Joe Orton (1933-1967)

"The Oscar Wilde of welfare state gentility"

Liz Highleyman | October 8, 2003

Joe Orton - dubbed "the Oscar Wilde of welfare state gentility" by a London newspaper - is regarded as one of Britain's finest comedic playwrights. Yet he is perhaps even better known for his "bad boy" image, his open homosexuality, and his demise at the hands of his lover of 16 years.

John Kingsley Orton was born on New Years Day in 1933 in a working-class neighborhood in Leicester, England. A mediocre student and later a less than conscientious employee, he lost several menial clerical jobs. "I resented having to go to work in the morning," he admitted, "and very often I didn't bother." After one such sacking, Orton - who had always been drawn to the stage - received a grant to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, after auditioning with a piece from Peter Pan.

It was there that Orton, then 18, met his lover and mentor, 25-year-old Kenneth Halliwell. The men lived together in a north London flat, partly on Halliwell's small inheritance, partly on the income from odd jobs, and partly on the dole. In 1962 they were imprisoned for six months for defacing books in a public library, removing hundreds of pictures to decorate their apartment, and pasting in false jacket blurbs and sexually suggestive images.

Although Orton aspired to be an actor, Halliwell encouraged him to study literature and to write. Orton soon won renown for his satirical black comedies such as Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964) and Loot (1966). Always delighted to shock people, Orton used his macabre yet farcical plays to poke fun at bourgeois conventions and sexual prudery. Although he was openly gay, his work featured few explicitly homosexual characters. "In the horny world of Joe Orton's plays, everyone lusts after everyone regardless of gender or family relationship," wrote critic John Clum. Orton was tapped to write a screenplay for a movie starring the Beatles (Up Against It), but it was never produced because the group's gay manager, Brian Epstein, disapproved of scenes that would require the Fab Four to commit adultery, dress in drag, and blow up a war memorial.

Despite his drubbing of cherished British social institutions, Orton received critical acclaim, including the London Critics' Variety Award and the Evening Standard Drama Award for best play. Orton furthered his fame by writing disapproving letters to newspapers. Using the fictitious name Mrs. Edna Welthorpe, he wrote regarding Entertaining Mr. Sloane: "I myself was nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion.... Today's young playwrights take it upon themselves to flaunt their contempt for ordinary decent people."

As a working-class rebel and ex-convict, Orton's public image fit in well with the 1960s cult of sexualized masculinity, even as he challenged the popular stereotype of queers as effeminate and aristocratic. The harsh sodomy laws of that era did not dampen Orton's sexual appetites. "You must do whatever you like," he once advised a guilt-ridden gay friend, "as long as you enjoy it and don't hurt anyone else, that's all that matters." His diaries chronicled his many sexual adventures: in public lavatories, with a dwarf in Brighton, at his mother's funeral, and with teenage boys in Tangiers. Sodomy was decriminalized in Britain just months before Orton's death.

As Orton's fame exploded, Halliwell remained a struggling writer and visual artist, growing increasingly depressed and resentful both of Orton's success and his frequent sexual liaisons. Although he had supported his lover economically and encouraged his writing, Halliwell was not given credit for his contribution to the "Ortonesque" style. In July 1967 Orton wrote in his diary, "I have high hopes of dying in my prime," and such was to be the case. On August 9 an emotionally unstable Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death in his sleep with a hammer, then took a lethal dose of sleeping pills. Halliwell left a parting note stating, "If you read his diary all will be explained," but Orton's diary ended several days before the murder. Orton Society founder Bill Kelly believes the final pages were removed, perhaps by the authorities to protect the identity of a celebrity with whom Orton was rumored to be having an affair.

A quarter century after Orton's death, a Victorian public toilet in north London where he regularly cruised for sex was slated for preservation by the Department of National Heritage. His sister, Leoni, welcomed the restoration as a fitting memorial to her brother: "Joe frequented cottages all the time. It is a place where gays meet and strut their stuff. We know from George Michael's arrest that it is still common practice." Indeed, as Orton once observed, "You can do all sorts of things in London, and long may it remain so." -QSyndicate

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

Further Reading
  • Lahr, John. 1978. Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (Random House).
  • Lahr, John, ed. 1986. The Orton Diaries (Harper & Row).
  • Shepherd, Simon. 1989. Because We're Queers: The Life and Crimes of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton (Gay Men's Press).

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