ORTON AND HALLIWELI.
Allan Hunter entertains Messers Frears. Lahr. Redgrave and Molina and discovers how the loot that Mr Orton saw made his butler. l-lalliwell.pr1ck up hrsears.
On 9 August 1967 a distraught Kenneth llalliwell used a hammer to batter to death his slumbering lover Joe Orton. playwright and enfant terrible of the British theatrical scene. Immediately afterwards llalliwell took his own life by swallowing an overdose of barbiturates.
Twenty years on the union ofthis odd couple has become the focus of a brilliant. witty film Prick Up Your Ears written by Alan Bennett and directed by Stephen (My Beautiful Launclreue) Frears. However. the post-mortem into their claustrophobic. self-regarding seesaw relationship began in earnest in 1970 when American biographer John Lahr arrived in Britain to peruse Orton‘s diaries with a view towards editing them for publication.
Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as llalliwell.
Lahr had just spent five years researching and writing Notes on a Cowardly Lion. a bestselling biography of his father. comedian and vaudevillian Bert Lahr who played the cowardly lion in The Wizard of(_)z. He was looking for his next project and began to discern connections between Orton and what he had gleaned about the psychology of comedy when writing about his father. ‘At the end of the book I‘d come to the intellectual conclusion that the impulse for comedy comes out ofa very infantile thing but a wonderful thing when modified by style; it comes out of a desire for revenge and getting even .‘ Ile elaborates; ‘My godfather was Eddie Foy Jr. one of the Seven Little Foys. and when his wife said she was going to leave him he nailed her clothes to the floor. After I'd read
the diaries I felt I understood Orton. When you have him saying things like “much more fucking and there’ll be screaming hysterics in next to no time“ that. to me. was gold because what he's saying is he‘s dreaming of creating a panic. he's dreaming of getting revenge. When clowns sit around and talk about whether they were good or not their language for success is annihilation — ‘I killed 'em. I knocked ’em dead. I laid 'em in the aisles. l slaughtered ‘em.‘ There is that appetite for revenge and here was somebody on the page ofthese diaries who was actually writing it down. I see Orton as being the first person to take that clown‘s impulse for revenge and putting it down in a theatrical dynamic.‘
Whilst Lahr felt he had the key to undertanding Orton and did consider the diaries to be eminently
publishable there was the barrier of ignorance to overcome. The diaries covered the intense climax ofthe Orton-Halliwell relationship but in order to fully appreciate their significance it was essential to know what had gone before. to explore their almost hermetically-sealed world. A diary prequel ofsome sort was required and Lahr remedied the situation by researching and writing a perspicacious and incisive biography called Prick Up Your Ears.
Orton and llalliwell first met in 1951 as fellow students at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. An attraction ofopposites ensued. Orton was an ingratiating. unsophisticated. working-class lad from Leicester. llalliwell was middle-class. older. wealthier and worldlier. They moved into a tiny flat in lslington and spent the next anonymous decade in a futile struggle to impress a resulutely indifferent world with their literary endeavours. Orton acquired a veneer of Halliwell‘s polish and tried to instil his partner with some of the exhilaration he experienced from his promiscuous and then illegal sexual encounters.
With hindsight 1962 marked the turning point in their relationship. Charged with stealing and defacing library books they were jailed for six months and this separation brought about Orton‘s artistic coming ofage. Accordingto Lahr. ‘Something happened to him when he was away from llalliwell. It's there. it is a metabolic thing and it‘s a mystery. He grew up. he found his voice; something happened.‘
Within months of leaving prison Orton wrote a radio play and then Entertaining Mr Sloane was produced in the West End. As his work was acclaimed and fame and fortune were showered upon him.