Joe Orton

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Plays by Joe Orton

Entertaining Mr Sloane

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Sharp, alarming and hilarious, Entertaining Mr Sloane is a subversive black comedy of unscrupulous sexual manipulation.

In three deft acts, Orton tells the mischievously provocative story of Mr Sloane, a sly and handsome young man who works his way into the household of Kath, her brother Ed, and their father. Kath wants something between a lover and a substitute baby, while Ed wants someone to drive his car dressed in a tight t-shirt and leather cap. But though the charismatic youth thinks that he holds all the cards with both brother and sister vying for his attention, the play soon becomes a shameless and unnerving tangle of sex, blackmail, bribery and violence.

Entertaining Mr Sloane was Orton’s first full-length play. It was first staged in 1964.

Fred and Madge

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Written in 1959 when he was only 26 years old, Fred and Madge was Joe Orton’s very first play and has been rarely produced since its composition.

The title characters of the play seem to be the stereotypical middle-aged couple, bored with one another and conversing in clichés. But it turns out that Fred’s job is to push boulders uphill like Sisyphus and Madge’s is to sieve water all day long. Furthermore, since the action is repeatedly interrupted by a quasi-director, it seems they are inhabiting a play about themselves. Soon, it becomes clear that London is becoming subsumed by rampant greenery and the whole cast dreams of escape. Orton’s play zings with sharp one-liners and dialogue that reeks of sexual and social innuendo – a foretaste of his inimitable theatrical style that would eventually turn him into one of Britain’s best-loved playwrights.

Fred and Madge fuses anger with absurdity in its portrait of a working-class couple dehumanised by the relentless routine of their mundane lives. These routines are paralleled by the rituals of the theatre itself, something with which Orton was all too familiar.

Loot

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A black farce masterpiece, Loot follows the fortunes and misfortunes of two young amateur thieves, Hal and Dennis. Dennis is a hearse driver for an undertaker. They have robbed the bank next door to the funeral parlour and have returned to Hal's home to hide-out with the loot. Hal's mother has just died and the pair conceal the money in her coffin, hiding the body in a cupboard. Unluckily the body is discovered by the predatory Fay, who had been nursing Hal’s mother and has now very quickly engaged herself to marry his father. With the arrival of Inspector Truscott, who insists on posing as a man from the Water Board, the thickened plot turns topsy-turvy. Playing with all the conventions of popular farce, Orton creates a world gone mad and examines in detail English attitudes at mid-century.

Loot was first staged in 1965 at Cambridge, and though the first production was not a success, the play soon received acclaim as a masterwork of dark farce and morbid comedy.

The Visitors

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Joe Orton’s The Visitors was written in 1961, just a year before his arrest for defacing library books and two years before writing his masterpiece, Entertaining Mr Sloane.

The play tells the story of the fractious relationship between Kemp and his daughter Mrs Platt. Dying in a hospital, Kemp is visited by his relentlessly cheery and patronising daughter who censors both herself and those around her preventing Kemp from forming any sort of lasting connection with her. To add insult to injury, he is surrounded by a bevy of nurses who also talk in meaningless platitudes and who spend more time fighting than looking after their patients. Kemp is the voice of distrust throughout the play, voicing concern over hollow sentiment and false language. Many critics see in Kemp and Mrs Platt the blueprint for the father/daughter duo of Kemp and Kath in Entertaining Mr Sloane. Indeed, Orton often referenced and rewrote his own work – in The Visitors Mrs Platt mentions in passing many of the characters from his earlier play, Fred and Madge.

The groundwork laid in these early plays would later come into fruition with the success of The Ruffian on the Stair on BBC Radio and later, the first production of Entertaining Mr Sloane at the New Arts Theatre in 1964.

What the Butler Saw

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Orton’s masterpiece of farce is set in a psychiatrist’s office in which sanity is hard to come by. Studded with Orton’s inimitable epigrams and subversive wit, it is a precise frenzy of nudity, sexuality, accidental transvestism and manic pursuit. Orton is always on the attack, parodying psychology, society and farce, even as his characters fall head over heels into farcical panic.

The seed of all the play’s misunderstandings is Dr Prentice’s insistence that interviewing the young Geraldine for a secretarial position involves a full examination in the nude. The interview is interrupted by Mrs Prentice, accompanied by a hotel porter who has her wig, dress and some incriminating photographs. They are interrupted in turn by Rance, who has come to inspect the institution and diagnose everyone in sight with elaborate mental confusions. The characters are forced into increasingly ludicrous contortions and excuses, as the lies and disguises are endlessly escalated into a perfectly plotted climax.

The first performance of What the Butler Saw was in 1969 at the Queen’s Theatre, London.

Picture of Joe Orton

© Lewis Morley Archive – National Portrait Gallery, London

Joe Orton (1933-1967) was an English playwright noted for his black comedies, which combine genteel dialogue with violent and shocking action. Orton left home at 16 to train as an actor. His subversive style of humour first revealed itself in a bizarre incident in 1962, when he and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell were jailed for defacing library books. The two had carefully removed jacket blurbs from middle-brow novels and substituted their own, mostly scatological, counterfeits.

Orton delighted in shocking audiences by breaking taboos surrounding sexuality and death in conventionally structured 'black' farces involving epigrammatic dialogue and frenetic, convoluted plots. Thus, in Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964), a young lodger attempts to lure a woman and her brother into providing him with all he needs, only to find he has become each one's sexual plaything; Loot (1965) is a parody of a detective story involving much comic business with a coffin and a corpse; and What the Butler Saw (1969) stylishly turns farce on its head.

Orton was a flamboyant homosexual in a period before the liberalization of British law, and this side of his life is described in detail in his posthumously published diaries. He was battered to death by Halliwell (who subsequently committed suicide) during a domestic argument at their home in Islington, North London.