Joe Orton

Jan 01, 1933
Aug 09, 1967

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From Wikipedia:

John Kingsley Orton (1 January 1933 – 9 August 1967), known by the pen name of Joe Orton, was an English playwright, author, and diarist.

His public career, from 1964 until his murder in 1967, was short but highly influential. During this brief period he shocked, outraged, and amused audiences with his scandalous black comedies. The adjective Ortonesque refers to work characterised by a similarly dark yet farcical cynicism. […]


Orton began writing plays in 1959 with Fred and Madge; The Visitors followed two years later. In 1963, the BBC paid £65 for the radio play The Ruffian on the Stair, broadcast on 31 August 1964. It was substantially rewritten for the stage in 1966.

He had completed Entertaining Mr Sloane by the time Ruffian was broadcast. He sent a copy to theatre agent Peggy Ramsay in December 1963. It premiered at the New Arts Theatre in Westminster 6 May 1964, produced by Michael Codron. Reviews ranged from praise to outrage. The Times described it as making “the blood boil more than any other British play in the last 10 years”.

Entertaining Mr Sloane lost money in its three-week run, but critical praise from playwright Terence Rattigan, who invested £3,000 in it, ensured its survival. The play was transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End at the end of June and to the Queen’s Theatre in October. Sloane tied for first in the Variety Critics’ Poll for Best New Play and Orton came second for Most Promising Playwright. Within a year, Sloane was performed in New York, Spain, Israel, and Australia as well as made into a film (after Orton’s death) and a television play.


Orton’s next performed work was Loot. The first draft was written from June to October 1964 and was called Funeral Games, a title Orton dropped at Halliwell’s suggestion but later reused. The play is a wild parody of detective fiction, adding the blackest farce and jabs at established ideas on death, the police, religion, and justice. Orton offered the play to Codron in October 1964 and it underwent sweeping rewrites before it was judged fit for the West End.

Codron had manoeuvred Orton into meeting his colleague Kenneth Williams in August 1964.[a] Orton reworked Loot with Williams in mind for Truscott. His other inspiration for the role was DS Harold Challenor. With the success of Sloane, Loot was hurried into pre-production despite its flaws. Rehearsals began in January 1965, with plans for a six-week tour culminating in a West End debut. The play opened in Cambridge on 1 February to scathing reviews.

Orton, disagreeing with director Peter Wood over the plot, produced 133 pages of new material to replace, or add to, the original 90. But the play received poor reviews in Brighton, Oxford, Bournemouth, Manchester, and finally Wimbledon in mid-March. Discouraged, Orton and Halliwell went on an 80-day holiday in Tangiers.

In January 1966, Loot was revived, with Oscar Lewenstein taking up an option. Before his production, it had a short run (11–23 April) at the University Theatre, Manchester. Orton’s growing experience led him to cut over 600 lines, raising the tempo and improving the characters’ interactions. Directed by Braham Murray, the play garnered more favourable reviews. Lewenstein put the London production in a “sort of Off-West End theatre,” the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre in Bloomsbury, under the direction of Charles Marowitz.

Orton clashed with Marowitz, although the additional cuts further improved the play. This production was first staged in London on 27 September 1966, to rave reviews. Ronald Bryden in The Observer asserted that it had “established Orton’s niche in English drama”. Loot moved to the Criterion Theatre in November where it ran for 342 performances. This time it won several awards, and Orton sold the film rights for £25,000. Loot, when performed on Broadway in 1968, repeated the failure of Sloane, and the film version of the play was not a success when it surfaced in 1970. […]

In 1967, The Beatles were still under contractual obligation to make a third film for United Artists, following the success of their previous films, “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) and “Help!” (1965).

Throughout 1966, producer Walter Shenson considered various scripts, but none was deemed suitable. In July 1966, it was announced that The Beatles had retained a script by British playwright Owen Halder. The script, named “Shades of a Personality“, called for a man (to be played by John Lennon) suffering from a three-way split personality, with the remaining Beatles playing each of these personalities. However, the project was eventually scrapped.

In January 1967, English playwright Joe Orton was contacted by producer Walter Shenson to revisit “Shades of a Personality.” Orton was well-known in the London theatre scene and had previously received a £1,000 investment from Paul McCartney for his play “Loot.” Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager, believed that Orton would be a great fit for writing a film for the band.

Orton worked on the script throughout January and February and transformed it into “Up Against It“, which was also rejected.

Basically the Beatles are getting fed up with the Dick Lester type of direction. They want dialogue to speak. Also they are tired of actors like Leo McKern stealing scenes. Difficult this, as I don’t think any of the Beatles can act in any accepted sense. As Marilyn Monroe couldn’t act. Hope to discuss the problem in detail tomorrow.

Joe Orton


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