This mesmerizing story of playwright and author Joe Orton’s brief and remarkable life was named book of the year by Truman Capote and Nobel Prize–winning novelist Patrick White
Told with precision and extensive detail, Prick Up Your Ears is the engrossing biography of playwright and novelist Joe Orton. Orton’s public career spanned only three years (1964–1967), but his work made a lasting mark on the international stage. From Entertaining Mr. Sloane to his career-making Loot, Orton’s plays often shocked, sometimes outraged, and always captivated audiences with their dark yet farcical cynicism. A rising star and undeniable talent, Orton left much undone when he was bludgeoned to death by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who had educated Orton and also dreamed of becoming a famous writer. Prick Up Your Ears was the basis for the distinguished 1987 film of the same name, directed by Stephen Frears, with a screenplay by Alan Bennett, and starring Gary Oldman and Vanessa Redgrave. A brilliant, page-turning examination of the dueling forces behind Orton’s work, Prick Up Your Ears secured the playwright’s reputation as a great twentieth-century artist.
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About the Author
John Lahr (b. 1941) is an acclaimed author. He was the senior drama critic at the New Yorker for twenty years. He has twice received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism and was the first critic to win a Tony Award, for co-authoring Elaine Stritch at Liberty. The author of eighteen books, ranging from fiction to biography, Lahr is best known for Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr (1969) and Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (1978), which was made into a film. He lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
Prick Up Your Ears
The Biography of Joe Orton
By John Lahr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 John Lahr
All rights reserved.
JOKERS ARE WILD
Murder is negative creation, and every murderer is therefore the rebel who claims the right to be omnipotent. His pathos is his refusal to suffer ...
W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand
MISS PRISM. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
JOE ORTON AND KENNETH HALLIWELL were friends. For fifteen years, they lived and often wrote together. They wore each other's clothes. Their wills each named the other as sole beneficiary. They shared everything except success. But on 9 August 1967, murder made them equal again.
The note was found on top of the red-grained leather binder which held Orton's diary. The words, fastidiously written, had none of the horror that the scene did:
If you read his diary all will
PS. Especially the latter part
Halliwell lay nude on his back in the centre of the room, three feet from Orton's writing desk. The backs of his hands, the top of his chest, and his bald head were splattered with blood. Except for his arms, rigor mortis had set in. Halliwell's gory pyjama top was draped over the desk chair. On the linoleum floor near him was a glass and a can of grapefruit juice which had speeded the twenty-two Nembutals into his blood, killing him within thirty seconds. Halliwell had died sooner than Orton, whose sheets were still warm when the police discovered him in bed, his head cratered like a burnt candle.
At forty-one, Halliwell was no stranger to horrific death. When he was eleven, his doting mother had been stung in the mouth by a wasp and within minutes had choked to death before his eyes. Twelve years later, Halliwell came downstairs for breakfast to discover his father with his head in the oven, dead from asphyxiation. Halliwell was haunted by his father's death. While studying at RADA in 1953, he told an actress who had tried to rally him out of one of his frequent depressions: 'I'll end up just like my father and commit suicide.' Halliwell had no reason to trust life.
'God laughs and snaps his fingers,' he and Orton wrote in an unpublished novel, The Boy Hairdresser (1960). 'The only thing for man to do is to imitate God and snap his fingers too.' Halliwell's final fillip was nine hammer blows to Orton's head, a last crazy gesture of omnipotence in a life which from the time of his parents' deaths had been out of control. The hammer lay above the bedcover on Orton's chest. Halliwell, who had once taken Marlowe as his stage surname, had dispatched Orton with a frenzied brutality typical of that Elizabethan playwright's blood-lust. He had walloped Orton's head so furiously that the vault of his skull had been bashed open and several lacerations on the scalp held the shape of the hammer. Orton's face was caked with dried blood. His brain had been splattered on wall and ceiling.
It was Orton's mind—the gorgeous, wicked fun it poked at the world—which made him irresistible and obsessed Halliwell. He had known that brain before it had been tutored by him in literature. He'd nurtured it, enjoyed it, provoked it to defy convention, edited its excesses. 'Marriage excuses no one the freaks' roll-call.' Halliwell and Orton both shared a trickster's suspicion of normality, but only Orton could give the anarchic instinct memorable shape in a sentence. His curious chemistry of anger, optimism, and erudition blessed him with a comic style unique to his era. The mind that was meant to be Halliwell's cultivated and constant companion had acquired an independent life and vision. Often during the last months of their lives, Orton tried to reason Halliwell into a life of his own:
When we got home we talked about ourselves and our relationship. I think it's bad that we live in each other's pockets twenty-four hours a day three hundred and sixty-five days a year. When I'm away Kenneth does nothing, meets nobody. What's to be done? He's now taking tranquillizers to calm his nerves. 'I need an affair with somebody,' he says. He says I'm no good. I'm only interested in physical sex, not love. 'Your attitude to sensitive people is Victorian,' he said. 'Basically, it's Dr Arnold's "get on the playing fields. You won't be so sensitive then.'" 'All you need is a field of interest outside me. Where you can meet people away from me ...'
(30 April 1967)
Halliwell's threats in the last year always tried to manoeuvre Orton back into the cosy unit he'd outgrown:
Kenneth H had a long talk about our relationship. He threatens, or keeps saying, he will commit suicide. He says, 'You'll learn then, won't you?' and 'What will you be like without me?' We talked and talked until I was exhausted ...
(1 May 1967)
Had Halliwell killed Orton and himself four years earlier, their deaths would have been another short item in the local paper. Instead, they were headline news. Between 1963, when his first play was accepted, and 1967, when he died, Orton became a playwright of international reputation. His oeuvre was small, but his impact was large. By 1967, the term 'Ortonesque' had worked its way into the English vocabulary, a shorthand adjective for scenes of macabre outrageousness. Orton wrote three first-class full-length plays—Entertaining Mr Sloane,Loot and the posthumously produced What the Butler Saw—and four one-act plays. In his short career, two films were made from his plays; and Loot was voted the Evening Standard 's Best Play of 1966. Orton's plays often scandalized audiences, but his wit made the outrage memorable. Orton's laughter bore out Nietzsche's dictum that 'He who writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read, he wants to be learned by heart.' Orton brought the epigram back to the contemporary stage to illuminate a violent world: 'It's life that defeats the Christian Church, she's always been well-equipped to deal with death' (The Erpingham Camp); 'All classes are criminal today. We live in an age of equality' (Funeral Games). Orton's laughter created a 'panic'. His stage gargoyles tried to frighten their audience into new life.
Orton's death—laced as it was with the irony of his fascination with the grotesque—had special public interest. No playwright in living memory had met a more gruesome end. The news was reported on the front page of The Times and all the major English papers. The Times obituary (written by its drama critic Irving Wardle) called Orton 'one of the sharpest stylists of the British new wave ...a consummate dialogue artist, and a natural anarch'. It was a better review from the paper than Orton ever earned in life. Almost instantly, Orton's death became more famous than his work. Many interpreted his death as retribution for the unrelenting anarchy of his laughter. But Orton was not hounded by society into a self-conscious martyrdom. He was not a victim of the gospel of ecstasy which burned out the lives of so many pop stars of the sixties. A voluptuary of fiasco, Orton died from his short-sighted and indecisive loyalty to a friend.
Halliwell had purchased the second-floor bed-sitting-room at 25 Noel Road, Islington, in 1959, so that he and Orton could have some security while they tried to write. But it was finally Orton who persevered, sitting at their glossy white desk and writing while Halliwell looked on. Even the financial balance which had given Halliwell so much power over Orton in the early years had shifted dramatically. It was now Orton who had the big bank balance of £20,222 and Halliwell whose inheritance had dwindled in support of them to £5,817. 'Joe has everything, doesn't he?' Halliwell complained to Miss Boynes, the elderly lady who lived beneath them and to whom he went for scraps of conversation during the long days when Orton was absent from the flat. Halliwell, who longed to be an artist, had played midwife to his friend's talent. His creative gesture was the source of his sadness and undoing. There was no visible sign of his contribution; and Halliwell, pathetically, was forced to substantiate his claims in language as if syntax could somehow bind him permanently to Orton's success. He employed the royal 'we' when speaking of Orton and referred to his talent as 'a genius like us'.
At 11.40 a.m. on 9 August a chauffeur arrived at 25 Noel Road to take Orton to Twickenham Studios, where he and his producer, Oscar Lewenstein, were meeting with Richard Lester to talk about Orton's film script Up Against It. The chauffeur trudged up the bleak staircase with its linoleum steps smelling of wax and the grey striped wallpaper stained with damp and peeling. He knocked at Flat 4 on the top floor. There was no answer. He checked back with the Lewenstein office and was told to try again. Orton's agent, Peggy Ramsay, had tried to reach him at 8.30 that morning to confirm the lunch date and she too had received no reply. She was worried. The chauffeur tried twice again and on the third reconnoitre squinted through the letter box to make sure nobody was home. 'This time,' he told the Coroner, 'I noticed the light was on in the hall. I thought this was unusual. I could see the top of a man's head. He appeared to be lying on the floor. I could see his face from the nose upwards. His eyes were closed. I knew this was not Mr Orton because this man appeared to be baldheaded. I knew Mr Orton because I had driven him in the firm's car to different destinations.'
Two stools, two chairs, two single divan beds, and now, so the police discovered, two bodies. The only identifying mark on Orton's body was a blue swallow tattooed over his appendix scar. Orton was planning to refurbish the design. He wanted a flock of swallows on the wing arching across his stomach like porcelain ducks over a mantelpiece. The joke imprinted on his body and the ghoulish spectacle of his bludgeoning made a contrast that matched the weird surroundings. Orton and Halliwell's bed-sitter had seemed to visitors like some extraordinary tomb. There was no sense of comfort to the austere room—Venetian blinds, electric heater, scrubbed linoleum floor. The ceiling was painted in a chequerboard of pink and yellow. The colours weighed down on the small space. The walls were covered with an elaborate collage which stretched up to the ceiling and in which recognizable shapes merged with mythical beasts, Renaissance high art, and tabloid headlines. 'The room was very arid,' Penelope Gilliatt recalls. 'It made me want to put my elbows out and stretch the walls.'
Above Orton's bed and overlooking his battered body was a Renaissance crucifix pasted on top of a Union Jack. On another wall near Halliwell's corpse was a map of Australia transformed into a tutu. At the bottom of the map was a pair of crossed horse's legs, on top was an ape's body with hands dangling down on to the 'skirt'. A Cro-Magnon head had been mounted on this torso; and blood had been spliced into the image.
The room was Halliwell's theatre and a mosaic of his mind. Its humour was a testament to his fear and loathing. Halliwell's design—in its startling and aggressive flatness—was a collage of fractured images, a series of haunting notions where the past, present and the surreal coexisted but never coalesced to make a coherent whole. The warped images signalled an imagination in retreat:
Which is worse [asks Donelly, the failed artist and Halliwell's fictional alter ego in The Boy Hairdresser just before he attempts murder], fruitless running or aimless drifting? Evil to look back on, nothing to look forward to, and pain in the present. The faces passing seemed to him pale, with hunger not physical, mixture of brute and human, devouring and defiling: long claws and bird mouths, fat hips and loins.
This description was an accurate account of the panic which plagued and distorted Halliwell's every encounter with the world and which he made explicit in his anarchic wall collages. They were more powerful, precise and disturbing than his writing. Halliwell came to look upon his murals as his art form. He even wrote to Peggy Ramsay asking for her professional opinion of them:
Must make it plain this invite is not from J or anything to do with him or his Works. I should like your opinion of my collage murals. Does my real talent if any lie in this direction, etc. I know how unspeakably more than busy you are so quite understand if you can't spare time for even a cuppa any time. For instance the woman who came to interview J for the Evening Standard this afternoon spent her time admiring my murals and saying did they cost a terrific lot of money and how professional they were, etc. This has happened before with all sorts of people. However.
Lost to himself, Halliwell didn't have the self-regard to state any demand directly. He lacked the courage to put forward and promote his art. The hope of glory and the fear of rejection were a paralysing combination. Trying to give Halliwell some interest outside himself, Orton encouraged his murals and in 1967 arranged for an exhibition of fifteen pictures in a Chelsea antique store. A few pictures were sold to Orton's business associates; but the public showed little interest. It was a familiar pattern.
Halliwell had always yearned to be visible. 'Applaud me, but no one applauded,' says Donelly in The Boy Hairdresser. 'Instead, in the distance, a child screamed.' Halliwell had worked hard to win the world's attention. He had trained at RADA as an actor but abandoned the profession as a bad bet. He had laboured at writing for a decade, and then given it up. Six novels and one stage adaptation were stashed in the drawer under his bed. They suffered from the same posturing and lack of spontaneity that he did. As late as 1966, Halliwell had sent his stage adaptation, The Facts of Life, to Peggy Ramsay, London's most powerful play agent, whose literary instincts are as sharp as her tongue. 'I haven't really got through your adaptation', she wrote him. 'The first scene sent me into such a well of boredom that I had to struggle to continue which I did in a kind of abstract anguish!!!'
Having educated Orton to be his intellectual equal, Halliwell was now drawn into an inevitable and unequal competition with him. Orton radiated a sexuality and warmth that drew people to him. Orton spoke with an appealing working-class accent; his lazy upper lip slurred consonants and made his delivery funny. 'He thought he was really beautiful, Joe did,' says Kenneth Cranham, one of Orton's favourite actors and closest acquaintances. 'The buzz was him himself. When he'd leave a room he would stand in front of a mirror—very upright—and look at himself like he thought he was very butch. If you saw him, it was quite exciting. You knew he was a promising person. You knew he'd say something funny.' Buttocks clenched, pelvis thrust out, army bag slung over his shoulder—Orton strutted through a world he found 'profoundly bad and irresistibly funny'.
Halliwell was more daunting. Seven years older than Orton and totally bald, Halliwell had always been conscious that youthfulness had eluded him. When he applied to RADA in 1950, he confessed to the registrar 'I'm already twenty-three and, God knows, look thirty'. Without his wig, Halliwell was a grave and menacing presence whom people remembered as larger than Orton, although at five foot eight Halliwell was two inches shorter. Orton bought Halliwell the wig in 1964 with the first profits from Entertaining Mr Sloane. It was ungraded, and perched ceremoniously on Halliwell's head like a tea cosy. 'Kenneth improved when he began wearing the wig,' Peggy Ramsay says. 'He was very ashamed of his baldness and he kept his hat on everywhere including the theatre. I think that looking in the mirror with it actually altered his personality. He became rather charming and sincere, so that I quite forgot my first alarmed reaction to his personality.' Halliwell vacillated between extraordinary aggressiveness and timidity—a characteristic which their good friend, the comedian Kenneth Williams, found ludicrous. 'Halliwell never seemed to me ever to establish himself,' Williams says. 'He always seemed to melt into the background and simper "I'm not wanted", "I'm not spoken to", "I'm only here because Joe's here". The only time he seemed to me bold and resolute was in contradicting Joe's apparent errors.' Halliwell was too defensive about himself to put others at ease. He tried fiercely to hide his sadness, which only made him sadder and more isolated. 'It was quite hard to see Joe because you always risked incurring Kenneth's wrath,' Cranham recalls. 'Joe gave me an old coat of his and Kenneth got very uptight. He saw me as a threat. One night they were backstage and Kenneth said, "I thought you were all beautiful". He turned to me. "Which is very surprising for you because you're ugly, really."'
Excerpted from Prick Up Your Ears by John Lahr. Copyright © 1978 John Lahr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. Jokers Are Wild,
2. Somebody from Nowhere,
3. Unnatural Practices,
4. Monstrous Fun,
5. Scandalous Survival,
6. The Freaks' Roll-Call,