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LGBT People of History 99 - Joe Orton

Updated on May 10, 2012
Joe Orton
Joe Orton | Source
Joe and Kenneth on holiday
Joe and Kenneth on holiday | Source

Joe Orton

Joe Orton (1933 – 1967) was a controversial playwright of black comedies in the 1960s. His career was cut very short but caused a lot of scandal and outrage. He was quite open about his life including his homosexuality. He had a lifelong relationship with Kenneth Halliwell but would often stray looking for ‘life on the wild side’.

He was born in Leicester, England to William and Elsie Orton. He was asthmatic as a child and because of this missed some schooling. He became a clerk. He joined some Leicester dramatic societies and also tried to ‘improve’ himself by taking elocution lessons, improving his education and doing bodybuilding exercises.

He was accepted into RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London in 1951. There he met Kenneth Halliwell, moved in together and became lovers. Halliwell had inherited money so they were not poor. He was 7 years older than Joe. After RADA they did a bit of rep before moving back to London to write unsuccessful novels. They would work at mundane jobs intermittently and live off Kenneth’s money otherwise.

They would get bored and got up to all sorts of pranks eg defacing library books for which they were convicted and jailed for 6 months. They plastered the walls of their flat with the prints they made. In prison Joe crystallised his ideas of a hypocritical society and broke from Kenneth from a writing perspective.

In the 1960s Joe would become very successful writing plays like ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’, ‘Loot’ and ‘What the Butler Saw’. The staging of these plays was chaotic and at one point Joe and Kenneth took off to Tangier for 3 months. Joe’s success went to his head and Kenneth became jealous. Joe would search out new anonymous sexual conquests as he became more promiscuous. Kenneth hated this.

Joe was murdered by Kenneth before he committed suicide in 1967. Seemingly Joe had found a new boyfriend and Kenneth was becoming more and more depressed and suffered from mystery ailments. Kenneth bludgeoned Joe to death with a hammer and then committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. They were cremated and their ashes were mixed and buried together.

John Lahr wrote an explicit biography of Joe and Kenneth’s life entitled ‘Prick up Your Ears’ which was made into a movie in 1987 starring Gary Oldman as Joe.

A very unfortunate end to a very promising career.

Ian and Callum.

With thanks to Wikipedia and Ian’s memory.


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    • alian346 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Hi there, Ann.

      Thanks for your comment and votes.

      Joe was certainly a controversial character for his time but wrote some amazing plays which are still performed - a true sign of greatness. The shame is that he didn't live to write more.


    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      6 years ago from SW England

      It's really interesting to find out the background to these people we know of but rarely study. Joe Orton certainly made a name for himself with his works but I knew nothing of his personal background. Well done. Voted up and interesting.

    • alian346 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Thank you for the visit, Pam.

      You're absolutely right about Joe and Kenneth. I often wonder what other plays may have been written had Joe lived.


    • Pamela-anne profile image


      6 years ago from Miller Lake

      I enjoyed the read but this was such a tragedy with such a brutal end to Joe's life. It was obvious that Kenneth had a mind set that if he couldn't have Joe's love no one would thus brutaly killing Joe and then killing himself because he couldn't live without Joe, how sad. Take care pam.

    • alian346 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Thank you, Linda, for your comment and for reading the article. The book I mention is quite explicit and basically describes how as Joe went 'up', Kenneth came 'down' and the result was devastating.

      You put it so well!


    • cherriquinn profile image


      6 years ago from UK. England. Newcastle upon Tyne

      What a very sad situation for both men. Passion and jealousy can be a frightening parallel. With such powerful emotions and Joe's eventual success it would have been so difficult for Kenneth to maintain any kind of sanity. And what a truly awful end for Joe. A tragic situation.


    • alian346 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Yeah - poor Kenneth had his problems and couldn't handle the situation.


    • calpol25 profile image


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland, UK (At Home With My Wonderful Partner)

      Such a sad end... :(


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