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Orton: The Complete Plays
In recent years, Joe Orton’s legend has been based more on his private life than his plays. Perhaps the post-Aids generation is so much in awe of a man who cruised his way around the four corners of London, Morocco and Leicester (!) that his sex life easily eclipses his work.
By the same light, his work may lack the shock impact that it enjoyed back in the 1960s when it was originally staged. But the devilish humour and the craftsmanship of the farcical elements in the work ensure that the plays remain fresh and a revival in the West End is still a much-anticipated theatrical event.
ORTON: THE COMPLETE PLAYS (Methuen) contains all of Joe Orton’s performed work: Entertaining Mr Sloane, Loot, What the Butler Saw, The Ruffian on the Stair, The Erphingham Camp, Funeral Games and The Good and Faithful Servant.
Loot is the blackest of black farces. We meet Hal on the day of his mother’s funeral. He dreams of opening a brothel that caters to all tastes with his undertaker pal Dennis – and they have robbed a bank to finance the operation. The police arrive in the shape of Inspector Truscott (originally played by Orton’s friend Kenneth Williams) and all hell breaks loose because Hal – a devout Catholic – is incapable of telling a lie to protect himself. Yet beneath the wild laughter there is a palpable sense of rage that permeates all of Orton’s work. Loot became a West End hit at The Criterion Theatre, Picaddilly.
The profane carnival atmosphere continues into What The Butler Saw, Orton’s last play. And so does the rage. Organised religion and law enforcement are replaced here by the business of psychiatry (a common target of 60s satire) in this deceptively anarchic farce. Orton would have hated 21st century life – no sex and everyone’s a therapy junkie.
What The Butler Saw was staged two years after Orton’s murder – he was bludgeoned to death by his lover and one-time literary collaborator/mentor Kenneth Halliwell. The play was staged at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket and Ralph Richardson received hate mail for taking the role of Dr Rance. These full-length stage works – along with Entertaining Mr Sloane, a kitchen sink comedy take on a ménage a trois – make up the cornerstone of Orton’s professional legend.
Reading them again reminds us that he became a gay legend not because of his Herculean sexual appetites, but because he was a great theatre writer first and foremost.
For the Orton novice, whose perception of the man is based solely on the way he lived, reading any one of the plays contained here will give a flavour of what all the fuss is about. So put the cart back in front of the horse and read the plays… then treat yourself to a read of the hilarious and filthy Orton Diaries (No. 20 in our London Reading List).
Orton: The Complete Plays is published by Methuen.