Nothing to Lose

Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton

by John Lahr
Knopf, 302 pp., $15.00

Complete extinction has done nothing to silence her slanderous tongue,” says Mr. McLeavy in Joe Orton’s play Loot (1964), when he is told that a vision of his deceased wife has accused him of murdering her. The same might be said of the author—himself hideously murdered in 1967 at the age of thirty-four by his longtime homosexual friend and roommate Kenneth Halliwell. Orton wrote three long plays (and a number of shorter pieces) which still speak in his distinctive comic voice. He is best when he attacks the morality, sense of propriety, and respect for authority of the British working class from which he himself came. In an early one-act play, The Ruffian on the Stair (1963), a murderer is charged, “This is what comes of having no regular job.” In another one-act play, The Good and Faithful Servant (1964), Ray admits to his grandparents that he has no job at all:

BUCHANAN. Not work!? (He stares, open-mouthed.) What do you do then?

RAY. I enjoy myself.

BUCHANAN. That’s a terrible thing to do. I’m bowled over by this, I can tell you. It’s my turn to be shocked now. You ought to have a steady job.

EDITH. Two perhaps.

Pleasure is the chief pursuit in Orton’s plays. “I’d like to get married,” the undertaker’s young assistant Dennis reflects in Loot. “It’s the only thing I haven’t tried.” “I don’t like your living for kicks, baby,” his friend Hal replies. “Put these neurotic ideas out of your mind and concentrate on the problems of everyday life.” Everyday life is not without its unexpected obstacles, however. “As a good citizen I ignore the stories which bring officialdom into disrepute,” declares Mr. McLeavy before he’s unjustly arrested and hauled off to jail. The detective who performs this cruel feat is Orton’s best comic creation, Truscott of the Yard.

TRUSCOTT (shouting, knocking HAL to the floor). Under any other political system I’d have you on the floor in tears!

HAL (crying). You’ve got me on the floor in tears.

As for conventional hopes, Orton’s view of them is succinctly put in Funeral Games (1966):

PRINGLE. I won’t tolerate forgiveness. It’s a thing of the past.

CAULFIELD. Love thy neighbor.

PRINGLE. The man who said that was crucified by his.

After a decade of writing novels that were never published, Orton was thirty when he was suddenly acclaimed a playwright by the very public he delighted in affronting. Entertaining Mr. Sloane shared the Variety London Critics’ Poll Award as the best new British play of 1964. Loot won the London Evening Standard Award for the Best Play of 1966. Orton was less well received in America. Sloane ran two weeks on Broadway. Loot managed twenty-three performances. A limp production of What the Butler Saw made a moderate success off-Broadway, but those who saw it got a misleadingly bland impression of Orton’s slashing style. At his …

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