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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 death, Orton was planning a historical farce set on the eve of Edward VII’s coronation in 1902. He intended to call the play Prick Up Your Ears, a smirky double entendre of the kind he favored. The American critic and novelist John Lahr has appropriately taken this as the title of his study of Orton’s work and life.

John Kingsley Orton was born in Leicester in 1933, and only much later changed his name to Joe to distinguish himself from John Osborne. This transformation was one of many by which Orton struggled to create an independent life for himself out of the most unpromising materials. Misfortune seemed to dog his family. His mother Elsie lost a tubercular lung, and severely damaged her eyesight working for years in a knitting factory. His father William left his factory job to become a gardener and lost a finger pruning trees in a public park. In his plays, Orton makes comic capital out of people losing parts of their bodies. When McLeavy’s son Hal produces missing components of his mother’s corpse in Loot, Truscott observes, “Your sense of detachment is terrifying, lad. Most people would at least flinch upon seeing their mother’s eyes and teeth handed around like nuts at Christmas.”

Elsie Orton appears to have been a tyrant. “I’ve raised four kids on one lung,” she would scream, according to Lahr’s account. Lahr shows how Orton incorporated many of her eccentricities into the sympathetic but ludicrous figure of Kath in Sloane, who is as vain about her dentures, for example, as Elsie was: “My teeth, since you mentioned the subject, Mr. Sloane, are in the kitchen in Stergene. I usually allow a good soak overnight. But what with one thing and another I forgot. Otherwise I would never be in such a state. (Pause.) I hate people who are careless with their dentures.” Lahr notes two traits shared by many of the characters in Orton’s plays representing the author himself: “They are young and have, so they say, no family. To have lost the family or never to have known it are conditions that Orton presents without a tinge of sentiment.”

Orton saw the theater as his salvation from this bleak world, and by age sixteen was determined to make a career as an actor. He joined several amateur theatrical groups in Leicester, and made his first appearance as a messenger speaking one line in Richard III. Thus confirmed in his ambition, Orton decided to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He took elocution lessons to overcome his East Midlands accent, and was accepted at RADA in 1951, after playing both Captain Hook and Smee in an audition scene from Peter Pan.

Kenneth Halliwell was a fellow acting student, older by seven years, intelligent and well-educated, who seems to have been deeply shaken by the freakish death of his mother from a wasp sting, and the subsequent suicide of his father. Halliwell’s early flair for acting had not much developed, and by the time he met Orton he was becoming sullen and introverted. Presently they moved into the bed-sitter where they lived and worked for fifteen years, and where they died together. Of their relationship, Lahr says, “Halliwell offered knowledge and stimulation, and Orton gave attention and good spirits.” Upon graduation from RADA in 1953, both pursued stage careers. Halliwell’s failed for lack of talent, Orton’s because he was too young and inexperienced for good parts, and too impatient for the grind of provincial repertory.

Like most things at the beginning of their relationship,” Lahr notes, “writing was Halliwell’s idea.” Orton typed for him, made useful suggestions, and wrote material for performance at his RADA diction classes. When their acting careers failed to progress, they both tried literature. Halliwell encouraged Orton to read Ronald Firbank, and many of their early collaborations reflect his “swank” prose. Lahr says, “Orton’s humor was always more robust and gregarious than Firbank’s recherché fantasies. But he shared Firbank’s obsessions [with “murky passions” beneath mannered surfaces] and adapted many of his comic maneuvers to a much more popular dramatic form.” Many of the ideas Orton and Halliwell explored in their novels later recurred in Orton’s plays, giving Halliwell considerable cause for resentment. Orton educated himself through Halliwell, and learned to write in collaboration with his friend, but their joint literary career was no more successful than their acting ones had been. Only when they decided to work separately did Orton’s unique voice begin to emerge.

They gained their first public recognition together however, and it was shameful. In 1962 they were arrested and sentenced to six months in jail for stealing and defacing library books which they then replaced on the shelves, enjoying the prospect that other readers would be shocked. Unable to reach the public through their unpublished novels, Orton and Halliwell resorted to this infantile prank as a way of getting some response. (Orton was pleased when he learned that the police had worked for almost two years to catch them.) Their work—for that’s what they considered it—consisted of rude comic blurbs inserted in the jackets of books, and of scandalous collages pasted on the covers. “Orton’s most successful paste-up illustration,” says Lahr,

was of Dame Sybil Thorndike locked up in a cell as Nurse Edith Cavell. A man peeks surreptitiously through a window at her. But what he sees is Dame Sybil staring at the mammoth genitalia of a superimposed Greek torso. The caption reads: “During the Second World War I was working from dawn to dusk to serve the many thousands of sailors, soldiers and airmen. American G.I.s came in shoals to my surgery and some had very peculiar orders for me.”

Several years later Orton claimed that defacing books was just a less acceptable form of the writing for which he became famous. His anonymous acts of literary theater do share with his plays an abusiveness and comic contempt for ordinary decencies, expressed by the blunt juxtaposition of clashing words, images, and ideas—but there’s a difference. Lahr argues that jail hardened Orton. “Before prison, his anger displayed its wound and lost its aim. Afterwards sentiment and self-pity were banished by a show of wit, and his laughter found its targets.”

The title character of Entertaining Mr. Sloane is an adaptable young man who takes a room in the house of a blowsy middle-aged woman named Kath. She makes only the flimsiest effort to conceal her interest in him, saying: “I’ve been doing my washing today and I haven’t a stitch on…except my shoes…. I’m in the rude [sic] under this dress. I tell you because you’re bound to have noticed.” Her brother Ed experiences a similar attraction to Sloane:

ED. Do you wear leather…next to the skin? Leather jeans, say? Without…aah….

SLOANE. Pants?

Ed warns Sloane off Kath (“Women are like banks, breaking and entering is a serious business”) and hires the boy as his chauffeur. But Kath has first claim on her guest and gets pregnant by him. Meanwhile her old father, Kemp, recognizes Sloane as a murderer. Kemp tries to tell Ed, who won’t listen, and in a fit of rage Sloane murders the old man. “You’re completely without morals, boy,” declares Ed when Sloane begs for help. “I hadn’t realized how depraved you were. You murder my father. Now you ask me to help you evade justice. Is that where my liberal principles have brought me?” But Sloane persuades Ed to save him (“In future you’d have nothing to complain of…. Let me live with you. I’d wear out my jeans in your service”) only to find his escape blocked by Kath (“I was never subtle, Mr. Sloane…. If you go with Eddie I’ll tell the police”). “It’s what’s called a dilemma, boy,” exclaims Ed. “You’re on the horns of it.” But brother and sister quickly resolve the dilemma by deciding to share Sloane between them. When Kath wonders if Sloane can attend the birth of their child, Ed replies, “It’s all any reasonable child can expect if the dad is present at the conception.” Despite minor disappointments, it’s a satisfactory arrangement all around.

In Loot, arguably Orton’s funniest and best worked out play, money supersedes sex as the paramount object of desire. Mr. McLeavy is an ordinary man whose wife has just been secretly dispatched by her nurse Fay (“Had euthanasia not been against my religion I would have practiced it. Instead I decided to murder her”). McLeavy’s son Hal has just robbed a bank with Dennis, an undertaker’s assistant. Dennis wants to marry Fay, while Fay, who has murdered seven previous husbands for their money, has set her sights first on Mr. McLeavy’s hand in marriage, and then on his life.

When the police arrive in the person of Detective Truscott, the boys hide the bank loot in Mrs. McLeavy’s coffin and dump the body in the wardrobe. “The theft of a Pharaoh is something which hadn’t crossed my mind,” exclaims Truscott when he discovers the corpse wrapped in a mattress cover. “Whose mummy is this?” Fay blithely declares, “It’s not a mummy. It’s a dummy. I used to sew my dresses on it.” Truscott accepts this explanation a good deal more readily than everyone else accepts his disguise as a representative of the Metropolitan Water Board. When forced to disclose his true identity, the detective confesses, “You have before you a man who is quite a personage in his way—Truscott of the Yard. Have you never heard of Truscott? The man who tracked down the limbless girl killer? Or was that sensation before your time?”

HAL. Who would want to kill a limbless girl?

TRUSCOTT. She was the killer.

HAL. How did she do it if she was limbless?

TRUSCOTT. I’m not prepared to answer that question to anyone outside the profession. We don’t want a carbon-copy murder on our hands.

Truscott proceeds to unravel all the present crimes, “Beginning with the least important…Murder.” He arrests Fay but is compelled to release her when the incriminating viscera of Mrs. McLeavy prove to have exploded in an auto accident. Undeterred, Truscott insists there’s a slim chance he can get Fay as an accessory to another crime, “And one which the law regards as far more serious than the taking of human life…. Stealing public money.” But when Fay and the boys agree to split the loot with Truscott, he in turn agrees to pin all the blame on the beleaguered Mr. McLeavy. “You’re fucking nicked, my old beauty,” exclaims Truscott at this fortuitous turn of events. “You’ve found to your cost that the standards of the British police force are as high as ever.” Mr. McLeavy’s parting line is the wail of a hopelessly wronged man: “I’m innocent! I’m innocent!…Oh, what a terrible thing to happen to a man who’s been kissed by the Pope.”

The British critic Ronald Bryden labeled Orton the “Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility.” His characters go to exaggerated comic extremes to cope with a world that would choke them if they weren’t so inventive. The plays of John Osborne, for example, represent another attitude. In Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, Bill Maitland rails at a middle-class society he helped make but cannot escape. Lahr notes, “Where Osborne’s theatre and his characters by 1964 were stalemated by the impotent heroics of invective, Orton faced the loss of nerve in middle-class life and got beyond a sense of paralysis.” Orton admired Harold Pinter, who recognized Orton’s talent from the start (and read a poem at his funeral). Orton’s first play, The Ruffian on the Stair, written for BBC radio, was in the menacing-criminal style of such Pinter plays as The Dumb-waiter or The Birthday Party. But Orton was conscious of moving away from Pinter into a style wholly his own. He felt that he had influenced Pinter’s The Homecoming, in which sexual sharing takes place as it does in Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

Pinter invented images of entropy,” Lahr writes, “Orton of action.”

In Pinter’s world, characters hide their needs and decoy the facts of their life…. Orton was in stylistic rebellion against this obfuscation. “The whole trouble with Western society today,” Orton wrote in his diary, “is the lack of anything worth concealing.” In Orton’s world there is no uncertainty and no secrets. Reality is outrageous enough without mystifying it. People say what they mean—but the truth still does not help them.

Farce is higher than comedy in that it is very close to tragedy,” Orton believed. “You’ve only got to play some of Shakespeare’s tragedies plain and they are very nearly farcical.” Tragic characters have great passions which drive them to great actions. Orton omits the greatness, because it does not exist for him, and presents ordinary people pursuing ordinary desires (for sex or money) to whatever logical extremes society permits—or won’t permit. Farce is the appropriate dramatic form for this extremism, because in it desire is pressed beyond language into knock-about physical action. Sloane is a comedy of dialogue with wild passages of physical action approaching farce. Once Mrs. McLeavy is dumped in the wardrobe so the money can be hidden in her coffin, Loot is almost pure farce. Lahr analyzes the evolution of the play through numerous drafts and three productions before it became a success. “A good proportion of the brilliant epigrams and exchanges in the final text were embedded in the hodgepodge of the original.” But there it was “all wild talk and tame action.” In seemingly endless revisions, Orton learned “to write action,” and his jokes became “more economic and specific in service of the play’s momentum.”

Because Orton died before his final, posthumously produced play What the Butler Saw could undergo these practical revisions, it remains to my mind (though not to Lahr’s) an ambitious failure. Set in a stylish psychiatric clinic, the play concerns Dr. Prentice and his alcoholic, nymphomaniacal wife; their attempts to achieve sexual satisfaction with a secretarial candidate and a hotel page, respectively; and the eventual reconciliation of all four characters when it evolves that the secretary and the page are in fact twins born of an anonymous sexual encounter between Prentice and his wife before marriage.

Through the chaotic plot weaves Dr. Rance, a psychiatric inspector, who announces, “You may speak freely in front of me. I represent Her Majesty’s Government. Your immediate superiors in madness.” Orton, as usual, makes one-line jokes, Prentice says to his wife, “You were born with your legs apart. They’ll send you to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin.” But often the action of the play is interrupted by lengthy passages of analysis and discussion (albeit funny) and not all the jokes are yet “economic and specific in service of the play’s momentum,” as Lahr said of Loot, Some of them are simply tired inversions, which Orton might have improved, or cut, in time.

NICK. During my last term at school I was the slave of a corporal in the Welsh Fusiliers…. When he was posted abroad he gave me a copy of “The Way to Healthy Manhood.”

RANCE (drily, to MRS. PRENTICE). A case of opening the stable door after the horse is in.

Torture, nymphomania, transvestitism, incest, blackmail, bribery parade across the stage while psychoanalytic prattle twists experience into meanings all its own,” Lahr writes. But, lacking Orton’s painstaking attention to dramatic detail, this parade is still too ragged to be wholly convincing.

Joe Orton spent all his adult life with Kenneth Halliwell. They lived together and wrote together, but only Orton achieved recognition. Depressed and unsure of himself to start with, Halliwell seems to have been maddened by a sense of failure and neglect, living in the shadow of a celebrated figure he rightly felt he helped to create. In August 1967 Halliwell murdered Orton with nine hammer blows to the head, and then took twenty-two Nembutals. A suicide note directed police to Orton’s diaries, which chronicled in detail not only the dead men’s lives together, but also Orton’s relentless pursuit of men in the homosexual underworld of London. Lahr says,

Like the obsessive adulterers in Restoration comedy, which Orton studied with admiration, the spectre of death lurked behind his own pursuit of pleasure. It was impossible to celebrate one without accepting the other. Promiscuity was a submersion in chaos, a flirtation with death, a ritual wasting with its “magical” corollary of renewed fertility. Orton felt compelled to explore the taboos surrounding life and death. His trips into forbidden territory were the only alternative he saw to the quiet, cosy suffocation of conventional British living that he satirized so brilliantly in his plays, where people ask little of life and receive little in return. Orton had the detachment and brazenness of the dispossessed; he had nothing to lose.

The prose here, as occasionally elsewhere, is awkward, but John Lahr’s portrait of this funny and desperate writer is worthy of its subject.

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