Remembering Joe Orton

Joe Orton, photographed on 1st March 1967.

The playwright and author Joe Orton died on August 9th 1967, which is exactly 50 years ago today. I couldn’t resist a short post in his memory.

Joe Orton’s career was very brief – he was only 34 when he died – but reached brilliant heights with a series of anarchic black comedies that both scandalised and entertained Sixties audiences. Such was his success that he is one of the few playwrights to have  his name remembered  in the English language,  in the form of the adjective `Ortonesque’:

Relating to or characteristic of the English playwright Joe Orton or his works, especially in being unconventional and darkly comic.

My first experience of Orton’s plays was seeing an amateur dramatic society production of Loot when I was a student. I have to say it was a dreadful experience, but that was because of the performance not because of the script. Loot is basically a farce, and I think that must be the most difficult form of comedy to do successfully. The timing has to be perfect, the pace has to be relentless and everyone has to act as if all the absurd things going on make perfect sense. Those are tough requirements for amateurs, and even for professionals. The first, provincial, run of Loot was a flop even with an experienced cast. It was only when it was revived a couple of years later that it became a hit.

The circumstances of Joe Orton’s death were terrible: he was battered to death by his partner Kenneth Halliwell  (with whom he lived in a small bedsit) who then committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping tablets. Orton and Halliwell had been in a relationship since 1951.  Joe had never made any secret about his enjoyment of casual sexual encounters – his diaries are full of descriptions of his adventures – but  I think it was the thought of living alone rather than sexual jealousy that Halliwell couldn’t handle.

I never met Joe Orton (I was only 4 when was murdered) but I have over the years met a number of older gay men who knew him (and Halliwell) in various ways (if you get my drift). They all described him in the same way: cute, funny and extremely flirtatious. Watch this clip of him on TV and I think you’ll see why so many people were attracted to his cheekily boyish manner:

Those who knew Halliwell also say that the usual cliché about him as a failure embittered by Joe’s success is not fair. They were an odd couple (for the time) but what they had seemed to work for them, both romantically and creatively. It makes the horrible end of their lives even more difficult to contemplate. Here’s an interview with Kenneth Williams (who was very repressed about his sexuality) talking about Orton (who was quite the opposite), that gives some insight into the relationship between the two:

Rest in peace, Joe Orton (1933-1967), author and gay icon.

4 Responses to “Remembering Joe Orton”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Loot was a hoot – the film, at least.

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