“I’m inclined to think,” Joe Orton wrote in his diary in March 1967, “that the main fascination of Swift (as with Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan and many other writers and artists) is with his life. His art certainly doesn’t warrant the merit attached to him.” It would be ironic if this turned out to be Orton’s own epitaph. Doubly ironic, because the two lumpish, lusterless sentences are exactly the kind he was training himself not to write.

Orton got his life in 1978, eleven years after his death. It was written by John Lahr and called Prick Up Your Ears. Now Stephen Frears has made a film of it, and Lahr has gone on to edit The Orton Diaries, which Orton kept during the last eight months of his life, from December 1966 to August 1967. “My work on Orton,” says Lahr’s introductory note, “which began back in 1970, is now over.” It’s been thorough. We know everything we possibly could about the thirty-four years of Orton’s life; every psychological avenue has been explored, including the gloomy cul-de-sac traveled by Orton’s lover Kenneth Halliwell.

Orton was born in 1933, the disgruntled eldest child of a working-class family. The Ortons were not an affectionate bunch, and they lived in Leicester—the least magical of industrial towns, not even dark and satanic. Orton left school at sixteen, got an office job, and threw himself into amateur theatricals. It was by willpower rather than acting talent that he got himself accepted, two years later, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. There he fell in with an older, better-educated student: Halliwell. Halliwell had a lot of style. It was based on the skittish rococo novels of Ronald Firbank, who died in 1926 and has been a literary cult figure ever since. Orton’s loyalty to his first literary model was perhaps excessive: he came to think that Waugh too had modeled himself on Firbank, but wasn’t as good.

Halliwell and Orton became lovers and set up house together. Their acting careers failed to take off; they began jointly writing novels while living on Halliwell’s money (not much) and Orton’s National Assistance check. The novels didn’t take off either. If they were like Orton’s solo effort Head to Toe, posthumously published in 1971 and now reissued, then it’s not hard to see why. This one is a Swiftian allegorical fantasy. It contains some daring and funny inventions, but like many allegories, it has a grip like a dead boa constrictor’s. Orton and Halliwell amused themselves meanwhile by embellishing public library books with surrealist and occasionally obscene collages. The authorities traced them. They were prosecuted and given six months in jail for “willfully damaging” public property. Ironically, again, their collages are now on view at the Islington Public Library. Islington is the North London borough where Orton and Halliwell lived. Its “gentrification” was only just beginning then.

Prison undermined Halliwell’s fragile emotional stability; but for Orton it provided the “short sharp shock” that Mrs. Thatcher, years later, was to advocate as the answer to juvenile crime. There is irony here too, another double one: the disgraceful, anarchic Orton with his unbridled sex life looks like the spirit of the Sixties incarnate (especially since in the film he’s played by Gary Oldman, who made his name as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy). But in a sense he was a proto-Thatcherite: determined, hard-working, quick to cut his losses and other people’s, and keen to make it. Not into society, though: he loathed and despised the upper and middle classes, right down to complaining that “I’ve never got a hard on over a middle-class kid yet.” He also loathed liberals, especially liberal women.

Jail and the separation from Halliwell—they had never been apart from their meeting in 1951 to the sentence in 1962—jolted Orton’s talent into operation. “Being in the nick brought detachment to my writing. I wasn’t involved any more and suddenly it worked.” He began to write plays. The Ruffian on the Stair was accepted by BBC radio. He found an agent, Peggy Ramsay, who saw the point of him, encouraged him, and pushed his work. In 1963 she got Entertaining Mr. Sloane put on, first at a fringe theater, then in the West End. It was a success. Loot followed, flopped on tour, but a second production in 1966 won the Evening Standard Best Play of the Year Award. The Erpingham Camp was televised in 1966 and staged in 1967 in a double bill with The Ruffian on the Stair. The Beatles’ manager commissioned a film script, and Orton began on his third stage play, What the Butler Saw. In just over two years the dropout had become a professional, a success, almost a star, while Halliwell grew more and more unhappy, disagreeable, and withdrawn.


Orton’s promiscuity was monumental, record-breaking. Halliwell brooded alone in their bed-sitter, doing the housework and the washing up. Eventually he could bear the contrast between their lives no more. He bashed in Orton’s skull with nine hammer blows, then killed himself with an overdose of Nembutal. His suicide note read: “If you read his diary all will be explained. K.H. P.S. Especially the latter part.” Aside from reflections on writing and gobbets of observation stored up for use, Orton’s diary has three main topics: cruising; his professional life—shading off into show-biz social life—with all his triumphs gleefully recorded; and semicomical moans about how impossible Halliwell was. Leaving his diary about was the unkindest thing Orton did to Halliwell.

Their bodies lay in the room they had shared for eight years until a chauffeur called to drive Orton to a script conference at Twickenham Studios. The arrival of this uniformed figure is almost too Ortonesque: in Entertaining Mr. Sloane the seductive murderer is fetishistically fitted out as a chauffeur by his patron. No wonder Lahr chose the episode to make a flash-forward opening for Prick Up Your Ears; the film script has followed suit.

You’d think no scriptwriter of any ambition would be interested in writing it: both the scenario and the dialogue—from Orton’s diaries—are perfect already. But not at all: the distinguished playwright Alan Bennett took it on. With Gary Oldman exuding plebeian charm and sharpness and looking amazingly like Orton in his photographs, the film is convincing and impossible to walk out from (unless the language shocks you, visually it’s as discreet as a family lawyer; even the scene in which eight different men have each other in Orton’s favorite pissoir is veiled in decent obscurity). Bennett has added some very funny bits of his own, mostly attached to Mr. and Mrs. Lahr, who are shown at their biographical sleuthing and played by Wallace Shawn and marvelous Lindsay Duncan. The film isn’t as doggily serious as the biography, but on the other hand it doesn’t quite fizz with Orton’s brutal gaiety either. Doom looms, inevitably: one knows from the start what’s in store for Orton.

His story is ready-made for a cautionary tale, archetypal myth, psychological case history, or period paradigm. No use it was put to would have surprised him. He was up to every literary device, stratagem, maneuver. The diaries show how assiduously and usefully he read: Shakespeare, Swift, Congreve, Wycherley, Farquhar, Sheridan, Wilde, Marie Corelli, Brecht, Camus, Genet, Beckett. He hovered watchfully and sometimes enviously over the output of contemporaries like Pinter, Stoppard, Osborne, Nichols, and David Halliwell. You couldn’t catch him out by comparing his work to someone else’s. He’d have thought about it already. Still, the critic Ronald Bryden coined a neat sobriquet for him: “The Oscar Wilde of Welfare State Gentility.”

It’s pretty and apt: Orton’s dialogue is often deliberately Wildean. For instance:

PRENTICE: You did have a father?

GERALDINE: Oh, I’m sure I did. My mother was frugal in her habits, but she’d never economize unwisely.


Despite all appearances to the contrary, Mrs. Prentice is harder to get into than the reading room at the British Museum.

But these examples are no more than clever mimicry. Orton is not really like Wilde, because Wilde was not much of a hater. He made fun of the hypocrisy of the society he chose to write about. Orton dissolved society in hydrochloric acid.

He wasn’t so much the Oscar Wilde of his period as the Karl Kraus. The way people talked enraged him as it had the Austrian satirist (someone probably not on his reading list). It enraged (and delighted) Orton because, ridden with clichés, shifty euphemisms, and mediaspeak, current language actually revealed what it had evolved to conceal: “the foul stench” of a corrupt society.

The diaries are packed with snatches of overheard conversation, prime samples of what Lahr pinpoints as “daft pretension.” At London airport Orton “heard a woman saying to her companion, ‘Well, Durban is really lovely. If you choose your time.’ Her companion, a fat woman with rolls of grey hair said, ‘I shall bide by that decision.’ ” This kind of thing is right up Bennett’s street, and he has got quite a number of them into his script. What the film can’t do is to show how Orton worked them up, his constant preoccupation with writing and turning life into art. “It looks pretty good,” he noted in his diary about a haircut he’d just had. “It appears to be quite natural whilst in actual fact being incredibly artificial. Which is a philosophy I approve of.”


Another constantly repeated tenet, though not exactly an original one, was that in order to be funny, farce must be deadpan; i.e., the characters must be ordinary (Harold Wilson, not Mick Jagger, is one example) and react in a matter-of-fact way to grotesque happenings—which, in Orton’s case, are usually macabre as well. In Loot, one of the characters plays the castanets with his dead mother’s false teeth. Orton’s mother died during the run. He went to Leicester for the funeral (one of the funniest sequences in the Diaries and the film), returned with Mrs. Orton’s false teeth, handed them to the actor in Loot, and recorded the effect:

“Here, I thought you’d like the originals.” He said “What?” “Teeth,” I said. “Whose?” he said. “My mum’s,” I said. He looked very sick. “You see,” I said, “it’s obvious that you’re not thinking of the events of the play in terms of reality, if a thing affects you like that.”

But in fact the episode—almost incomprehensible in the film, incidentally—shows Orton as a willful tyrant, forcing life to imitate art. And he did manage to live a life of black comedy just like the life depicted in his plays. He even had a premonition of his own, dramatically retributive end: “Took a walk. Nobody around to pick up. Only a lot of disgusting old men. I shall be a disgusting old man one day, I thought mournfully. Only I have high hopes of dying in my prime.” Now and then samples of life’s cruelty and pathos got into his data bank, like the old woman seen in Marks and Spencer’s on Christmas Eve: “She’d bought herself a packet of jam tarts and a half of chicken. Obviously she couldn’t afford anything else. How awful to be trying to celebrate when you’re old and lonely.”

The Beatles grieved for “all the lonely people” in their song “Eleanor Rigby.” Orton wrote no laments. He romped through the caring Sixties like a malevolent changeling. There were flashes of pity, but pity went too near the bone of his own fears: “To be young, good-looking, healthy, famous, comparatively rich and happy is surely going against nature,” he wrote during a halcyon holiday in Tangiers—where even Halliwell was happy and Arab boys queued in such numbers to be had that they had to be numbered Mohammed I, II, and III like monarchs. “I’m a believer in Original Sin,” Orton wrote. “I find people profoundly bad and irresistibly funny.” He also seems to have believed, like Verdi’s Iago, in “un Dio crudel.”

The film deals in an unexpected and brilliant way with the Moroccan interlude. The Mohammeds could have piled up like passengers in a Marx Brothers’ railway compartment. But instead of going for farce, Frears has choreographed a sort of poetic mime: smiling, white-clad figures process across sunlit terraces, in eloquent contrast to pale-gray Leicester and dark, rainy North London. When it comes to the show-biz milieu, though, invention fails. Perhaps Bennett and Frears were bored with the very thought of all those bars and parties. They’ve peopled them with standard insincere screechers in funny hats; and Vanessa Redgrave has almost too easy a time camping it up (or down: she doesn’t overdo it) as Peggy Ramsay.

What is missing is the peculiar, gratuitous cruelty of this world. Fear of libel may have something to do with it. A TV producer flashes across the screen disguised behind a beard. In Prick Up Your Ears and the Diaries, this man has an important part as Orton’s professional patron. “People dislike you enough already,” Orton records him saying to Halliwell (who had put on an Old Etonian tie to go to a party). “Why make them more angry? I mean—it’s permissible, although silly, as a foible of youth, but you—a middle-aged nonentity—it’s sad and pathetic!” It would be difficult to get over that. Halliwell didn’t have time to. He killed himself and Orton just over a fortnight later.

Alfred Molina’s performance as Halliwell was considered far-out by some British critics. He’s oddly cast: in the photographs, Orton and Halliwell look almost like twins, whereas Molina seems a foot taller and several dozen pounds heavier than Oldman. Halliwell was prematurely bald and wore a wig; the make-up department had given him total alopecia. Combined with his size and huge, liquid black eyes, it makes him look like one of Edmund Dulac’s Oriental strongmen. There’s nothing wrong with his acting, but the dramatic contrast between his appearance and Oldman’s adds a freakish dimension: life imitating art and overdoing it.

This Issue

September 24, 1987