John Lahr discusses Prick Up Your Ears, his superb biography on playwright Joe Orton, with actor and friend, Kenneth Williams and theater critic, Michael Billington, on the book’s release in 1978.
The cherubic Orton was arguably the most exciting and original playwrights to break through in the 1960s—his first play Entertaining Mr. Sloane was an influence on Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, while his last What the Butler Saw led to political controversy and questions being raised in parliament—in reference to the size of Winston Churchill’s cock. Sadly, Orton’s life was cut short by murder—he was working on a film script for The Beatles (Up Against It) when he died (the Fabs made Magical Mystery Tour instead)—and one can only imagine what works of brilliance he would have concocted had he lived.
The quality of this interview is iffy, but it is a marvelous and important piece of cultural history for those with an interest in Orton (or even Williams). It’s also fascinating to hear some of the “politically correct” language used by presenter, Valerie Singleton, and interviewer Billington, where Orton is described as a “practicing homosexual”—as if he was in training for an examination. All jolly good fun.
It’s around this time that the enthusiasm started almost a month ago begins to wane, and the pages of the diary remain blank, as days dissolve into weeks. Keeping a diary is hard work, but it is rewarding work. If you’ve started a diary and want a little encouragement to keep going, or even just to start writing, then here is a personal selection of diary and journal writers, who may inspire.
Sylvia Plath kept a diary throughout her life, which reveals a world beyond her poetry. Here is Sylvia setting out on her adventures as a writer, from November 13th 1949.
As of today I have decided to keep a diary again - just a place where I can write my thoughts and opinions when I have a moment. Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.
In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative - all unimportant now - fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.
I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free – unbound by responsibility, I still can come up to my own private room, with my drawings hanging on the walls…and pictures pinned up over my bureau. It is a room suited to me – tailored, uncluttered and peaceful…I love the quiet lines of the furniture, the two bookcases filled with poetry books and fairy tales saved from childhood.
At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.
Playwright Joe Orton filled his diaries with his sexual escapades, and vignettes of the strangeness of the world, from January 18th 1967.
On the bus going home I heard a most fascinating conversation between an old man and woman. “What a thing, though,” the old woman said. “You’d hardly credit it.” “She’s always made a fuss of the whole family, but never me,” the old man said. “Does she have a fire when the young people go to see her?” “Fire?” “She won’t get people seeing her without warmth.” “I know why she’s doing it. Don’t think I don’t,” the old man said. “My sister she said to me, ‘I wish I had your easy life.’ Now that upset me. I was upset by the way she phrased herself. ‘Don’t talk to me like that,’ I said. ‘I’ve only got to get on the phone and ring a certain number,’ I said, ‘to have you stopped.’” “Yes,” the old woman said, “And you can, can’t you?” “Were they always the same?” she said. “When you was a child? Can you throw yourself back? How was they years ago?” “The same,” the old man said. “Wicked, isn’t it?” the old woman said. “Take care, now” she said, as the old man left her. He didn’t say a word but got off the bus looking disgruntled.
More diaries from Jack Kerouac, Emily Carr, John Cheever, and Andy Warhol, after the jump…
Cynical, dark-hearted British playwright Joe Orton and his boyfriend (later murderer) Kenneth Halliwell so hated the books on offer at the Essex Road library in London, that they decided to amuse themselves by creatively defacing book covers. Eventually the pair were caught and did jail time. Now a large selection of their naughty handiwork is on display at the Islington Museum, where 40 of the 72 dustjackets they defaced can be viewed by the public through January of next year.
What would a librarygoer in 1960 think in picking up The Collected Plays of Emlyn Williams and finding they were about to read plays called Knickers Must Fall and Fucked by Monty?
They also altered the blurbs for the books in a less than tasteful fashion. Dorothy L Sayers’s Gaudy Nights, for example, was the writer “at her most awe inspiring. At her most queer, and needless to say, at her most crude!”
Readers of another of her Lord Peter Wimsey books, Clouds of Witness, are advised to read behind closed doors “and have a good shit while you are reading!”
The pair would sneak the book back on to a shelf and then wait for someone to pick it up so they could watch the reaction.
You can see more of the defaced book jackets here.
Being sent to prison for defacing library books was the making of playwright, Joe Orton. It gave the him isolation from the intense and difficult relationship with lover, Kenneth Halliwell, and allowed him to break free creatively. Orton had been in awe of the older Halliwell from their first meeting at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in 1951, and the two were soon lovers. The poorly educated Orton flourished under Halliwell’s tutelage. However, by the end of the decade, he had outgrown his mentor’s teachings. Moreover, as they lived, loved and wrote together, the intensity of their bond stifled Joe from finding his own creative voice and ambition.
Between 1957 and 1959, the pair took jobs to help Halliwell’s dwindling inheritance. With their earnings they purchased a small 16’ x 12’ one-room flat, at 25 Noel Road, Islington. It was to be their home until the fateful night Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer, before overdosing on 22 Nembutals.
This tragic murder has always overshadowed the love and joy the couple shared. Their love wasn’t all doom and gloom as some would have us believe. No. Theirs was a shared glee that fatefully led to the prison sentence that changed their lives.
Annoyed at the poor selection of books in their local library, Orton and Halliwell concocted their own unique revenge. Together they stole and defaced approximately 72 books, and removed over 1,653 plates - many of which adorned the wall of their bedsit (see photo above). Theri actions were nothing more than jolly schoolboy japes. The pair stole and carefully modified the cover art or the book’s blurbs before returning them to the library. A volume of poems by John Betjeman was returned to the library with a new dustjacket featuring a photograph of a nearly naked, heavily tattooed, middle-aged man. A copy of The Plays of Emlyn Williams was altered to include such titles as “Knickers Must Fall”, “Up the Front” and “Fucked by Monty”. Bentz Plagemann’s novel The Steel Cocoon was re-covered with a picture of young man’s groin in tight, white trunks. Phyllis Hambledon’s book Queen’s Favorite had an image of two men suggestively wrestling or buggering each other on the front, and an oiled Adonis in supplication on the back. As Orton later recalled:
‘I used to stand in the corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch people read them. It was very fun, very interesting.’
The authorities didn’t think so, and when the pair were eventually caught, they were charged and tried in May 1962. The arrest was reported in the Daily Mirror as “Gorilla in the Roses” - referencing one particularly surreal cover of a grinning ape stuck atop a rose. Orton and Halliwell were charged with five counts of theft and malicious damage, were fined $400 and jailed for six months. The pair thought the sentence was unduly harsh “because we were queers.”
While prison life made Halliwell more introspective and morose, Orton thrived. He was free to do as he pleased, and as being a prisoner allowed him to clearly see the corruption and hypocrisy at the heart of liberal England.
“It affected my attitude towards society. Before I had been vaguely conscious of something rotten somewhere, prison crystallised this. The old whore society really lifted up her skirts and the stench was pretty foul… Being in the nick brought detachment to my writing. I wasn’t involved anymore. And suddenly it worked.”
Released in September 1962, the couple returned to Noel Road - Halliwell to lick his wounds; Orton to start his career as a dramatist, writing such marvelous black comedies as Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot and What the Butler Saw. Interestingly, Orton’s last commission before his death was a screenplay for The Beatles called Prick Up Your Ears - how different things could have been if the Fab Four had made Orton’s script about revolutionary anarchists rather than The Magical Mystery Tour
Orton’s and Halliwell’s vandalized book covers can be viewed here.
Bonus clip The Crimes of Joe Orton, after the jump…