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John Kingsley ("Joe") Orton (1 January 1933 in Leicestermarker–9 August 1967 in Islingtonmarker, Londonmarker) was an Englishmarker playwright.

In a short but prolific career lasting from 1964 until his death, he shocked, outraged and amused audiences with his scandalous black comedies. Ortonesque became a recognised term for "outrageously macabre".

Early life

Orton was born at Causeway Lane Maternity Hospital, Leicestermarker, to a working class family. Until the age of two, he lived at 261 Avenue Road Extension in Clarendon Park, Leicestermarker. The family then moved to the Saffron Lane council estate. He lived with his younger brother, Douglas, and two younger sisters, Marilyn and Leonie. His parents, William and Elsie, had married in 1931; his father worked for Leicester Council as a gardener, while his mother worked in the local footwear industry until tuberculosis cost her a lung.

Orton attended Marriots Road Primary School, but failed the eleven-plus exam after extended bouts of asthma, and so took a secretarial course at Clark's College in Leicester from 1945 to 1947. He then began working as a junior clerk on £3 a week.

Orton became interested in performing in the theatre around 1949 and joined a number of different dramatic societies, including the prestigious Leicester Dramatic Society. While working on amateur productions he was also determined to improve his appearance and physique, buying body-building courses, taking elocution lessons, and trying to redress his lack of education and culture. He applied for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in November 1950. He was accepted, and left the East Midlands for Londonmarker. His entrance into RADA was delayed until May 1951 by appendicitis.

Orton met Kenneth Halliwell at RADA in 1951, moving into a West Hampsteadmarker flat with him and two other students in June of that year. Halliwell was seven years older than Orton and of independent means, having a substantial inheritance. They quickly formed a strong relationship and became lovers.

After graduating, both Orton and Halliwell went into a regional repertory work; Orton spent four months in Ipswichmarker as an assistant stage manager, Halliwell in Llandudnomarker, Walesmarker. Both returned to London and became writers. They collaborated on a number of unpublished novels (often imitating Ronald Firbank), and had little success. The rejection of their great hope, The Last Days of Sodom, in 1957 led them to solo works. Orton would later return to the books for ideas and many show glimpses of his stage play style.

They refused to work for long periods, confident of their "specialness"; they subsisted on Halliwell's money (as well as the dole) and were forced to follow an ascetic life in order to restrict their outgoings to £5 a week. From 1957-59, they worked in six-month stretches at Cadbury's to raise money for a new flat; they moved into a small, austere flat on Noel Road in Islingtonmarker in 1959.

A lack of serious work led them to amuse themselves with pranks and hoaxes. Orton created the alter ego Edna Welthorpe, an elderly theatre snob, whom he would later revive to stir controversy over his plays. Orton coined the term as an allusion to Terence Rattigan's "Aunt Edna", Rattigan's archetypal playgoer.

In another episode, Orton and Halliwell stole books from the local library, and would subtly modify the cover art or the blurbs before returning them to the library. 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. The couple took many of the prints to decorate their flat.

They were eventually discovered, and prosecuted for this in May 1962. The incident was reported in Daily Mirror as "Gorilla in the Roses". They were charged with five counts of theft and malicious damage, admitted damaging more than 70 books, and were jailed for six months (released September 1962) and fined £262. The sentence was unduly harsh, Orton and Halliwell felt, "because we were queers." For Orton however, prison would be a crucial formative experience, the isolation from Halliwell allowing him to break free of him creatively, and laying bare for him the corruptness, priggishness and double-standards of a purportedly liberal country. As Orton put it, ‘It affected my attitude towards society. Before I had been vaguely conscious of something rotten somewhere, prison crystallised this. The old whore society really lifted up her skirts and the stench was pretty foul... Being in the nick brought detachment to my writing. I wasn’t involved anymore. And suddenly it worked.’ ’

The books that Orton and Halliwell vandalised have since become the most valued of the Islington Library service collection.

The collection of books can be viewed here:


In the early 1960s Orton began to write plays. He wrote his last novel, Head to Toe, in 1961, and soon afterward had his writing accepted. In 1963 the BBC paid £65 for the radio play The Ruffian on the Stair, broadcast on 31 August 1964. It was substantially rewritten for the stage in 1966.

Orton revelled in his achievement and poured out new works. He had completed Entertaining Mr. Sloane by the time The Ruffian on the Stair was broadcast. He sent a copy to theatre agent Peggy Ramsay in December 1963. It premiered at the New Arts Theatre on 6 May 1964 under the direction of Michael Codron. Reviews ranged from praise to outrage.

Entertaining Mr Sloane lost money in its three week run, but critical praise from playwright Terence Rattigan (who invested £3,000 in it) ensured its survival. The play was transferred to Wyndham's Theatremarker in the West Endmarker at the end of June and to the Queen's Theatremarker in October. Sloane tied for first in the Variety Critics' Poll for "Best New Play" and Orton came second for "Most Promising Playwright." Within a year, Sloane was being performed in New Yorkmarker, Spainmarker, Israelmarker and Australia, as well as being made into a film and a television play.

Orton's next performed work was Loot. The first draft was written between June and October 1964 and entitled Funeral Games, a title Orton would drop at Halliwell's suggestion but would later reuse. The play is a wild parody of detective fiction, adding the blackest farce and jabs at established ideas on death, the police, religion and justice. Orton offered the play to Codron in October 1964 and it underwent sweeping rewrites before it was judged fit for the West End (for example, the character of "Inspector Truscott" had a mere eight lines in the initial first act.)

Codron had manoeuvred Orton into meeting his colleague Kenneth Williams in August 1964. Orton reworked Loot with Williams in mind for Truscott. His other inspiration for the role was DS Harold Challenor.

With the success of Sloane, Loot was hurried into pre-production, despite its obvious flaws. Rehearsals began in January 1965 with a six-week tour culminating in a West End debut planned. The play opened in Cambridgemarker on 1 February to scathing reviews.

Orton, at odds with director Peter Wood over the plot, produced 133 pages of new material to replace, or add, to the original 90. The play received poor reviews in Brightonmarker, Oxfordmarker, Bournemouthmarker, Manchestermarker, and finally Wimbledonmarker in mid-March. Discouraged, Orton and Halliwell went on an 80-day holiday in Tangiermarker, Moroccomarker.

In January 1966, Loot was revived, with Oscar Lewenstein taking up an option. Before his production, it had a short run (April 11-23) at the University Theatre, Manchester. Orton's growing experience led him to cut over 600 lines, raising the tempo and improving the characters' interactions.

Directed by Braham Murray, the play garnered more favourable reviews. Lewenstein was still a little cool, however, and put the London production in a "sort of Off-West End theatre", the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in Bloomsburymarker, under the direction of Charles Marowitz.

Orton continued his habit of clashing with directors with Marowitz, but the additional cuts they agreed to further improved the play. It premiered in London on 27 September 1966, to rave reviews. Loot moved to the Criterion Theatremarker in November, raising Orton's confidence to new heights while he was in the middle of writing What the Butler Saw.

Loot went on to win several awards and firmly established Orton's fame. He sold the film rights for £25,000, although he was certain it would flop; it did, and Loot on Broadwaymarker repeated the failure of Sloane. Orton was still on an absolute high, however, and over the next ten months revised The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp for the stage as a double called Crimes of Passion, wrote Funeral Games, the screenplay Up Against It for the Beatles, and worked on What the Butler Saw.

The Good and Faithful Servant was a transitional work for Orton. A one-act television play, it was completed by June 1964 but first broadcast by Associated-Rediffusion on 6 April 1967.

The Erpingham Camp, Orton's take on The Bacchae, written through mid-1965 and offered to Rediffusion in October of that year, was broadcast on June 27, 1966 as the 'pride' segment in their series Seven Deadly Sins.

Orton wrote and rewrote Funeral Games four times from July - November, 1966. Created for a 1967 Rediffusion series, The Seven Deadly Virtues, Orton's play dealt with charity — especially Christian charity — in a confusion of adultery and murder. However Rediffusion did not use the play. Instead it was made as one of the first productions of the new ITV company Yorkshire Television, and was broadcast posthumously on August 26, 1968.

In March 1967 Orton and Halliwell had intended another extended holiday in Libyamarker, but unhappy at the lack of hotel accommodation and the fact the only place they could find to stay was on a boat which had been converted into a hotel/nightclub they returned home the day after they arrived. Orton was working hard, energised and happy; Halliwell was increasingly depressed, argumentative, and plagued with mystery ailments.

Orton's controversial farce What The Butler Saw debuted in the West Endmarker after his death in 1969. It opened at the Queen's Theatre with Sir Ralph Richardson, Coral Browne, Stanley Baxter, and Hayward Morse.


On August 9, 1967, Halliwell bludgeoned the 34-year-old Orton to death with nine hammer blows to the head, and then committed suicide with an overdose of 22 Nembutal tablets washed down with the juice from canned grapefruit. Investigators determined that Halliwell died first, because Orton's body was still warm.

The November 22, 1970 edition of The Sunday Times reported that on August 5, 1967, four days before the murder, Orton went to the Chelsea Potter pub in the King's Road. He met friend Peter Nolan who later gave evidence at the inquest that Orton told him that he had another boyfriend, and that he wanted to end his relationship with Halliwell but didn't know how to go about it.

The last person to speak to Halliwell was his doctor, who arranged for a psychiatrist to see him the following morning. He spoke to Halliwell three times on the telephone. The last call was at 10 o'clock. Halliwell took the psychiatrist's address and said, "Don't worry, I'm feeling better now. I'll go and see the doctor tomorrow morning."

Halliwell had felt increasingly threatened and isolated by Orton's success, and had come to rely on anti-depressants and barbiturates. The bodies were discovered the following morning when a chauffeur arrived to take Orton to a meeting to discuss a screenplay he had written for the Beatles.

Halliwell left a suicide note, informing police that all would be explained if they read Orton's diaries, "especially the latter part". The diaries have since been published.

Orton was cremated at the Golders Green Crematoriummarker, his maroon cloth draped coffin being brought into the west chapel to a recording of The Beatles song A Day in the Life. The eulogy was read by Harold Pinter, who concluded by saying "he was a bloody marvellous writer."According to Dennis Dewsnap's memoire (What's Sex Got To Do With It, The Syden Press, 2004) from mostly Tangiers, where Orton and Halliwell went on holiday, Orton and his lover/murderer had their ashes mixed and were buried together. Dewsnap writes about Orton's agent Peggy Ramsay: "...At the scattering of Joe's and Kenneth's ashes, his sister took a handful from both urns and said 'a little bit of Joe, and a little bit of Kenneth. I think perhaps a little bit more of our Joe, and then some more of Kenneth'. At which Peggy snapped 'Come on, dearie, it's only a gesture, not a recipe.', a line surely worthy of Joe himself - though indicative of the contempt in which Ramsey held the Orton family. She described them as simply "the little people in Leicester", leaving a cold nondescript note and bouquet on their behalf at the funeral.Orton's legacy stands to live on in his home town, Leicestermarker as the development of the "cultural quarter" of the city (a former industrial area) continues apace and the new Theatre, Curvemarker, the central development in the area, has a new pedestrian concourse outside the theatre's main entrance named, "Orton Square". Curve officially opens on December 4 2008.

Biography and film, radio, TV

John Lahr wrote a biography of Orton entitled Prick Up Your Ears, a title Orton himself had considered using, in 1978. The 1987 film adaptation is based on Orton's diaries and on Lahr's research. Directed by Stephen Frears, it starred Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Halliwell and Vanessa Redgrave as Peggy Ramsay. Alan Bennett wrote the screenplay.

Joe Orton was played by the actor Kenny Doughty in the BBC film Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!, starring Michael Sheen as Kenneth Williams.

Two archive recordings of Orton survive: a short BBC radio interview first transmitted in August 1967 and a video recording, held by the BFI, of his appearance on Eamonn Andrews' ITV chat show transmitted 23 April 1967.



  • Head to Toe (published 1971)
  • Between Us Girls (published 2001)
  • Lord Cucumber and The Boy Hairdresser (co-written with Halliwell) (published 2001)



  • Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. ISBN 0521434378.
  • Bigsby, C. W. E. 1982. Joe Orton. Contemporary Writers ser. London: Routledge. ISBN 0416316905.
  • Burke, Arthur. 2001. Laughter in the Dark - The Plays of Joe Orton. Billericay, Essex: Greenwich Exchange. ISBN 1871551560.
  • Charney, Maurice. 1984. Joe Orton. Grove Press Modern Dramatists ser. NY: Grove P. ISBN 039454241X.
  • Coppa, Francesca, ed. 2002. Joe Orton: A Casebook. Casebooks on Modern Dramatists ser. London: Routledge. ISBN 0815336276.
  • DiGaetani, John Louis. 2008. Stages of Struggle: Modern Playwrights and Their Psychological Inspirations. Jefferson: McFarland. ISBN 0786431571.
  • Fox, James. 1970. "The Life and Death of Joe Orton." The Sunday Times Magazine issue of 22 November.
  • Lahr, John. 1978. Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 0747560145.
  • ---, ed. 1986. The Orton Diaries. By Joe Orton. London: Methuen. ISBN 0306807335.
  • ---. 1989. Diary of a Somebody. London: Methuen. ISBN 0413611809.
  • Orton, Joe. 1976. The Complete Plays. London: Methuen. ISBN 0413346102.
  • Ruskino, Susan. 1995. Joe Orton. Twayne's English Authors ser. Boston: Twayne. ISBN 0805770348.

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