Joe Orton Is Having A Moment, 50 Years After His Death


Gay British playwright Joe Orton is having his well-deserved encore, 50 years after being murdered by his partner Kenneth Halliwell. One of Orton’s most subversive plays,  Loot will finally be staged uncensored, 51 years after its first production in London’s West End, to honor the anniversary of the playwright’s passing in 1967. Also celebrating an anniversary, is the unflinching 1987 biopic of Orton’s, tempestuous longtime relationship with Halliwell, Prick Up Your Ears.

Photo by George Elam/Daily Mail /REX (889290a)
Joe Orton Playwright Murdered By His Lover Kenneth Halliwell At Their Islington Home In 1967. Pictured At His Islington Home.

Orton is perhaps most famous for his scandalous play Entertaining Mr. Sloane about a handsome, murderous lodger who manipulates his landlord. Loot did have a successful run in 1966 in London’s West End, despite being censored. Loot continued Orton’s brand of dark and cynical farce, centered on two young “friends,” Hal and Dennis, who rob a bank and hide the money in Hal’s mother’s coffin, who had just died. As The Guardian notes, the British censors used their ‘blue pencil’ to cut all scenes mocking the church and the police and obliterated any hints at homosexuality, which was illegal at the time. Orton’s sister, Leonie Orton, who allowed the play to be resurrected in its original form, stated that, “This is what Joe originally wrote, but it was censored at the time. It’s a sad anniversary, yet good that what Joe actually felt and wrote is to be staged for the first time.”

Born in 1933, Joe Orton, began living a daringly open gay life at a very young age. In his diaries, Orton revealed his passion for “cottaging,” or having sex in public bathrooms, declaring that, “I like to fuck, wherever possible.” At the age of 17, in 1951, the fearless Orton met Kenneth Halliwell and the two began a passionate and volatile relationship that lasted until 1967 when Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death and committed suicide. It was this turbulent love affair that John Lahr explored in the biography, Prick Up Your Ears. The title was from Orton himself, who had replaced the word “arse” with “ears,” giving the phrase and the biography a deeper meaning. In 1987, Stephen Frears directed Alan Bennett’s adaptation of Lahr’s biography for a feature film.

Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina (back to camera) in a scene from “Prick Up Your Ears.”

The Village Voice commemorated the 30th anniversary of the film, admired its capacity to depict the short and sybaritic life of the famous playwright, without sensationalizing or sentimentalizing the central figure. Frears had shown his talent for crafting wry, humanistic, comedic stories in 1985 with My Beautiful Laundrette, a gay, interracial love story set in Thatcher-era London, starring a young Daniel Day Lewis. Frears cast Gary Oldman as Orton, hot on the heels of his acclaimed performance in Alex Cox’s anarchic classic, Sid and Nancy. Alfred Molina was cast as Orton’s troubled lover Kenneth Halliwell and Vanessa Redgrave played Orton’s agent, Peggy Ramsay, who was instrumental in Orton’s career and in his posthumous legacy. The Village Voice hailed the universally acclaimed biopic as, “a film soaked in blood and sperm.”

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