Article Title:Sex and the Satirist: the unapologetic, exuberant Joe Orton
Category:Comment
Author or Credit:Craig Young
Published on:19th October 2005 - 12:00 pm
Published by:GayNZ.com
Story ID:959
Text:Joe Orton In the late seventies, I came across my first smut. It was a hot looking thirtysomething guy on a Penguin paperback cover. I had just made the accquaintance of one Joe Orton esq, playwright - over a decade after his death. As I dipped into the paperback, I learnt about his no holds barred, enthusiastic pursuit of gay sex, and a new world opened up to me. So, who was Joe Orton (1933-1967)? Born in Leicester, Orton was one of the working-class beneficiaries of the welfare state, whose life changed forever after he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London when he turned eighteen (1951). Amidst the lights and celebration of the Festival of Britain, Ken Haliwell, a fellow RADA member, invited him to move in. Thereafter, Ken introduced him to high culture - and gay sex. They would remain lovers for the next sixteen years, despite Joe's enthusiasm for al fresco sex with other men. After RADA, they spent a desolate time, with rejection slips from their attempts at dramatic work, and a brief prison spell after 'creative modification' of certain library books in 1962. Thereafter, Joe worked out, bulked up and became a controversial playwright. The following highlights his best-known gay-themed plays, not his whole work. His second play, "Entertaining Mr Sloane" (1964/1969) is probably his best known, and was filmed two years after his death. "Sloane" is about a bisexual drifter of the same name, who tries to rip off Kath and Eddie, a gormless sister and (gay) brother who aren't as pathetic and middle-aged as they seem. When Kemp (their elderly father) discovers Sloane's secret, the drifter kills him. Kath and Eddie conceal the murder, and turn the tables, blackmailing Sloane into becoming their personal and shared sex slave. With that play, he became a bankable West End commodity, although there were some misfires. Loot (1966) was one such item, originally a flop until it was restaged and became another hit. At the same time, Joe's newfound fame began to play on his lover. Some posthumous critics have depicted Ken as a shrill, possessive middle-aged queen and failure, compared to his more glamorous lover. However, Simon Shepherd and John Lahr (Orton's biographer) have challenged that model, pointing out that without Ken's mentoring, Joe Orton wouldn't have had the training that enabled his barbed satirical commentaries. For whatever reason, tragedy struck in August 1967. Ken murdered Joe with multiple hammer blows, and then killed himself with a sleeping tablet overdose. But their story wasn't over. Orton's plays (and adapted films) continue to enchant audiences, and there was a spate of 'Orton industry' films after John Lahr published his posthumous biography in 1978, leading to Alan Bennett's screenplay and subsequent dramatisation of his life, Prick Up Your Ears, in 1986. At the same time, Simon Shepherd published the first, and so far only, gay-centred critical interpretation of Orton's work, Because We're Queers (1989). Through the nineties, rediscovered formerly rejected novels were published, and Orton's original output remained in print. Even today, there is still enough interest for the publication of a casebook about the 'perfectly formed playwright' in question. Unapologetic, exuberant and celebratory about his homosexuality, Orton may be the first modern gay playwright. Nearly forty years after his premature death, he still continues to provoke laughter from audiences who will never grow tired of his barbed wit and keen social commentaries about the hypocrisy of everyday western societies. Recommended Reading: Joe Orton: Complete Plays: New York: Grove Weidenfeld: 1990 [Contains Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane] John Lahr: Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton: London: Allen and Unwin: 1978. John Lahr (ed) The Orton Diaries: London: Methuen: 1986. Alan Bennett: Prick Up Your Ears: The Screenplay: London: Faber and Faber: 1987. Simon Shepherd: Because We're Queers: The Life and Crimes of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton: London: Gay Men's Press: 1989. Francesca Coppa: Joe Orton: A Casebook: New York: Routledge: 2003. Craig Young - 19th October 2005    
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