Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton

by John Lahr
Random House/Vintage, 360 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Prick Up Your Ears

a film directed by Stephen Frears, screenplay by Alan Bennett

The Orton Diaries

edited by John Lahr
Harper and Row, 304 pp., $19.95

“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.…

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