The life, work, and death of Joe Orton, told through five interesting facts
1. Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell were both sent to prison in 1962 for defacing library books. They served six-month prison sentences in different prisons for vandalising the books. One of Orton’s illustrations (which adorned a volume of John Betjeman’s poems) depicted an elderly man with tattoos, wearing swimming trunks. The defaced library books are now a part of the Islington Local History Centre collection – which just goes to show, it’s vandalism when you do it and you’re an unknown, but become a groundbreaking writer and give it fifty years, and it becomes art!
2. Orton had been writing for several years before he went to prison, but soon after he was released he suddenly became a success. There followed a spate of classic plays: most famously, What the Butler Saw, Loot, and Entertaining Mr Sloane. Prison – and time apart from Halliwell – allowed Orton to grow as a writer and it appears that during his six-month sentence at Eastchurch Prison in Kent. As Orton himself said, ‘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.
3. Curiously, though, Orton had started out as a novelist. Like numerous other playwrights – George Bernard Shaw is a good example – Orton’s first hope was to become a successful novelist, and he and Halliwell collaborated on several novels, including The Last Days of Sodom. They failed to find a publisher for these, so started to write separately. Orton penned The Vision of Gombold Proval, but this, too, was rejected (it was published after Orton’s death as Head to Toe). Some of the ideas and themes in these novels would resurface in Orton’s successful plays a few years later, so the novel-writing proved to be a useful apprenticeship.
4. While they were struggling to make a living as writers, Orton and Halliwell worked for Cadbury’s chocolate. They thus joined Roald Dahl in a small but select group of literary figures who had worked for the chocolate company. Once they had saved up enough money for a flat in Islington, they quit their jobs and concentrated again on writing.
5. Orton was murdered by his lover and mentor Kenneth Halliwell. On 9 August 1967, Halliwell murdered Orton with a hammer, before overdosing on sleeping pills. Halliwell died soon after; Orton survived for several hours. His body was discovered the following morning by a chauffeur who had arrived to pick Orton up for a meeting with the Beatles (Orton had written a screenplay for them). Halliwell’s suicide note suggested that police study Orton’s diary to discover the reason for his murder.
Image: Plaque to Joe Orton, Islington, London (picture credit: John Levin, 2013), Wikimedia Commons.