Today in London history: Subversive playwright Joe Orton murdered by his jealous boyfriend, Islington, 1967.

The wicked and subversive playwright, Joe Orton, was murdered on August 9th 1967 in their Islington flat by his jealous and depressed boyfriend Ken Halliwell, who then committed suicide. It was a tragic end to a life full of rebellious and outrageous promise, a career of provocation which was really just taking flight…

Orton is celebrated for a series of sharp, dark, farcical, sexually charged plays like Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloan and What the Butler Saw, works that outraged the taboos of the still somewhat staid society of the time and tilted head on at hypocrisy, morality, class hierarchies and authority figures.

“While often described as ‘promising’, the posthumous success of his plays reveal a far greater talent. With What the Butler Saw, Orton had matured into satirical and farcical master, who was prepared to speak the unspeakable and tackle society’s taboos and hypocrisy head on. Orton rejected conventional morality and followed his own path, both with his works and his life.

There is a danger that Orton’s private life could overshadow his work, as his life story could be a script from one of his own plays: semi-literate, working class boy suffering years of penury and rejection sent to prison; a promiscuous homosexual in an age when it was both illegal and actively persecuted by the police; success, wealth and awards, ending with murder. 

Orton’s life is undeniably bound up with his work, but it cannot be forgotten that the most successful period of his life, 1963 to 67, were also years of major social and political change. As Dr Francesca Coppa writes:

‘Orton was a young man in the midst of an exploding youth culture…working class at a time when the working classes were forming an alternative British intelligentsia.’ “

But our favourite Orton is the one he and Halliwell created together, collaboratively.

‘Libraries might as well not exist; they’ve got endless shelves for rubbish and hardly any space for good books.’ Orton, 1967.

Before Orton became famous as a writer, he and Ken Halliwell had already gained public notoriety together. In 1962 they were jailed for six months and fined for theft and malicious damage, having been convicted of stealing books from the local Essex Road Library.

Orton late hinted they had been sparked off by the poor choice of books available at the Library. Over three years they had been altering book covers, adding lewd new blurbs to dust jackets, swapping heads and pasting in surreal and satirical collage – then replacing books secretly on the shelves. They also used torn out illustrations to decorate the walls of their Noel Road flat with a growing collage.

These acts of guerrilla artwork were an early indication of Orton’s desire to shock and provoke. His targets were the genteel middle classes, authority and defenders of ‘morality’, against whom much of Orton’s later written work would rail against.

‘I used to stand in the corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch people read them. It was very fun, very interesting.’

Islington Library did not share the joke and set about tracking the culprits down. They had been suspected for some time and extra staff had been drafted to catch the culprits, but with no success.

“They were eventually caught by the careful detective work of Sydney Porrett, a senior clerk with Islington Council. A letter was sent to Halliwell asking him to remove an illegally parked car. Their typed reply matched typeface irregularities in the defaced books and the men were caught… On April 28th 1962 police raided the flat and Orton and Halliwell were arrested. They were charged with stealing 72 books and removal of 1,653 plates from art books, used to decorate the flat. Pleading guilty to 5 charges of malicious damage at Islington Magistrates they were sentenced to 6 months in prison. This seemed a harsh sentence and later Orton commented that the court had realised they were gay and that the severity of the sentence was because we were queers’. “

In the way that acts of rebellion that in one decade get you sent down, but a few years pass and it becomes a fond memory… The book covers that Orton and Halliwell vandalised have since become a valued part of the Islington Local History Centre collection. Some are exhibited in the Islington Museum. The same local authority that prosecuted them now lionises them… A cynic might say that of course, Joe Orton later went on to become famous, and died, so he can be used to sell Islington a little as a tourist attraction, while if some ordinary bod did the same as Ken and Joe today they’d still get prosecuted. Rebellious acts of any stripe can be acceptable – as long as they’re safely in the past. Good job we’re not cynics.

It has been suggested that the two different prison experiences of Halliwell and Orton mark the beginning of the diverging of their fortunes that would end in Ken bludgeoning Joe to death five years later. Orton found prison useful in pulling together his view of the world, and the lesson seems to have set him on his way to his onslaught on social mores. Ken’s already depressive nature only grew more marked and more morose; Orton’s increasing success as the 60s went on highlighted to him both how he was not making something of himself, but also how Joe was drifting away from the relationship. Although the murder and suicide of August 1967 casts a long shadow backward… I always think of them both when I visit Essex Road library… 

Here’s a good website on Joe Orton’s life and death

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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