If you haven't heard of Joe Orton, that is not surprising; he died at the age of just 34 shortly after his big breakthrough as one of Britain's most promising young playwrights. Had he lived, he may have become as famous as Alan Bennett or Harold Pinter, although the name that most readily springs to mind is Oscar Wilde, because like Wilde, Orton possessed not simply a literary talent
but a streak of utter depravity
Wilde is today regarded by the foolish as a gay
icon, even though he was technically bi-sexual. Orton on the other hand was purely homosexual. A contemporary of David Webb
, John Kingsley Orton entered RADA
at about the same time. Although he graduated, he does not appear ever to have trod the boards, but acting was not to be his forte. It was at RADA that he met his homosexual lover Kenneth Halliwell. Halliwell was some seven years Orton's senior, and appears to have mentored him to some extent. At that time, homosexuality was illegal in England, although the authorities usually turned a blind eye to its discreet practice by consenting adults. As Orton was under 21, Halliwell could technically have been considered to have corrupted him, but in spite of the age difference, the idea of anyone corrupting Orton sounds rather novel. While Kenneth Halliwell was clearly uncomfortable with his homosexuality, Orton revelled in his, and worse.
They lived lives of austerity if not outright poverty, for such is the lot of many actors, and in 1959 they moved in together in Islington, North London, sharing a bedsit that was to be their first and only home. They also collaborated together on a number of novels, none of which was accepted for publication in their lifetime, then, among other things, they embarked on a spree of stealing library books, mutilating and defacing them in obscene ways
This is the sort of behaviour one might expect of adolescents or of one deranged individual, but the two appeared to have found the whole episode amusing, even though it earned them each six months at Her Majesty's Pleasure.
On his release from prison, Orton's star ascended; he sold a play to the BBC, and never looked back. In 1964, he began using the name Joe (to distinguish himself from the playwright John Osbourne, whose name sounded very similar); in January 1967 he won an Evening Standard
award for his play Loot
On March 1, Orton learned this play had been sold for £100,000, which secured his future. He told the BBC: "I put it in the bank. I don't expect to be a playwright all my life". He couldn't have known then that he would, or how little time he would have left.
He and Halliwell took not one but three holidays in Tangier. One would have expected Orton at some point to have moved to a decent apartment, but he didn't, and on August 9 the same year, Halliwell murdered him, battering him to death with a hammer before taking a fatal overdose of Nembutal.
This was truly shocking, but does not appear to have been related to Halliwell living increasingly in the shadow of the younger Orton. A book published in 1989 sheds some light on Halliwell's state of mind.
From Because We're Queers: The Life and Crimes of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton
, by Simon Shepherd, it is clear that Halliwell was a tragic, tortured individual, more on account of his sexuality than from professional failings.
As Shepherd points out, for Halliwell: "The only good homosexual was one who kept quiet about his sexuality and preferably did not practise it."
At one point Halliwell is said to have snapped: "Homosexuals disgust me!" Clearly the same cannot be said of Orton, whose posthumous diaries - edited by John Lahr - were published three years previously. According to the back cover blurb on Shepherd's book, his biography "reclaims Orton and Halliwell for the gay movement". Anyone who has read Orton's diaries can but wonder why anyone should want to reclaim
They contain sick accounts of random sexual encounters with strangers, most of which are too filthy to describe here. Among other things he alludes to having perverted sex with a man in a derelict house on the afternoon of his mother's funeral. The most shocking and indeed disturbing revelations though concern his visits to Tangier with Halliwell where he sexually abused underage boys. See for example page 185 of both the hardback and paperback editions.
Jimmy Savile was the same age as Kenneth Halliwell and at the time of Orton's rise to fame was establishing himself as a leading BBC DJ. Although the recent revelations about Savile have almost certainly been greatly exaggerated
, there can be little doubt that he was a serial sexual predator. There appears to be no evidence that Orton sought out underage boys in the UK, indeed he appears to have gone to Tangier especially for that purpose, but there can be little doubt either that if Halliwell had not snapped that night, or if the two men had split up, Orton would have gone on to become a homosexual version of Savile as increasing wealth and fame gave him easier access to the young and vulnerable.
That may be speculation, but it is intelligent speculation. Indeed, some people seem to appreciate that because a notice on the official Joe Orton website
reports that "unfortunately we are now unable to respond to any queries relating to the site as our email has been bombarded with junk and spam emails and we have had to suspend the account."
Undoubtedly people have been bombarding filth with filth. Although Halliwell was a murderer and Orton a victim, it is the older man, the tortured soul of the two, we should pity. Whatever minor contribution Orton may have made to our literary heritage should not blind us to his complete and utter depravity.