John Lahr’s Prick Up Your Ears is a biography of the Northern English playwright Joe Orton that has been sitting at my bedside for years. As one of the most dramatic biographies I’ve ever read, it’s a pleasure to read. As a re-telling of one of the most horrifying true crime stories I’ve ever heard, it’s an object of terror and fascination.
Joe Orton’s life came to a gruesome end at the age of 34 just as Loot was enjoying a successful run on the West End. He was hammered to death by his live-in boyfriend of 15 years, Kenneth Halliwell. The end of Orton’s life is Lahr’s opening scene, as the biographer bypasses the traditional, chronological format, jumping straight into an image of his subject’s head “cratered like a burnt candle.” To Lahr and many others, Orton’s work is a body of dramatic “outrage”—and dramatic joy is the result. Orton, according to Lahr, tried to merge “hilarity and terror” in order to hold his audience captive and force reaction. He took no prisoners. Peter Gill, who directed the first production of Orton’s Ruffian on the Stair, felt his “whole moral nature called into question” by the play’s ending.
Orton was prolific, completing seven plays and a feature screenplay in just three years. On the strength of The Ruffian on the Stair, his first work, produced as a radio play in 1964, he acquired the legendary agent Peggy Ramsay, and under her representation he went on to write his strongest works: Entertaining Mr. Sloane, about a rakish tenant whose charm is enough to morally corrupt the brother and sister he moves in with; and Loot, a farce centered around a corpse, a coffin, and an inconvenient pile of cash. The Erpingham Camp, The Good and Faithful Servant, and Funeral Games followed, and in each Orton mashed together the sacred and the profane in the same anarchic mold. The term ‘Ortonesque’ came to mean something very specific: a type of comedy that was blacker than black, built around subjects so morbid that you had to laugh at them in order to be able to look them in the face. The Orton style was fully developed by 1965, ubiquitous two years later. Loot was still running—and making him a lot of money. Yet, despite his rapid success, Orton remained in the one-room flat in Islington that he shared with his boyfriend. By early 1967, he’d completed What the Butler Saw, and undertook to make a shift toward film by way of Up Against It, his screenplay intended for the Beatles, who, he said, were sick of Richard Lester’s style. He was killed in bed on August 9, and was scheduled to meet with the John Lennon and Paul McCartney the following night.
Orton’s life and work had spanned much of the 60s, that decade of storied social change in tension with the ancient, prevailing attitudes of a culture terrified of and disgusted by sex of all kinds. But while heterosexual sex was legal and increasingly liberated, gay sex remained illicit, perilous, religiously and socially discouraged—so much so that many of the people closest to Orton felt too terrified to engage in it. Yet Orton, for some reason, was not a tortured homosexual, and even less a tortured artist. “Joe’s vision was bleak,” said Peter Gill, but he had “none of the neurotic panic of someone like myself who always thinks he’s going to get killed in a sexual situation.” He was the anti-Werther, determined not to be tragic. In his diaries, which Lahr drew on heavily for his biography, Orton is self-satisfied, arrogant, and guiltless about his homosexuality. He appears peculiarly immune to the shame that plagued nearly everyone else around him, and totally oblivious to the thought that anything could go wrong. To Orton, the link between gayness and peril was mere propaganda. But he was a victim of a hate crime, of a sort, and he was a victim of domestic abuse. He was a victim, period.
Orton was one of those rare cases in my experience as a reader where I saw what he looked like before I read his work. And what he looked like ended up having a huge effect on what I read. My first thought was, “how dare a writer be that gorgeous.” Then: “how dare a man be that gorgeous.”
Orton was a writer who got photographed a lot. Who didn’t just passively let himself be photographed, but seemed to actively seek out the camera and enjoy its gaze. He knew he was attractive, and held in his body in the inimitable way of people who maddeningly have no self consciousness to speak of. There’s an arrogance there that’s similar to the way he spoke about his work at first, without a hint of modesty.
Why should he have been modest? He was beautiful, and his work, whatever I might feel about it, is indisputably good. Why shouldn’t he have enjoyed these facts about himself rather than wallow in neuroses like the rest of us? Is it disturbing because “pride comes before a fall?’ Is it that it turns him into a Narcissus, so distracted by his own image that he doesn’t see the hammer flying at his head? Why does it matter what Orton saw when he looked in the mirror?
The physical part of him is what forges a connection between us while estranging me from him. Dead, he is an object. When I think about his body, I think of the photographs that do not exist of a crime scene I’ve only heard described by someone who, likewise, had not been there. And the photographs that do exist, of a body that seems too perfect to be real. It happens that Orton’s physical body, his beauty, is a bigger part of his legacy than it is for most writers, because of the way his death was centered on it, as a violation. The more personal the murder, the more of a character the body itself becomes in the post mortem. Yukio Mishima felt that a perfect body was necessary in order to achieve death. It seems as Orton was unconsciously following the same tack, building and firming himself up perhaps to create a perfect corpse. He was proud of his body in life (“I shall be the most well-developed of playwrights,” he famously quipped. “if nothing else”) and the photographer Douglas Jeffrey’s view of it, inside a series of pictures taken shortly before his death through a rather antique-looking lens, is worshipful: an exaltation. There is the long torso, straight, narrow—the sight of which fills me with equal parts envy, fascination, and desire. The beautifully shaped back, the open expression, the suggestion of confusion or humility, the odd detail of the dove tattoo beneath and slightly to the right of his belly button, pointed so that it seems to be diving toward his genitalia. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person he was—to have the kind of body he had, the pride and lack of self-consciousness, the smart-ass resilience, the ability to swat away the notion of doom like a buzzing insect. Or perhaps the ability to accept a violent end to his life knowing that at least a beautiful corpse will be left—from the neck down. As a dead person, he can be objectified by someone like me. Would he have minded? Probably less than he would have minded—resented—becoming a victim in the first place.
I remember trying to read one of Orton’s early plays, The Ruffian on the Stair at 3 in the morning at the Wythe Hotel on four hours of sleep. What little I could sense of the plot—something fucked up and sexual between three people—set me into a confusion, which bore frustration, which resulted in a deeper exhaustion than what I already felt. “I’m in hell,” I thought.
At that time, the book was only part of the equation. I worked the night shift at the hotel, a job that I’d convinced myself I could do because I didn’t deserve the luxury of sleep. It was a job I stayed in way too long because I’d convinced myself it was good for me. Orton was like that, too.
“You should read this,” I told myself. “It’s probably important.”
For years, I held onto this theory. That it was ‘important.’ I wanted to rip through the works, to get what it is about them that fucks me up time and again. I still haven’t, but I have some theories.
Hypothesis 1: Because I’m “Not a Quitter”
I’d first encountered Orton in college. It was What the Butler Saw, his last play, and the most conceptually interesting of all his works. I remember picking it up, starting to read it, and for no apparent reason, throwing it against the wall.
At that time, I’d spent 3 years looking to books to find some idea of who or what I should become in order to be acceptable. I wasn’t finding it. I hated reading passionately, it was something I forced myself to do. But I could always at least get through the book. With Orton, it was different. I didn’t want to get through the book even though it seemed to hold a lot of promise for me.
“Butler” premise alone promised to speak to my sense of the world (absurd, painful, morbid, delightfully chaotic.)
But it didn’t. I found “Butler” soulless, painful, and empty as a play. But that wasn’t why I threw it against a wall. That also wasn’t the reason I threw another book, “The Collected Works of Joe Orton,” at the wall years later, apparently not having learned my lesson the first time.
Hypothesis 2: I’m Being an Asshole
Orton’s whole thing was that you can be gay and a “man” at the same time. And that was supposed to be a new idea. Today, of course, it’s offensive. At the time, he felt it needed to be said. And he felt it needed to be reiterated many times, quite violently, in no uncertain terms.
Trauma, if not tragedy, is certainly part of Orton’s design. The trauma of others, that is. “I’m a success,” he said of his audience, “because I’ve taken a hatchet to them and hacked my way in.” Lahr called it a “rebellion against passive theater-watching.” He’s circular, deliberately absurd, tauntingly mean, and true. “You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world,” a character famously proclaims. “If you could lock the enemy in a room somewhere and fire the sentence at them,” Orton once said in an interview, “you could get a sort of seismic disturbance.” But it was Orton’s death more than his sentences that drew me to his writing. And it was therefore Kenneth Halliwell who’d fabricated and fueled my obsession with Joe Orton. After the killing, Halliwell took the bitter with the bitter, washing down a fatal dose of Nembutal with some grapefruit extract. He died before his victim did. Terence Rattigan, on meeting Halliwell, described him as being ‘a bit round the bend’. The producer Peter Willes found him absurd. Orton himself, in his diaries, calls him as a ‘foolish queen’ to his face (along with many other harmful variations: ‘sad queen’, ‘mental queen’, etc.). In the final phase of Orton and Halliwell’s relationship it’s unclear exactly what they were to each other. They didn’t seem to be fucking anymore. Halliwell and Orton frequently fought over Orton’s promiscuity, but these were arguments born of principle rather than jealousy. Halliwell was religious, monogamist: “You can only live properly,” he told Orton, “if it’s for a person or for God.” Orton’s reply: “You sound like a heterosexual”—the worst of all possible crimes. Orton’s allegiance was to “sexual anarchy”, as Lahr sweetly describes his tendency of picking up trade in public bathrooms. He believed that the pursuit of anonymous sexual encounters was crucial to his development as an artist. “Look, I’ve got to do it!” He said during a fight. “I’ve got to be a fly on the wall!”
Had he been a fly on the wall, he might have known he was about to be swatted. In his arguments with Halliwell, he’s so desperate to make excuses for the part of himself that is the artist that he forgets the basic decency that owes to Halliwell as a lover.
It’s nothing new, of course. Male artists have been treating their partners like shit since time immemorial. The difference with Orton is that he was living with a live panther—someone with the true capacity and will to hurt him. And he either saw that and ignored it (tragic) or didn’t see it at all (terrifying.)
Orton wanted realism. The fly on the wall, vérité style of life. What he got was a messy, Grand Guignol end. And I can’t really forgive him for that. I’m angry at Orton for not leaving Halliwell like he should have—but Halliwell, as the only thing Orton seemed to care about, was the only thing keeping Orton down to earth. Maybe if he’d had the courage to leave Halliwell he would have also had the courage to make empathetic art.
But that’s me being a prude, as usual.
Orton committed the cardinal sin—among men that I’ve been obsessed with—of not making art that I care about. The compulsive digging, the picking of the wound, is partly an exercise in redemption. I want to find some spark of something in his work, so I can justify this obsession. Otherwise what’s the point of running in these stupid circles around him, and what does it say about me, chasing an artist simply because he doesn’t conform to my standards.
It’s not really fair to classify Orton and Halliwell as tragic lovers. They were barely lovers to begin with. Given their dramatic end, it easy to overlook what drew them together in life. Halliwell, like Orton, was an artist, a collagist. They met as students at RADA. They were both, according to Lahr, very angry. In their early days, before Orton got into plays, he and Halliwell defaced library books together in their sad one-bedroom flat, living off the latter’s small inheritance, and, of course, the dole. This earned both men a six month jail sentence in 1962, from which they emerged transformed, each closer to the different people they would become over the following five years—which held success for Orton; and pain, humiliation, and deepening mental illness for Halliwell. The extent to which Orton was able to transmute his abstract emotional turbulence into tangible theatrical productions is only emphasized by his partner’s final, dramatic attempt to do the same, all of which is foreshadowed in the standout seen from Stephen Frear’s 1987 biopic, wherein Gary Oldman’s Orton watches Alfred Molina’s Halliwell soundlessly strangle an invisible cat to death. The year before, it was Oldman, as Sid Vicious, stabbing his partner to death, in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy.
Hypothesis 3: Orton Betrayed Me By Getting Killed
What’s hard is that I really can’t hate either of them. I want to hate them both, and I can’t hate either of them. They’re just too interesting for that. As people, as lovers, as a crime scene. You can’t look away.
In my search for gay heroes, I come back to suffering. I seek out people who lived before me and suffered in similar ways to me, even though my heroes—gay, male, slutty—are a far cry from what I am—trans, female-bodied, prudish. Picking up Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, another biography of a gay playwright by Lahr, released decades after “Prick,” gave me something more familiar. The story of Williams via Lahr gave me everything I was comfortable with when it came to the “tragic gay artist” story. In it, we find Williams in pieces: Repressed, a drunk, a slow suicide, a late virgin, prone to letting violent men into his house to take financial advantage of him. This was exactly what I wanted in a story about a dead artist, and what I couldn’t get from Orton. Yes, he’d let a violent man into his home—yes, he’d been taken financial advantage of. But he hadn’t gone to his death willingly. And in Williams’ diaries there was evidence of a torn, tortured, sensitive man. In Orton’s diaries there was evidence of nothing, except that Orton did, in some robotic form, exist. As a macho, egocentric, totally oblivious man whose fatal flaw was that he trusted.
Orton’s diaries aren’t pure fiction, but they do feel staged, eerily so. Hints of the crime to come are everywhere: A friend compares their story to Cain and Abel. Orton describes Kenneth’s dangerous behavior, his secret stash of “suicide pills.” Orton only began keeping a record of his life after he’d achieved professional success, at the behest of Peggy Ramsay. They were not his idea, and as such they feel performative, not confessional. Dialogue flows briskly, actions read like stage directions, and Orton comes off as a beacon of sanity in an absurd world. The past is rarely discussed. Nothing reminds Orton of anything else, and so there are few metaphors. The effect is of a ceaseless line of forward-moving action. The only poetry he allows himself is on the subject of cocks. He tells a boy prostitute that “the whole point of my penis is to look into your eyes and say you’re mine.”
Halliwell’s looming presence, meanwhile, lends a palpable suspense. Halliwell perpetually guilts Orton, threatens to kill himself—which Orton dismisses as campy overstatement. It’s hard to see, at this point in their crumbling relationship, what more they could have meant to each other than cohabitants. As the diary advances the reader experiences a growing and uncanny sense of too much information—more than the writer himself, who seems, in his highly selective, withholding style, to be so much in control, even to have us in the palm of his hand. It is a chilling thing to watch someone with such narrative mastery move towards a helpless and chaotic end as a character and human. It’s a betrayal, of a sort. Orton was supposed to have changed all that—the idea of inherited victimhood. He ended up as the prime example of it. In his relationship with Halliwell, he fucked up his life. He fucked up his chance to be proudly immortal as one of the Great Macho Assholes of literature. And that, for some reason, bothers me.
Hypothesis 4: Orton is Everything I Hate About Queer Culture
It’s not like Orton’s macho-ness was one of his great qualities. It was what it afforded him that was great—that devil-may-care license to piss off that so many straight male artists possess that, despite being pretty despicable, is also enviable. For a long time I thought being male meant being an asshole. I only recently discovered that this was not the case—and I stumbled on that realization quite by accident.
Authors like Philip Roth and Norman Mailer perform a macho, asshole sexuality that is widely mocked, but during their time of high vogue was celebrated. Orton’s style of sexual rebellion was different. It was very much performed, theatrical, mannered, similar to the way contemporary straight male artists performed it on the page. It’s in the diaries, it’s in the plays, in the sex acts themselves. As if each ass he fucked would finally show the world what a true, important rebel he was. But there’s something a bit more try-hard, almost deliberately showy about Orton’s brand of it.
Sex was a realm of control for Orton, or so it seemed. He both wrote and enacted queer characters who weren’t fey predators or victims, but people in control. “In Sloane,” he said in an interview, “I wrote about a man who was interested in boys and liked having sex with boys. I wanted him to be played as if he was the most ordinary man in the world, and not as if the moment you wanted sex with boys you had to put on earrings and scent. I hope that now homosexuality is allowed, people aren’t going to continue doing the conventional portraits there have been in the past.”
You can imagine the kind of frustration he must have felt, then, with everything that he could see. Everything that was clearly, irrefutably there. The traditions, the standards, the well-made dramas of yore. He had no use for them. He was against style, against substance, but also against the anti-style of naturalism. So where did that leave him? With the coffin-shaped box of his career. A style of writing designed to anger and incense, to put up walls, to humiliate and expose. He wanted to play dom in his artistic life. British culture, one supposes, was supposed to be the sub. To play the part of dom in general—that mysterious, faceless creature with a mask and whip who barely exists except to drive forward someone else’s sexual fantasy—you have to become one-dimensional. A person who can’t really exist outside of fantasy. A superhero, a god, an emblem, a moralistic punishment meted out. Perhaps it was his greatest achievement—to never leave his sexual confidence in the (for most of us, private) realm of sex. He brought it to everything he did. For artists living and working today, it’s a banal idea. Sex is no longer taboo—it’s almost expected to be part of an artist’s work. What Orton did was paint himself as a dark, sexual force consuming the culture—in opposition, perhaps, to the light, but no less threatening sexual force of the Beatles and Elvis. But Orton’s personification of the below-ground, deviant sexual world was somewhat new at the time, without considering previous figures like Oscar Wilde who became vilified for their connection to gayness. Orton instead invited this—his own demonization, the kind of fear and pain that Victorian society was defined by when it came to sexual attitudes.
Of course he couldn’t have, you know, gotten away with it.
Death came in as a grand, sweeping, almost biblical moral statement in the end. That’s usually the moral when it comes to stories about “us.” I hesitate even to say “us,” because who the fuck am I to use that word? Queer culture, as interpreted in the modern age, is something I hate. When it’s robbed of the shame and the guilt and that artistic output. I hate how politicized it is, how annoyingly self-referential and flagrantly in denial about how sex-focused and boring we’ve become. When it was about shame, it was about something bigger. Now that it’s about sex, it’s painfully boring and small. Now that it’s a movement, it’s no longer a story that interests me.
It might be that I hate Orton because he, in whatever small way, ushered in this new era. By again, linking sex to his work in a way that, back then, was new. He also hated the part of queer culture that had to do with self-pity, vulnerability, femininity, and shame. So he’s by no means a perfect founder of the movement. For which reason you won’t see many people citing him as an inspiration. For most people, if they know him at all, he’s a guy that got murdered.
Orton’s way of talking about his life comes out of a solid English tradition, a subgenre of autobiography wherein the writer writes about his life in such a way as to reveal absolutely nothing about himself. Notably Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up, Beverly Nichols’ Twenty Five, most recently Morrissey’s Autobiography. The withholding autobiography is a frustrating way of keeping your readers in your thrall while offering them nothing of yourself—a perfectly infuriating, entirely one-sided relationship. Style without substance is, of course, also part of the queer tradition, just as withholding was in the time of Maugham, Noel Coward, and Terence Rattigan, for legal reasons. Spill too much: Go to jail. The Wilde paradigm. In an interview, Orton describes a point when, looking “into the future and seeing nothing…[I] thought, “I’m not going to be anything.” Orton’s short life found him living just on the brink of a visible existence. He was born into a world of derisive, campy portrayals of queer characters and a political climate that tried to ignore homosexuality out of existence, when it was not focused on criminalizing it. He died just after its legalization. The Sexual Offences act that decriminalized sexual activity between consenting adults of the same sex was passed less than two months before Orton’s death. In his own discussion of it in the diaries he side-steps the personal, as usual, in favor of the Remark. Otherwise, the event gets the same unemotional treatment as everything else. An entry on July 4, 1967, records a conversation with Peggy Ramsay:
“‘Well you’re legal now’ she says, showing her ignorance. (The homosexual bill becomes law today.) ‘It’s only legal over twenty-one,’ I said, ‘I like boys of fifteen.’”
He even tried to use his own superhuman self-acceptance to help release others from their own self-hatred, such as his friend, comedian Kenneth Williams, who Orton writes about in his diaries:
“ ‘I’m basically guilty about being a homosexual you see,’ [Williams] said. ‘Then you shouldn’t be,’ I said. ‘Get yourself fucked if you want to. Get yourself anything you like. Reject all the values of society. And enjoy sex. When you’re dead you’ll regret not having fun with your genital organs.’…
‘I just feel so guilty about it all.’
‘Fucking Judeo-Christian civilization!’ I said, in a furious voice, startling a passing pedestrian.”
At the end of the entry, he reflects:
“…I hope I’d done him a bit of good. At least I’d told him not to feel guilty. It isn’t as simple as that, but at least I’ve tried to help him.”
This is a rare moment for several reasons. It’s one of the few times he really owns the ‘I’ of the first person style, in a way that makes us believe it is his actual opinion, expressed privately. It is also a moment of philanthropy, when he seems to go out of his way (albeit not too far) to nudge another person toward self-acceptance, rather than mock them or piss them off. He lets down his guard, it seems, just enough at the end for embarrassment to become a possibility.
So perhaps ‘monster’ isn’t the word for Orton. But no one really is a monster. People are uncaring, selfish, and cruel, though they often have reasons. And most of them don’t end up with a hammer through their head.
I think about why it used to scare me for such a long time, the fairy tale of Orton’s life and death. I suppose it couldn’t frighten me if it didn’t strike me as such a sinister morality play, ending on the conclusion that nobody truly gets away with anything. And that’s scary, isn’t it?
It is, but it’s not the scary thing. The scary thing isn’t the death part: It’s the intimacy part. Scarier than letting someone go is letting someone in.
In the end, we can only really be hurt by the people to whom we give permission to hurt us. These are often the people we choose to hurt us. As if, in deciding who we want to let in, we first have to imagine a scene of violence and find it to our liking. By loving them we give them permission to enact a grisly revenge upon us, through words or sex acts or a number of small, daily betrayals. Even by assuming we can help them, we are giving them permission. So of course if we look at Orton’s story as one in the classic Greek-heroic mold, the only thing that made him human was also the thing that destroyed him.
I don’t think I hate what Orton’s story, if taken as morality tale, says about relationships. I don’t even think I hate his approach to queerness and masculinity, as annoying as I find it, and as close as it is to my own, fraught experience. I think I hate that he died that easily. That he couldn’t save himself. I think that gets under my skin.
Something does happen in the process of trying to understand a person you feel weirdly indebted to. Somewhere along the line, the portrait achieves gradation, nuance, and even in its ugliness it becomes too fascinating to truly dislike. And then there’s the fact that he was someone so determined in every aspect of his life to not be a victim, and ended up there anyway: the victim of a crime scene, and a crime of passion at that. Or was it?
He was someone who needed someone else—or thought he did. As much as he tried to be free, to exist independently, as a perfect, chiseled body in space, he needed another body beside him, in cramped quarters, every night. That’s not monstrous—it’s just out of character for someone who seems to want to be monstrous just to prove that they’re not like other people.
I’ve begun to see Orton’s acceptance of Halliwell not as the thing that led him to his death, but the thing that—for years—made it possible for life to continue. Perhaps it wasn’t best described as love–there are some things deeper and more co-dependent than that. In a little while I saw how it was possible to be around someone who, like anyone else, has the potential to turn monstrous, and to ignore that fact. Because it’s easier, because it’s necessary.
The best thing about trying to understand a monster—especially a sacred one—is the point at which the monster becomes inseparable from oneself: researcher and subject are fused. Joe Orton, patron saint of abusive, horrible relationships, half abuser and half abused, comes from on high to tell me something about myself. I’ve chosen him as a kind of guide: I have to see where he leads me.