It’s always been a bit of a clich?n the fame industry to say that sometimes the red carpet just ain’t going to arrive until you’re six feet under. An untimely death or a flower cut short in its prime is even better. Roll out a good tragedy and suddenly everyone’s listening.
In some cases, the death itself overshadows everything else. In 1967, the British playwright Joe Orton was brutally bludgeoned to death by his lover Kenneth Halliwell, who promptly swallowed a whole lot of sleeping tablets. Unfortunate timing perhaps. Orton’s star was on the rise and with it came the international and critical recognition he had craved as a playwright. The term Orton-esque -“ meaning something like macabre outrageousness -“ grew in popularity. His three full-length plays, Entertaining Mr Sloane, Loot and What The Butler Saw, were smash hits. Yet the sensational and brutal end of Joe Orton has often overshadowed his work in theatre. And as so often happens with these things, it has been difficult to separate Orton’s own homosexuality from the resulting media frenzy.
Just take the movie of his life -“ Prick Up Your Ears (1987) starring Gary Oldman as Joe Orton -“ based on the biography of the same name by John Lahr. From the beginning, the relationship between the lovers is depicted as unstable and destructive. Orton is young and arrogant and sleeps around. Halliwell is overbearing and jealous of Orton’s success. Their dysfunctional relationship drives Halliwell insane and he does away with the pair of them. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in his review of the film:
In the case of Orton and Halliwell, there is the sense that their deaths had been waiting for them right from the beginning. Their relationship was never healthy and never equal, and Halliwell, who was willing to sacrifice so much, would not sacrifice one thing: recognition for his sacrifice. If only Orton had taken him to that dinner, there might have been so many more opening nights.
With Halliwell as the classic jealous lover and Orton as the homosexual who just won’t behave, the brutal murder suddenly is supposed to make more sense.
In his alternative biography of Orton, Because We Are Queers, Simon Shepard talks about a whole Orton industry that has sprung up around the playwright. This Orton industry enjoys making a moral fairytale out of the playwright’s life. The lovers become another example of the dysfunctional homosexual relationship. Orton’s own in-your-face homosexuality is supposed to be responsible for his death.
This industry also ignores what it meant to be writing about gay themes in Britain in the 60s. Orton catapulted to fame at a stage where homosexuality was a heatedly debated topic. The Wolfenden Committee had been formed as early as 1954 and was charged with the task of learning as much as possible about homosexuality. Laws imprisoning men caught necking with other men had led to a bit of a problem -“ by the 1950s, thousands of homosexuals were being arrested and some of them were very famous aristocrats, politicians and artists. What if these numbers were just the tip of a huge pink iceberg?
The Committee’s reports led to the relaxation of some laws against homosexuality (lesbians barely rated a mention) at the time Orton was writing. But even during the debates, homosexuality was described as unnatural and a medical disease. Gays were expected to keep quiet about their condition and to distance themselves from any form of community. The very sponsor of the bill, the Earl of Arran, published a do not flaunt appeal to homosexuals everywhere in the London Times.
What did Orton have to say about all of this? Joe Orton loved to shock respectable theatre-goers out of their comfort zones. Through his plays, he suggested that what they feared most was probably a lot closer than they thought. Orton worked to challenge popular stereotypes of who could be homosexual. There are no immediately recognisable homosexuals in his plays. Sexual ambiguity reins free. The hip young men in Orton’s plays have erotic power and the older, powerful men want a piece of it. Sexiness was already being redefined by the growing popularity of male icons such as the Beatles. Orton was able to slyly outrage decent society by suggesting that the new sexy masculine male could also be homosexual.
This is one sort of rebel whose ideas and challenges to mainstream society live on long past his death.
What The Butler Saw is on at Belvoir Street Theatre on 21 & 22 February. For bookings, phone 9699 3444 or call in at the Belvoir Street box office.