Playwright Joe Orton: Bawdy, Funny … and Murdered By His Lover

Written by | Entertainment, Stage

Playwright Joe Orton

British playwright Joe Orton blazed a trail across the 1960s playwriting scene. His life ended with nine hammer blows to the head from his lover.

Born John Kingsley Orton, his career puts a flower power twist on what Oscar Wilde began. His work is bawdy, farcical and scoffs at English convention.

Prankster Playwright

At the outset, Orton aspired to perform. When that didn’t pan out, he began writing in the late ’50s. Lifelong companion Kenneth Halliwell was his muse. Early on, they collaborated as novelists, but their efforts failed to attract publishers.

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Both served six months in jail for defacing library books with obscene words and images. In all, some 70 books received their makeover; they are now prized parts of the library’s collection. The writer always maintained that they were instead persecuted as homosexuals.

Upon his release, Orton found success with a radio play he’d written called The Ruffian on the Stair. From there, his star rose exponentially. He wrote three full-length comedies, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot and What the Butler Saw.

Rise and Fall

He was fearless, in print and life. He divulged numerous sexual conquests in a diary kept in an unlocked drawer which Halliwell likely read. His dark satires delighted the very people they mocked. His signature themes tilt toward hypocrisy, sexual morés and clever wordplay. The Beatles commissioned him to write screenplay, but Up Against It was returned without comment. In it, Orton cast them as cross-dressing murderers. No one has staged or filmed it to this day.

In August of 1967 — the “Summer of Love” — Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death then committed suicide by overdosing on Nembutal. Both Orton and Halliwell were cremated and their ashes scattered together at Golders Green Crematorium. Orton’s funeral was punctuated by the then-new Beatles track, “A Day in the Life.” Fellow playwright Harold Pinter read his eulogy and concluded, “He was a bloody marvelous writer.”

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Last modified: March 14, 2019