The Story of Joe

Craig Raine

  • The Orton Diaries edited by John Lahr
    Methuen, 307 pp, £12.50, November 1986, ISBN 0 413 49660 0

When Joe Orton was in Tangier, he noted down the following exchange:

‘You like to be fucked or fuck?’ he said. ‘I like to fuck, wherever possible,’ I said. He leaned across and said in a confidential tone: ‘I take it.’ ‘Do you?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘up to the last hair.’ ‘You speak very good English,’ I said.

Though Orton is aroused, his attention is undeflected. He records the tiny linguistic shock, too, his pleasure in the unexpectedly supple grasp of idiom. On the evidence of these diaries, the flight-recorder, the black box present in all writers, was particularly efficient in Joe Orton. In his plays, the tapes are doctored and played at impossible speeds to produce situations which are heightened, undifferentiated and much less interesting – a scream, in fact. Orton criticised Oscar Wilde for putting his genius into his life instead of his art, but has copied him in this, as in so much else. The plays are a glittering shambles – no longer absurdist, just absurd. Their aerosol polish no longer dazzles and their subject-matter has ceased to shock even Orton’s middle-class invention, the permanently outraged Edna Welthorpe. The diaries, however, are still effective, because they are less affected. Here, the gaze is unblinking and truthful.

For example, just before Christmas 1966, Orton met ‘an ugly Scotsman who said he liked being fucked. He took me somewhere in his car and I fucked him up against a wall.’ An ordinary participant, an ugly Scotsman perhaps, might have stopped there, or discussed his feelings. Orton concludes: ‘the sleeve of my rainmac is covered with white-wash from the wall. It won’t come off.’ All emotion, all sensation, is edited out. But the scene is there – horribly vivid, carefully written. Because Orton’s prose is naturally flat and economical, the pose is perfunctory.

Was Orton heartless? ‘We were just too late to miss a man who’d decided to commit suicide by jumping from the window of New Zealand House. They caught him unfortunately.’ Does this represent the inhuman in all human beings? – what Keats, in another context, called ‘the feel of not to feel’. The consensus is that Orton was a promiscuous and chilly sensualist – so unable to empathise with Kenneth Halliwell, the literary mentor and sexual partner he had decisively outgrown, that Halliwell was driven to hammer the point home. Before taking the 22 nembutals which killed him, Halliwell left a suicide note: ‘If you read his diary all will be explained. K.H. P.S. Especially the latter part.’ In fact, the diaries only complicate the picture – particularly Orton’s reputed lack of feelings. When Halliwell is threatening suicide, Orton suddenly erupts: ‘I won’t have you monopolising the agony market.’ Elsewhere, he cheers up Kenneth Williams, who is ‘low and depressed’, and criticises him on another occasion for possible tactlessness – talking too freely in front of his own mother. Williams is a good character witness: ‘What is heart? If we’re talking about compassion and sympathy, I’d say Joe had it. He showed tremendous loyalty to Halliwell.’ And while Peggy Ramsay, Orton’s agent, noted that ‘he didn’t give a damn about anybody else,’ the exception was Halliwell: ‘Joe had only one overwhelming relationship allied to loyalty, and that was to Ken.’ Orton’s first money earned as a playwright was spent on two wigs for Halliwell’s baldness: ‘he chose a style with a rather endearing forelock’ and Halliwell’s difficult personality improved. One person, Peter Willes, then head of drama at Rediffusion, is prepared to say of Orton that ‘he did not have a heart’ – only to continue, ‘but I loved what was there instead, which was infinite kindness and good manners.’ And the diaries record several straightforwardly human moments, mainly of pity for the old and unwanted – actresses whose beauty has disappeared, a totally isolated old woman whose body rots undiscovered for days, a desolate busker. ‘How awful,’ Orton shudders, much like the rest of us, ‘to be alone in a house knowing that no one cared when you died.’

And yet. The diaries begin with his mother’s funeral in 1966. Leonie Orton, Joe’s sister, told James Fox of the Sunday Times:

He nearly had mother out of her coffin ... He was picking her head up. ‘What’s all this brown stuff?’; ‘try and get her rings off.’ I said: ‘I don’t want to.’ He said: ‘I do.’ He wanted to see her feet, he was opening her dressing gown. ‘It’s incredible,’ he said, ‘doesn’t she look bizarre.’ The kids were screaming and I said: ‘For Christ’s sake leave her alone.’

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