Last reviewed: June 2018
January 1, 1933
August 9, 1967
Islington, London, England
John Kingsley Orton, who adopted the name Joe, wrote most of his plays in a frenzy of creative activity between 1963 and 1967. Three of these—Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot, and What the Butler Saw—were highly successful. Orton developed a method of writing in which dramatic violence is masked by a socially correct dialogue. The dialogue belies the underlying horror of the macabre situations he depicts. With this technique, which was critically heralded (although rejected by early audiences), Orton exposes the social schizophrenia that typifies the characteristically polite, unruffled people who ignore unpleasantness, pretending that it does not exist even though it lurks beneath their very noses. He pushes irony to extremes previously unreached in the drama of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Noël Coward, to whom Orton is often compared.
Orton was the first of William and Elsie Orton’s four children. His father was a gardener for the municipality in which he lived, his mother a machinist. Early ill health made Orton’s schooling irregular and barred him from entering a grammar school, which would ultimately have provided him entry to a university. Orton became interested in drama in his teens and spent his free hours working with amateur groups. At the age of eighteen he went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. There in May, 1951, Orton met Kenneth Halliwell, seven years his senior; by mid-June, he and Halliwell had become lovers and were living together. Halliwell supported the two of them on a small inheritance, and they collaborated on writing novels and plays, works that were not published.
In 1957 Halliwell and Orton had begun to attack British society by systematically stealing library books, defacing them with clever obscenities (both pictorial and verbal), and returning them to the shelves. For this they were eventually tried and sentenced to six months in prison. Prison provided Orton the detached environment he required to write successfully.
In the early 1960s Orton began to write on his own and soon experienced a measure of success. For this reason and others, the relationship with Halliwell became increasingly strained; by 1967 the older man was attributing Orton’s success to ideas he claimed Orton had stolen from him. Finally, on August 9, 1967, Halliwell killed Orton by beating him with a hammer, then took his own life by overdosing on the barbiturate Nembutal.
Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Orton’s first drama to be produced in London’s West End, has a kind of irony resembling that in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934), but Orton carries it much further. Sloane sponges off Kath, his landlady, and her brother, Ed, both of whom are sexually attracted to him. When their father, Kemp, threatens to reveal Sloane’s murderous past, Sloane kills the old man and becomes involved in a blackmail scheme that Kath and Ed hatch: They will overlook Kemp’s murder if Sloane will satisfy them sexually.
In The Ruffian on the Stair, written for the British Broadcasting Corporation and later revised for the stage, a petty crook, Mike, has accidentally killed someone, whose brother, seeking revenge, provokes Mike into killing him. His revenge is that Mike is forced into a position he will have trouble explaining to the police. The play is slight, but its edge of irony becomes a burr in the minds of audiences.
Loot, a parody of detective drama, shocked but amused theatergoers with its outrageously macabre situation. The detective’s wife dies, but his son and the son’s accomplice put their loot from a robbery in the mother’s coffin. The corpse is stood upright in a cupboard and becomes the play’s most entertaining prop.
Many consider What the Butler Saw to be Orton’s greatest triumph, and it is certainly the play most frequently revived. A masterful parody about the owner of a psychiatric clinic and his attempt to seduce a woman who applies for a secretarial job, the play is filled with situations involving mistaken identity, which are made particularly convoluted by the cross-dressing that pervades the action. The play has Orton’s usual trademarks: blackmail, concealment, sexual dalliance, and abundant farcical situations.