His diary of the last year of his life by rebellious British playwright Joe Orton (1933-67) is absorbing. Usually, I can only read a few entries from a published diary at a time, but I read directly through Orton’s. One surprise was the extent to which he was reading Restoration Age (British) comedy. Other readers may find the casual sex (in Britain and in Morocco) shocking, but Orton was considerably less promiscuous than many other young and successful gay men (then or now) He rarely had more than one partner a day, and preferred getting to know partners to getting off and getting on. Even in Morocco, he more or less settled down with one lad (Mohammed Yellow-shirt) and was not multi-orgasmic.
The dialog he recorded from riding trams, conversing and overhearing neighbors reinforces his claim that his work was “naturalistic. The outrageousness of characters and speech in his plays were to a considerable extent observed, outlandish and absurdist though they seem.
Although there are intimation of – indeed, some things that seem close to being hopes for – mortality, there is nothing to make the last weeks of the Orton-Halliwell relationship more ominous than earlier times recorded in his journal. Orton took suggestions from Halliwell on “What the Butler Saw” after their Moroccan vacation, and still valued Halliwell’s literary advice There was no increase in whoring around. Both of them knew that “Butler” was his/their best work yet. What pushed Kenneth Halliwell over the edge to bludgeon Orton’s head in remains mysterious from the record Orton left.
Editor and Orton biographer John Lahr manages some sympathy for Halliwell as a “wife spurned” and marginalized as the husband succeeds (like T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, et al.) There are too many annotations of trivial points, but there are also some quirky out-takes Lahr did not use in his biography, Prick Up Your Ears: these enliven many of the notes. IMHO, the diary outshines more than supplements Prick Up Your Ears. Though I would not accuse Lahr of heterosexism, even in The Bad Old Days, Orton was more comfortable with discussing same-sex sex than Lahr writing decades later.
Orton’s mind was interesting, and his matter-of-face reporting worked well in the diary, just as playing his theatrical pieces “straight” brings out the looniness of British institutions and individuals. His diary shows, as did his plays, that he had an ear for absurdity, especially in its pompous respectable (Mrs. Grundy) style.
Orton was certainly on top of what everyone involved with the theatre in Britain was doing (as well as on the top of his own game). By the time of his death, he was well-read, at least in drama, and had a very sure taste.
For social historical reportage, the diaries tell what British repression was like for one renegade from it, and what Moroccan boys would do with foreigners. (Who knows what they did with each other or with local elders? I don’t think that Orton much cared, though he was curious about how others thought and behaved.)
Orton and Halliwell lived in a small bed-sitter, but did not live “in the closet,” even in a country where sodomy was a crime until the year of their deaths. Orton, at least, was gay (before Stonewall across the pond), not a homosexual trying to keep his homosexuality invisible. Whether he is a “gay martyr” is a more complicated matter I won’t undertake exploring, though this review is one of my June “gay freedom” (a process and aspiration) postings.