Being sent to prison for defacing library books was the making of playwright, Joe Orton. It gave him isolation from the intense and difficult relationship with his 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.