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.’

The day before the funeral, Orton picks up a labourer (‘a navy-blue coat with leather across the shoulders’) and has sex with him in a derelict house (‘I put it between his legs’). After the funeral, he sodomises an Irishman with some difficulty:

as I lay on the bed looking upwards, I noticed what an amazing ceiling it was. Heavy moulding, a centrepiece of acorns and birds painted blue. All cracked now. Must’ve been rather a fine room once.

Back in London, Orton produces his mother’s false teeth for the cast of Loot – ‘I said to Kenneth Cranham: “Here, I thought you’d like the originals.” ’ In Loot, a dead mother’s teeth function briefly as castanets – a macabre comic prop to match the glass eye which rolls around disturbingly. Cranham ‘looked very sick’, as well he might, though Orton was making a literary point – defending his play against the charge that it was a fantasy. Going over the same ground with Peter Willes, Orton reports: ‘he suddenly caught a glimpse of the fact that I write the truth.’

In a way, there are no surprises here. This is exactly how we expect the playwright Orton to behave. Outrageously. Heartlessly. However, it is worth noting that his sister’s account of his behaviour appears to be a fabrication, if the diaries are to be trusted. Before going to Leicester, Orton writes: ‘as the corpse is downstairs in the main living-room it means going out or watching television with death at one’s elbow. My father, fumbling out of bed in the middle of the night, bumped into the coffin and almost had the corpse on the floor.’ But when this connoisseur of the grotesque arrives, the body ‘isn’t at home as I’d supposed. It’s laid out in a Chapel of Rest.’ Once there, Orton merely feels his mother’s hand and notices its coldness:

Mum quite unrecognisable without her glasses. And they’d scraped her hair back from her forehead. She looked fat, old and dead. They’d made up her face. When I asked about this the mortician said: ‘Would you say it wasn’t discreet then, sir?’ I said: ‘No. It seems all right to me.’ ‘We try to give a lifelike impression,’ he said. Which seems a contradiction in terms somehow. I’ve never seen a corpse before. How cold they are.

As we encounter the admission ‘I’ve never seen a corpse before,’ we reflect that Loot is fantasy and suddenly catch a glimpse of Orton writing more than the truth, or less than the truth. Which is why the play’s hectic hyperbole is frankly tedious compared to the bleak notation here:

We all went to the Chapel of Rest. It’s a room, bare, whitewashed. Muted organ music from a speaker in the corner. The coffin lid propped up against a wall. It said, ‘Elsie Mary Orton, aged 62 years’. Betty said: ‘They’ve got her age wrong, see. Your Mum was 63. You should tell them about that. Put in a complaint.’ I said: ‘Why? It doesn’t matter now.’ ‘Well,’ said Betty, ‘you want it done right, don’t you? It’s what you pay for.’

This dispassionate account of his mother’s funeral, once Leonie Orton’s hectic embellishment has been removed, irresistibly calls up the opening of L’Etranger: ‘Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.’ Like an early McEwan narrator, Meursault approaches every event with democratic and innocent pedantry. At his mother’s funeral, Meursault smokes, drinks coffee, and during the all-night vigil by the coffin, falls asleep. He shows no emotion and, confronted by the tears of Pérez, his mother’s last ‘boyfriend’, sees only that ‘because of the wrinkles they couldn’t flow down. They spread out, criss-crossed, and formed a sort of glaze over the old, worn face.’ The next day, Meursault swims, takes a girl to a Fernandel comedy, and starts an affair with her. When he kills the Arab on the beach, he is conscious ‘only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife’. The Arab scarcely features, just as the ugly Scotsman comes second to the whitewash on Orton’s sleeve.

For the public prosecutor, Meursault is ‘an inhuman monster wholly without moral sense’. For Camus, writing an introduction to an American university edition, Meursault is unambiguously heroic:

readers have been tempted to look on him as a piece of social wreckage. A much more accurate idea of the character, or, at least, one much closer to the author’s intentions, will emerge if it is asked just how Meursault refuses to conform. The reply is a simple one: he refuses to lie. To lie is not only to say what is not the case. It also, above all, means saying more than is the case, and, as far as the human heart is concerned, more than we feel. It is what we all do, every day, to simplify life.

Because Meursault refuses conventional pretence, Camus endows him with ‘a passion for the absolute and for truth’, despite the murder he has committed – a murder which is artistically functional because, without it, Meursault can never be tried by society for his other ‘crimes’. The murder is a mistake, a bald contrivance, try as Camus does to blame it on the sun. Camus’s alibi for Meursault is neat – he wouldn’t have had the murder weapon in his possession had he not seized it to avoid trouble in the first place – but the alibi cannot expunge the guilt. At the centre of L’Etranger, there is not an ambiguity, but an artistic mess. We are asked to admire a murderer.

Orton, having been murdered, at least escapes this problem. Yet he isn’t wholly exonerated as a man of absolute truth, speaking the unspeakable. The plays, for all that Orton demurs, are fantastications of the truth, the truth that there isn’t much in this world which can properly be called ‘normal’. Writing to Glenn Loney about The Good and Faithful Servant, Orton obliquely shows his trump card: ‘I don’t know what the average member of the public (if he exists) is going to say.’ If he exists.

The average family is another favourite target. Justly enough, when you consider, say, the 1974 BBC series The Family which documented a Reading family, the Wilkinses, over a number of weeks – and discovered that their youngest child, Christopher, was the deliberate result of an extra-marital affair; that Karen and Gary married at 16 because Karen was pregnant; that another daughter, Heather, was going to marry a black boy; that yet another daughter, Marion, had sexual relations with her boyfriend in her parents’ house. None of which is in any way reprehensible. Yet, without being surprising, or even out of the ordinary, the Wilkins family could hardly be described as typical or average – any more than any other family, in all probability. Orton grasped this but exaggerated his insight. In What the butler saw, Dr Prentice attempts to seduce his new secretary, Geraldine. Mrs Prentice has actually succeeded with Nick, the page-boy at the Station Hotel. Not that it matters (since the play is the theatrical equivalent of pure mathematics), Geraldine and Nick are their lost twin children, the result of a rape by Dr Prentice on Mrs Prentice before, so to speak, they were introduced and married. The rape, in case you were wondering, took place in a dark linen cupboard at the Station Hotel.

Entertaining Mr Sloane toys with a similar incestuous sub-text. In the main plot, the 40-year-old nymphomaniac Kath shares the murderous orphan, Mr Sloane, with her homosexual brother, Eddie. However, there are broad hints that Mr Sloane is Kath’s adopted child. And there are slighter hints that Eddie may be the father of Kath’s adopted child. The other candidate for fatherhood is Eddie’s adolescent friend, Tommy. Problems of censorship confuse things here. Eddie’s father hasn’t spoken to him for twenty years, after finding him ‘committing some kind of felony in the bedroom’ – with either Tommy or Kath. A twenty-year silence indicates incest rather than homosexuality and, increasingly, the friend looks more and more like a ‘friend’, a fiction to deflect blame. Essentially, though, these complications belong to what was once called Whitehall farce. Orton’s variant, Soho farce, is the same thing with knobs on and a good deal less clear.

In his diaries, Orton is freer to let material take its own shape. He has fewer designs on the truth, is less concerned to make it fit a dramatic timetable. He can afford to be laconic and meticulous. At the time of his mother’s funeral, for instance, Orton also records that he has to shave his father because the old man is too upset. He tries to get him admitted to a hospital where he will be properly cared for. A footnote tells us that Orton kept all his mother’s letters (‘when the ambnleance came to fetch me they saw the specialist come and the doctor so I caused a little exsiment’) – kept them and dated them.

The funniest moment in Orton’s entire oeuvre comes in these diaries. It is a very long account of a disastrous trip to Libya. He and Halliwell came back the next day. They didn’t like it there and saw no reason to stay and pretend. Meursault would have done the same thing. On their return, a few hundred pounds poorer, Orton went to the Criterion, regaled the cast with his misadventures, then popped into a pissoir near Holloway Road: ‘It was dark because somebody had taken the bulb away. There were three figures pissing. I had a piss and, as my eyes became used to the gloom, I saw that only one of the figures was worth having – a labouring type ...’ Overtures are made, there is some jockeying for position, groping begins:

At this point a fifth man entered. Nobody moved. It was dark. Just a little light spilled into the place from the street, not enough to see immediately. The man next to me moved back to allow the fifth man to piss. But the fifth man very quickly flashed his cock and the man next to me returned to my side, lifting up my coat and shoving his hand down the back of my trousers. The fifth man kept puffing on a cigarette and, by the glowing end, watching. A sixth man came into the pissoir.

And then a seventh man. And finally an eighth, ‘bearded and stocky’, who ‘pushed the sixth man roughly away from the fair-haired man and quickly sucked the fair-haired man off’. The fair-headed one quickly leaves and

the bearded man came over and nudged away the seventh man from me and, opening wide my fly, began sucking me like a maniac ... I came, squirting into the bearded man’s mouth, and quickly pulled up my jeans. As I was about to leave, I heard the bearded man hissing quietly: ‘I suck people off! Who wants his cock sucked?’ When I left, the labourer was just shoving his cock into the man’s mouth to keep him quiet.

And then Halliwell supplies the punch line:‘I told Kenneth who said: “It sounds as though eightpence and a bus down the Holloway Road was more interesting than £200 and a plane to Tripoli.” ’

For this kind of sexual farce, Orton has found the ideal medium. And it isn’t the stage. There, the kinds of truth that Orton was uniquely equipped to tell couldn’t possibly be told – merely gestured at, flamboyantly. The Orton Diaries are undeniably impressive, given the risk they take. When Joyce wrote Ulysses, Orwell commented that it was ‘a matter of daring just as much of technique – to expose the imbecilities of the inner mind’. Orton exposes the imbecilities of the outer body: ‘he made a motion to the dwarfish creature, rather as someone would call a taxi. The dwarf sucked me off while the other man smiled benevolently.’ Moreover, while Joyce guessed that his mental imbecilities were widely shared, Orton must have known he was in a special category among homosexuals. Halliwell, one guesses, made the point brutally.

All the same, my hypothesis would be that Halliwell disapproved of Orton’s promiscuity much less than critics generally suppose. In Tangier, they were promiscuous together. ‘We sat talking of how happy we both felt and of how it couldn’t, surely, last. We’d have to pay for it.’ And pay they did – largely, I think, because Halliwell eventually became disgusted. ‘ “I sometimes think I’m against all you stand for,” Kenneth said. “When I’m not here you won’t be able to write in this flip way.” ’ Finally, though Halliwell claimed to be disgusted by homosexuals – an assertion which, rightly, baffled Orton – it was something else which disgusted him. When two homosexuals, Tom and Clive, stray into their ménage, they treat Halliwell ‘like shit’ and are only interested in Orton’s celebrity. Orton is without illusions: ‘their simpering over me was all you can expect from people like that. I saw through it. You saw through it.’ Halliwell came to hate the way Orton saw through everything. Orton was what Bellow’s Herzog calls a reality-instructor. A man, in other words, whose idea of the truth is restricted to what is nasty. Nothing is noble. There are no finer feelings. The incident confirms Orton in his unremittingly low opinion of life, whereas poor Halliwell yearns for something better – something which will soothe his literary and sexual envy. At this point, Orton isn’t neutral like Meursault. He is gratified, like Iago – a role Halliwell couldn’t bear to see adopted by someone he cared for, and who, the diaries make clear, cared for him.