Joe OrtonJoe Orton (January 1, 1933 - August 9, 1967) was a satirical modern playwright. In a short but brilliant career from 1964 until his death he shocked, outraged and amused audiences with his scandalous black comedies. Ortonesque became a recognized term for "macabre outrageousness".
Born John Kingsley Orton in Leicester to a poor working class family. He grew up on a council estate with a brother and two sisters. He was poorly educated at a unsuitable private school, Clark's College from 1945 to 1947 before starting menial work as a clerk. He became interested in performing and joined a number of different dramatic socities, he also worked to improve his appearance and physique. He lost his job and still 'stage-struck' applied for a scholarship at RADA in 1950, he was accepted and left the Midlands for London with little regret.
Orton met Kenneth Halliwell at RADA in 1951, moving into a shared apartment with him and three other students in June. Halliwell was seven years older than Orton and of independent means. They quickly formed a strong relationship, neither did especially well at the academy although Halliwell did worse. After graduating both went into regional repertory work but soon returned to London, moving into a small and austere flat in Islington in 1959. They lived on Halliwell's money and the dole, working occasionally. They collaborated on a number of unpublished novels. Lack of substantial work led them to curious acts. In one bizarre episode he and Halliwell borrowed books from the local library, and would subtly modify the cover art, or the blurbs. A volume of poems by John Betjeman, for example, was returned to the library with a new dustjacket featuring a photograph of a nearly naked, heavily tattooed middle-aged man. Starting in 1959 they were eventually discovered, and prosecuted for this in May, 1962, it was reported in the national newspaper the Mirror as "Gorilla in the Roses". They were charged with damaging over seventy books and were sentenced to six months.
Orton had little skill as an author, neither did Halliwell. But in the early 1960s Orton found a solo talent as a playwright, he wrote his last novel in 1961 and following the praise for a 1962 reject he finally had a work accepted. In 1963 the BBC paid for The Boy Hairdresser, it was broadcast in August 1964 as The Ruffian on the Stair. Orton, a charming and promiscuous homosexual, revelled in his achievements and poured out new works. Over the next two years he had two full length plays staged, Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot as well as three shorter works broadcast by Rediffusion. Critical opinion was wildly divided, but cetain influential figures such as Terence Rattigan ensured his work was given life. Sloane, which opened in the New Arts Theatre transferred to the West End within a month and was being performed in New York, Spain, Israel and Australia within a year as well as being made into a film and a television play. He even was approached by the Beatles, writing the screenplay Up Against It for them, but the project fizzled out.
Orton's career was cut short when he was furiously beaten to death by Halliwell with a hammer, who immediately afterward committed suicide using Nembutal. Halliwell, who had supported and loved Orton felt increasingly threatened and isolated by Orton's success and had come to rely on anti-depressants and barbiturates.
The Ruffian on the Stair (first performance 1964)
Entertaining Mr Sloane (first performance 1964)
Loot (first performance 1966)
The Erpingham Camp (first performance 1966)
The Good and Faithful Servant (first performance 1967)
Funeral Games (first performance 1968)
What the Butler Saw (first performance 1969)