993.

Lahr, John. Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Lilly, Mark. Gay Men's Literature in the Twentieth Century. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

Nakayama, Randall S. "Domesticating Mr. Orton." Theatre Journal 45.2 (May 1993): 185-195.

Page, Adrian. "An Age of Surfaces: Joe Orton's Drama and Post-Modernism." The Death of the Playwright? Modern British Drama and Literary Theory. Adrian Page, ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1992. 142-159.

Shepherd, Simon. Because We're Queers: The Life and Crimes of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton. London: Gay Men's Press, 1989.

Sinfield, Alan. "Who Was Afraid of Joe Orton?" Textual Practice 4.2 (Summer 1990): 259-277. Rpt. Sexual Sameness: Textual Differences in Lesbian and Gay Writing. Joseph Bristow, ed. London: Routledge, 1992. 170-186.

Worth, Katharine J. "Form and Style in the Plays of Joe Orton." Modern British Dramatists. John Russell Brown, ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984. 75-84.


    Citation Information
    Author: Lawson, Don S.  
    Entry Title: Orton, Joe  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 16, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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