Two things people always know about Joe Orton is that he was gay, and was murdered by his lover. But there is so much more to his queer legacy, that we still have much to learn from.
Orton was a playwright and author whose work was imbued with themes of sex, death, and homoeroticism.
He wrote at a time when these particular topics shocked his conservative audience. And that was his exact intention.
Murdered by his partner Ken Halliwell 50 years ago in 1967, he died in the same year of the partial decriminalization of gay sex in England and Wales.
Entertaining Mr Sloane – Studio Canal
Parker describes his work as ‘striking and revolutionary.’
It’s because he was writing about same sex relationships at a time when it was illegal to have them. He certainly wasn’t the only gay playwright at the time, both Noel Cowards and Terrance Rattigan are also gay playwrights from the time. They, however, hid their true identity because of the law.
So the fact Joe Orton did, makes his work stand out.
But the homo subtext in his play goes way beyond sex. Parker speaks about his obsession with crime coming from how the law made him a criminal. She says his plays were full of criminality:
‘There are murders, theft all different kind of crimes. His gay characters are criminals; exploring how homosexuality positioned men as criminals – something he then challenges through satire.’
Orton the sexual radical
Because much of what is wrote about Orton’s life focuses on his murder, after a biography and film that did exactly that – it’s easy to see why his work and life blur lines in people memories of the playwright. That’s a mistake in Parker’s view.
‘The biography has a prurient focus on Orton’s sex life, including in toilets as mucky and dirty sex. With a message that this dirty sex leads to death.’
She makes clear, the 1978 biography should also be thought of in the wider context of both Thatcherism and Section 28.
Sometimes also known as clause 28, this Conservative law brought in by Prime Minister Margret Thatcher’s government banned schools and local authorities ‘promoting homosexuality.’
This led to years of teachers being afraid of losing their jobs for just talking about being gay. The stories of the damage this did to young people are numerous.
But it is also an important part of Orton’s story, despite having died over ten years before it came into law; because the playwright’s story became more prominent in the 80s.
Parker highlights how this made Orton and his work a ‘point of resistance in the 80s for those opposing Thatcherism and Tory homophobia.’
Though, he never saw himself as an activist, Orton relished being an outsider, his work was political by its nature.
‘The two facets of his life that are absolutely crucial to his work is he was working class and gay.
‘So he was furious about sexual and social inequality, he focused on class hierarchy, satirizing snobbery and sexual repression.
‘What’s interesting about him is he doesn’t kind of claim a gay identity and then celebrate it. He tries to transcend categories… he was a sexual radical’
His work was ahead of its time
Entertaining Mr. Sloane is considered by many to be his best work. It’s a story of manipulation and repressed sexuality focusing on an intertwined trio of lovers.
In the recently re-released version Beryl Reid (The Assassination Bureau, Star) who plays Kath gives one of her best performances on screen.
The story is a love triangle between a lonely Kath, who spots Mr. Sloane (Peter McCenrey) in a cemetery and invites him to become a lodger. Sloane coyly plays along with her flirtations despite an age difference for his own benefit. Their fun seems over when Kath’s , Then Kath’s prim and proper brother Ed (Harry Andrews) turns up also takes a shine to Sloane mostly because of his tight leather uniform.
When ‘tight’ and ‘leather’ are words describing a pivotal moment in the work, it’s easy to see how homoeroticism can be an obvious theme to pick out of Orton’s work.
But the professor Emma Parker describes Entertaining Mr Sloane as ‘notably different’ to some of his later work:
‘He’s obviously developing his unique style and voice. He hasn’t moved fully into farce. There is a phycological realism that you don’t get in Loot.’
Loot – Studio Canal
Loot on the other hand is where Parker says Orton truly comes into his own.
It is the farcical and satirical look at 20th-century society following a chance a robbery of a bank. With nowhere to hide the loot, they conceal it inside a recently deceased mother’s coffin.
Parker says Orton thought the film was ‘unfilmable’ and even told the director so. However, she says ‘every line is funny.’
‘If someone were writing that today, they’d probably think they have five plays worth of content.
‘He skewers the police, the medical establishment, and the church. Targeting them because they demonize or pathologize homosexuality. You can feel the gay politics in the play.’
A genius ahead of his time
If you are in the camp that loves how some of the LGBTI community has reclaimed queer, then you will have a special level of admiration for Orton.
Parker says what was particularly special about Orton was how he anticipates queer theory and activism.
‘He is writing years before the rise of the gay liberation movement which emerges out of Stonewall in 69.
‘So he leaps frogs that and jumps straight to queer. Everything Queer does is about challenging the norm, the dissolving of binary categories – he does all of that.’
Another thing that makes him such a queer icon, was just how unapologetic he was about his actions.
On example Parker particularly enjoys is when he went to jail for doctoring library book covers. She tells GSN Orton says about this arrest: ‘I know it was wrong, I’m just completely unrepentant.’
The way the professor giggles when repeating this quote shows her level of admiration for the playwright.
However, it goes beyond that. Parker also believes we have much to learn about the queer subtexts in his work even today.
‘People say he’s a 60s playwright and when they look people say it’s dated.’ Parker disagrees, ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane is just as much a play for today. We live in a society and in a historical moment where police corruption is on the rise. Churches still preach homophobia, look at what’s happening in Chechnya!
‘We are seeing gay rights rolled back across the world with conservatism on the rise.
‘That’s why we need Joe Orton’s work more than ever.’