Joe Orton came 16th this year in the National Theatre’s poll of the hundred top playwrights of the century. Not bad for someone who failed the 11-plus, spent six months in prison, and was bludgeoned to death at the age of 34. He wrote Between Us Girls in 1957, after he had ended a period of collaboration with his lover and mentor Kenneth Halliwell. A classics scholar and failed actor, Halliwell was devoted to the gay literary canon avant la lettre, and had tutored Orton in the homosexual literary tradition from the Greeks to Genet. ‘Together,’ Francesca Coppa writes in her excellent introduction to the book, ‘they attempted to write works with a distinctively homosexual sensibility, and their early novels are all profoundly influenced by the style of Halliwell’s literary idol, Ronald Firbank.’ They co-authored five ponderously Firbankian novels, camply titled Lord Cucumber, The Silver Bucket, The Mechanical Womb, The Last Days of Sodom and The Boy Hairdresser. None ever made it into print.
Between Us Girls, however, is a funny and colloquial diary novel in three sections, detailing the adventures of a young London actress named Susan Hope, as she moves from the chorus line at the Rainier Revuebar in Soho, to a Mexican whorehouse that is half-Marx Brothers, half-Genet, to fame as a Hollywood movie star. In the first part of the novel, Orton establishes a comic voice for Susan as the self-styled ingénue in a world of cheap bedsits, desperate gay alcoholics and sexual decadence. Some of the details of Susan’s daily life are borrowed from Dorothy Parker’s Diary of a New York Lady, written in the Forties and subtitled ‘During Days of Horror, Despair and World Change’. Parker’s empty-headed, self-centred diarist has a marriage on the rocks (‘Joe left word with the butler he’s going to the country this afternoon for the weekend; of course he wouldn’t stoop to say what country’), and spends her days gossiping on the phone and primping for the evening’s drunken party to which, invariably failing to attract a new ‘number’, she will take her dependable gay walker, Ollie Martin. The interchangeable parties feature the same ‘divine Hungarian musicians in green coats’, and the life of the party, Stewie Hunter, who dresses up in various costumes and leads the band with a shoe, a fork, or a lamp or a freesia. By the end of the week, Stewie Hunter has had a nervous break-down, Ollie Martin is crying uncontrollably, and she is still cursing her manicurist Miss Rose, who always gives her the wrong colour nail polish (‘Damn Miss Rose!’). Meanwhile she is ignorant of the war and events around her: ‘started to read a book but too nervous,’ ‘looked at the papers but nothing in them.’
Orton’s Susan is a sweeter and lighter presence, whose reactions to the events of her life are more naive than narcissistic. ‘I think I’m going crazy!’ she declares. ‘At the hairdresser’s Miss Fleur gave me the most awful restyle. Just terrible.’ Susan spends her evenings with life-of-the-party Monty Woodward, who dresses up in women’s clothes and pretends to be Lucrezia Borgia or Cleopatra. She has to take him home after one party when he is ‘feeling ill’. Susan is genuinely thrilled when she gets a part in Little by Little at the Rainier Revuebar. She is tolerant of the wisecracks and innuendos of Lottie, the lesbian pianist, and is delighted when Lottie invites her to join a group of girls going out to ‘entertain’ at a club in Mariposa by the Mexican-US border. Her gullibility resembles that of Orton’s genteel Mrs Edna Wellthorpe, under whose name he wrote letters to the newspapers denouncing the immorality of the modern stage.
Yet Susan is also a pushover for almost any man who makes the effort, and gets herself into many situations where she realises too late that rape is inevitable: ‘I screamed, I struggled, but it was no use. I was so weak and he was strong.’ This sensible resignation stands her in good stead in Mariposa, where she and the other English girls are driven to the remote and fortress-like Casa de las Conchas by the madam, Señora Josepha, and a black chauffeur, and suddenly the light dawns. ‘We sat quite still each one thinking her own thoughts. The doves cooed. The breeze ruffled the water. And I remembered – so many little things.’ The brothel is a lot like a West End theatre, Susan hopefully notes. They are costumed as an English rose or a Persian princess, a schoolgirl in a gymslip or a nun. The eager customers are members of the local police force.
Eventually, with the help of Bob Kennedy, a young man from London, Susan escapes white slavery, and makes it to Hollywood, where she becomes a star. By the novel’s end, she has married the glamorous Kennedy and given up her career. A beautiful brooding bisexual with a knack for getting into fights, Kennedy, Francesca Coppa suggests, is the precursor of Orton’s theatrical ruffians and gigolos, and an appetising model for the persona he would create for himself – ‘the successful playwright as swaggering hooligan, ex-convict, working-class tough in a leather jacket’.
The two plays, Fred & Madge and The Visitors, are among Orton’s earliest tries, and their dazzling dialogue shows how quickly he mastered the form. The first, written in 1959 when he was 26, is a brilliant, if incoherent, mix of Pinteresque cliché, Beckettian absurdity, Brechtian self-reflexivity and his own carnivalesque sense of farce. Fred and Madge are a middle-aged married couple exchanging banalities about their lives, but then we learn that their jobs have a classic futility that reflects Orton’s own hatred for menial and domestic labour. Fred pushes a boulder up a ramp; Madge and her friends carry water in a sieve; and they are training their daughter Janice to be a housewife: ‘She’s learning to scrub floors; to scrub and polish and cook – it’s a job with a future.’ Unfortunately Janice has plans of her own. She ‘wants to be bound to a wheel and to go careering on and on round and round until she drops’. Madge’s friends disapprove of such outlandish ambition: ‘Jobs for women are scarce. Whereas the chances of women making a success of water-sieving are good.’ Meanwhile, a director named Sykes periodically climbs up on the stage to rearrange the set and to comment on the action. The play ends in a utopian fantasy of escape to India.
The Visitors, written in 1961, is more conventional in form. The dying Kemp is visited in hospital by his daughter Mrs Platt, who joins the nurse in meeting all his complaints with platitudes of good cheer: ‘We’ll have you skipping about in no time!’ Both the BBC and the Royal Court were impressed by The Visitors, but concluded that it needed more plot and shape. Yet both plays read as if they had just been written, and are wittier than most of what gets staged in the West End. Now that they have finally been published, I hope some enterprising director will undertake a production.