Swans Commentary » swans.com August 13, 2007  



Remembering Joe Orton


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - August 13, 2007)   With recent revivals of Entertaining Mr. Sloane in New York and Loot in Los Angeles triggering requests for comments from one source or another, I have been hassled back to memories of Joe Orton whose original production of Loot I directed in London's West End some forty years ago. It has been a reluctant reversion A) because I believe too great a preoccupation with the past siphons off energy from the present and B) because the period in question -- "the swinging sixties" -- has been so crassly distorted by so many scribes, it is like producing yet another account of the Kennedy assassination or the coming of The Beatles. Like a video that has been assiduously duplicated over and over again, the original imagery is so fudged as to be barely recognizable. But since it has been impossible to avoid the onrush of recollections about Joe, I have decided to confront the wraith rather than try to banish it.

I first met Joe Orton in l966 when the impresario Michael White approached me about directing Loot at the London Traverse Theatre, of which I was one of a triumvirate of Artistic Directors. I had caught wind of the play's calamitous out-of-town reception in which top-drawer performers such as Kenneth Williams, Duncan Macrae, and Geraldine McEwan desperately tried to rescue it from supposed disaster by imposing "helpful" comic interpolations of their own. As is so often the case with overheated actors who feel they know better than playwrights how to rescue an endangered piece of new writing, they conclusively sank the play and reports of that drowning echoed throughout the main stem. When approached about doing the play at The Cochrane I was reluctant and asked to see the original script, the one that existed before the comedic salvage crew got their pickers into it. When I read that I was astonished to find a subtle black comedy studded with sophisticated literary constructions and penetrating comic observations -- the exact opposite of what I had expected to find. I agreed immediately and it was included in our first season.

Because it had been a comic disaster in its provincial production, Joe was obsessive about "playing it straight." Clearly, the secret of the play lies in making its social and moral excesses utterly plausible -- finding its truth -- which at that time no one would have dreamed of describing as "Ortonesque." So obsessive was Joe about resisting its comic pull that it took some time persuading him that what he had written was a socially-pronged madcap comedy and not a dour Chekhovian drama. His greatest fear, inspired no doubt by the shambolic earlier production, was that the play would be "too funny" and thereby sever contact with the moral critique that was its vital center.

Having been an actor (he had studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), Joe was more amenable to cuts and revisions than writers who descended on to the stage from the enclaves of Oxbridge. Also, he realized the play was being given a second chance -- which doesn't happen often in the theatre. During rehearsals, he seemed to be relieved to be working with a director that was not, unlike the ill-fated try-out, looking for gratuitous sight-gags or imposed shtick but one bent on bringing out the intrinsic comic contradictions the play contained. But, mistaking levitas for gravitas, Joe knew less about the true nature of his own material than any writer I've ever worked with.

On the opening night at the Cochrane, Joe was a swirling bundle of nerves. This was a play that had been previously stomped to death by the out-of-town critics and some part of him was bracing for a repeat of that bitter experience. It didn't happen, and by the time it transferred to the West End and won both the Evening Standard Award and the Plays & Players Award as Best Play of the Year, something deep inside of Joe had been fully exonerated: that overprized opinion of himself, which he secretly relished and totally believed in, had been resoundingly affirmed.

To fully understand Joe's nature, one has to remember that it was forged in prison. Four years before the success of Loot, Joe had been incarcerated for stealing books from the public library, desecrating the book-jackets, revising the blurbs, and then returning them to their shelves. This could be interpreted as the juvenile antics of an immature youth but I believe its motivation ran a lot deeper. Joe, because of his homosexuality, because he enjoyed living on the margin, because he had already had several run-ins with authorities who were always trying to bring him down a peg, thought of himself as an outsider. An outsider has to define not only himself but The Enemy Without, and for Joe, it was that pompous world populated by upper-class British ghouls who, in the 1960s, still dominated British society. "Before, I had been vaguely conscious of something rotten somewhere," Joe had written, "and prison crystallized this." In the early and mid-sixties with anti-Vietnam demos and rock 'n roll spawning a wild, unruly, drug-sodden generation, Joe was finally able to find a home for himself in the midst of marginalized young men like himself, knocking the helmets off the heads of the Bobbies and cocking one's snook at The Establishment.

Having spent time "inside," his attitude towards the outside world was always that of the "convict" to the "screws." There was a built-in, readily employed antagonism between himself and people in authority. Whenever we had some minor difference of opinion in rehearsals, it was always as if something far weightier was at stake; as if again, the "screws" (this time in the form of his director) were out to get him. It was a deep-seated Them and Us mentality. It required a strenuous effort for a young man with this sense of "outsiderness" to come to terms with the adulation of the British intelligentsia. It meant not only suppressing his contempt, but converting it into something socially acceptable. In the last months of his life, I was very aware of this adaptation being consciously assembled. It required great will power on Joe's part -- not only to come to terms with the approbation of the "outside world" but to distance himself from Ken Halliwell -- friend, lover, mentor, fellow jailbird, his oldest ally and the person who had originated the concept of "Us" against "Them."

Joe possessed a highly developed bullshit detector. Knowing intimately the seamier side of life, prison society, the world of the London bed-sit and the promiscuous gay underworld, there was no angle he could not discern; no hype he was not immediately on to. When his agent and producers tried to include themselves within the aura of his success, he allowed it -- knowing full well they were as philistine and "square" as any of the characters he satirized. When he started to become a celebrity, he knew he was trumping up a persona that was far removed from the suburban mongrel he really was. "I can play the game as well as the best of them," said Joe and proceeded to wear the right clothes, manufacture the right chat and accept invitations that enabled him to move in the right circles.

Although Ken Halliwell had initiated him into the haut monde, his companion was incapable of inhabiting that stratosphere. That really dogged Ken -- that Joe had learned how to be a celebrity from him but that he himself was not invited to any of the swank parties and his input into Joe's material was totally unacknowledged. And, on top of everything else, Joe could sleep while Ken was an incurable insomniac. I always believed that was what caused him to hammer out Joe's brains on that unfathomable night of August 9, l967. Joe's ability to sleep was, in a way, the most provocative offense of all. After he had split Joe's skull, Ken swallowed 22 Nembutals and finally got some rest.

At the Criterion (to which Loot had transferred), the houses for the play had started to dwindle. The producers, negotiating a giant film sale, kept the play running artificially with everyone being asked to take pay cuts. Neither I nor the actors knew that the reason for our "sacrifices" was so that the film sale could be sewn up. But on the night following Joe's murder and Halliwell's suicide, there wasn't a seat to be had in the house and, for weeks afterwards, it remained Standing Room Only. All of London suddenly wanted to see the play written by the playwright who had been hammered to death by his gay lover. Not only did the size of the audience increase, the laughs came faster and more furiously than ever before. Sitting in the back of the stalls, listening to the deafening din of those helpless cachinnations, I often thought to myself: "It's Joe -- having the last laugh."

There was something wincingly juvenile about Joe. All of his "jokes" concerned parts of the male anatomy and had an infra dig quality as if intended only for fellow gays. The "straight world" existed for him only as something to be mocked -- and sometimes pitied. I remember when I asked him what he was currently working on -- (i.e., What The Butler Saw) -- he described it as "the play with Winston Churchill's severed cock in a box." For him, that salacious moment was both the play's pièce de resistance and its raison d'être. He would have been outraged to discover that it was tactfully "cleaned up" for the London premiere. (In my own production at the L.A. Theatre Centre, it was converted into a phallus that suddenly lit up like a beacon and led the whole cast up a ladder to heaven -- a conscious gesture to Joe's departed shade.)

After his death, the homage took on a vulturous quality. The Diaries of Joe Orton, over-edited by John Lahr with preposterous footnotes identifying "obscure" characters such as Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Henry James, Winston Churchill, Joseph Goebbels, Harold Pinter, and Bertolt Brecht, charts Joe's private life from December l966 to August 1967. It is bluntly honest, particularly about his sexual imbroglios which, truth to tell, begin to wear thin by the time he's in Tangiers and screwing every boy in sight. What is fascinating about them is the observation of suburban, working-class speech out of which he fashioned that exotic, elliptical language that was perhaps his most characteristic literary achievement. What Orton captured, even more faithfully than Harold Pinter, was the pretentious world of lower middle-class burghers straining to achieve a respectability beyond their station; women in hair curlers and men with copies of News Of The World stuffed in their back pockets -- all of whom follow the peregrinations of the Royal Family and believe that assuming a hollow kind of gentility enables them to somehow dignify their lives. When, after Entertaining Mr. Sloane, he shrugged off Pinter's influence and allowed the spirit of Ronald Firbank to fertilize his imagination, he truly became, as critic Ronald Bryden dubbed him: "...the Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility."

My admiration for his comedic talents, from those auspicious beginnings to What The Butler Saw (which was his masterpiece) was constant and imperishable, but Joe was a mongrel with a noxious character; a writer who made up in levity what he lacked in intellect; a Captain Hook masquerading as Peter Pan. In his plays, he has left us the best part of himself, but for those who knew him well, there was always a gap where a true personality should have been.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art13/cmarow83.html
Published August 13, 2007