After failing the eleven-plus, Orton took a secretarial course, before working as a junior clerk. He became interested in amateur dramatics and began to improve his mind and physique, with body building classes, reading Shakespeare and taking elocution lessons. He was accepted for a place at RADA in 1951, and it was there that he met Kenneth Halliwell and agreed to move in with him; they lived together for the rest of their short lives.
After graduating, they worked together on a number of novels, with such titles as The Last Days of Sodom and The Boy Hairdresser, none of which were published in their lifetime. When they moved in to a small flat in Noel Road, Islington, they stole books from the local library, defacing them by sticking rude photos on the covers and rewriting the blurb. They were eventually caught and imprisoned for six months. While inside, Halliwell tried to commit suicide, but prison inspired Orton, giving him a detachment which helped his writing. Ironically, the defaced books are now on display in the Islington Museum.
Orton’s first play, Ruffian on the Stair, was performed on the BBC’s Third Programme, and his first theatrical success was Entertaining Mr Sloane, which received financial support from Terence Rattigan. His next success was the farce Loot, which satirised the police, the legal profession and religion. On tour it didn’t fare too well, partly because of the performance of Kenneth Williams as Inspector Truscott, but the West End production, with Michael Bates playing the Inspector, received rave reviews and won the Evening Standard award for best play. His last play, produced posthumously, was the crazy farce What the Butler Saw.
Halliwell was starting to resent Orton’s growing success, both social and sexual. On 9 August 1967, Halliwell battered Orton to death with a hammer and then committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. They were cremated at Golders Green Creamatorium. Their ashes were intermingled and scattered on the crocus lawn.
Orton’s plays are unique, full of social outrage, subversive sex and an epigrammatic wit. Two of them were made into films after Orton’s death. His diaries were published in 1986, describing his many sexual adventures in great detail. John Lahr’s biography Prick up your Ears was made into a successful film in an adaptation by Alan Bennett, starring Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina.
Joe Orton’s literary career started late and was very brief, but his was an original voice, with its unique subversive humour. Leicester has honoured him by naming the space outside its new theatre, Curve, Orton Square, and by putting up a Blue Plaque at his childhood home at Fayrhust Road. His flat at 25 Noel Road in Islington now carries an Islington Green Plaque.
- Mark Brown, "Library books defaced by prankster playwright Joe Orton go on show", The Guardian, 11 October 2011
- [http://www.joeorton.org/Pages/Joe_Orton_Gallery76.html Joe Orton Online: Gallery.
- Blue Plaque places: "Joe Orton green plaque in London"