On This Gay Day: Playwright Joe Orton was murdered in 1967

Born John Orton on New Year’s Day in 1933, Orton would adopt the name Joe and go on to become a well known playwright for his scandalous black comedies which included Entertaining Mr Sloane, Loot, Funeral Games and What The Butler Saw. 

Orton’s theatrical career, and life, was cut short in August 1967 when he was murdered by his long term boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell. Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death before taking his own life. Orton was just 38 years old when he was killed.

The pair met as students at the Royal Institute of Dramatic Art in London in the 1950’s. They moved into together and lived off Halliwell’s inheritance. They pair lived on a tight budget and spent most of their time writing novels together or playing pranks.

Orton created an alter-ego Mrs Edna Welthorpe, and he often wrote letters into newspapers claiming to be outraged about the moral decay of society, or wrote to local church halls asking to rent their spaces to rehearse a play called Pansy which he described as being about increasing tolerance of homosexuality.

When he began to find success as a playwright, he often wrote in letters of complaint about his own works under this guise.

Over a period of three years Orton and Halliwell began defacing books at two local libraries, often pasting provocative images from arts works into the books dust jackets. When they were caught the pair were sentenced to six months in prison. The books they damaged are now held in high regard by the library.

In the early 1960’s Orton started to find success with his plays writing for radio and making his breakthrough with Loot in 1965.

Orton’s life came to a tragic end when Halliwell murdered him, repeatedly hitting him with a hammer. Shortly afterwards Halliwell took his own life. Friends later reported that Orton had been planning to break-up with his long term partner.  Halliwell left a note saying “If you read his diary all will be explained”, signing the note K.H, before adding “P.S. Especially the latter part”.

After their deaths, Orton’s diaries were published given an insight into their lives, battles and celebrations.

Orton’s final play What The Butler Saw was first staged in 1969, two years after his death, as were two of his television plays The Good and Faithful Servant and Funeral Games. His novel Head to Toe was published in 1971.

A film Prick Up Your Ears was made about their lives. Based on a biography of the same name by John Lahr, the screenplay was written by Alan Bennett and it was directed by Stephen Frears. Gary Oldman played Orton, while Alfred Molina depicted Halliwell.

Sir Ian McKellen was offered the part of Halliwell and turned it down, saying he needed a break, later he said he greatly regretted the decision.

OIP Staff, This post was first published in 2021.

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