Sunday, January 1, 2023

A little pissoir

Joe Orton could have been celebrating his 90th birthday today had he not been murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in 1967! For a brief period in the mid-1960s, before his death, Orton was becoming celebrated among the London literati for his shocking but humorous plays, such as Loot, as well as for his promiscuous homosexuality. The raw details of Orton’s life with Halliwell and the extent of his sexual escapades were fully exposed when his diaries were published in the 1980s.

John Kingsley Orton was born on 1 January 1933 in Leicester, the oldest of five children. He left school at 16, but was admitted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1951 after an audition. There he met Kenneth Halliwell, with whom he to went to live in West Hampstead, and with whom he collaborated on writing novels. For a while, Orton worked as an actor and stage manager, but then he also began writing on his own. In 1959, the couple moved to an Islington bedsitter bought with money inherited by Halliwell.

In 1962, both Orton and Halliwell were sent to prison for a few months for defacing public library books. Once out of prison, Orton took up play writing in earnest. He sold one play to the BBC, and soon after was taken on by literary agent, Peggy Ramsay (who suggested he call himself Joe, rather than John).

By his early 30s, Orton had established a name for himself within a new theatre genre: black comedy. Entertaining Mr Sloane, first produced in London in 1964 and in New York in 1965, shocked audiences with its combination of genteel dialogue and violent sexual drama. Few other plays followed, notably Loot and What the Butler Saw, leading Orton to become something of a society darling. In August 1967, he was beaten to death by Halliwell, whose own failure as a writer and artist was in sharp contrast to Orton’s growing literary and social success. Halliwell committed suicide the same night, dying, in fact, before Orton. See Wikipedia or the Joe Orton
website for more biographical details.

Orton first kept a diary between 1949 and 1951, and then again in the last year of his life. According to the Joe Orton website, the juvenile diaries, ‘reveal an unremarkable young man with a yearning for fame and to break away from the mundanity of everyday working life in Leicester’, while his later diaries chronicle ‘his literary success and many sexual encounters’. It was on top of the latter, a red-grained leather binder of diary pages, that Halliwell left a short note before killing his lover and himself: ‘If you read his diary all will be explained, KH, P.S. Especially the latter part.’

An interesting article, by the theatre critic Michael Thornton, on the Orton-Halliwell dynamic at the time of the murder/suicide can be found at the Daily Mail website. Thornton was a friend of Orton’s at the time, and the article draws on his own diary entries about Orton.

Joe Orton’s diaries were first edited by John Lahr, and published by Methuen in 1986 as The Orton Diaries: Including the Correspondence of Edna Welthorpe and Others. An unabridged republication of the original edition was brought out by Da Capo Press in 1996 - the introduction can be read online at Amazon. Many extracts of the diary are included in John Lahr’s Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton much of which is available to read online at Googlebooks

Here is an (x-rated) extract (just part of one day’s diary entry) from The Orton Diaries (which can also be found in Prick Up Your Ears). The day before, Orton and Halliwell had returned from a short visit to Tripoli.

4 March 1967
‘Spent this morning ringing up P. Willes, Peggy, Michael White and Oscar. [. . .]

I took the Piccadilly line to Holloway Road and popped into a little pissoir - just four pissers. It was dark because somone had taken the bulb away. There were three figures pissing. I had a piss and, as my eyes became used to the gloom, I saw that only one of the figures was worth having - a labouring type with cropped hair and, with cropped hair, wearing jeans and a dark short coat. Another man entered and the man next to the labourer moved away, not out of the place altogether, but back against the wall. The new man had a pee and left the place and, before the man against the wall could return to his place, I nipped in sharpish and stood next to the labourer. I put my hand down and felt his cock, he immediatley started to play with mine. The youngish man with fair hair, standing back against the wall, went into the vacant place. I unbuttoned the top of my jeans and unloosened my belt in order to allow the labourer free rein with my balls. The man next to me began to feel my bum. At this point a fifth man entered. Nobody moved. It was dark. Just a little light spilled into the place from the street, not enough to see immediately. The man next to me moved back to allow the fifth man to piss. But the fifth man very quickly flashed his cock and the man next to me returned to my side, lifting up my coat and shoving his hand down the back of my trousers. The fifth man kept puffing on a cigarette and, by the glowing end, watching. A sixth man came into the pissoir. As it was so dark nobody bothered to move. After an interval (during which the fifth man watched me feel the labourer, the labourer stroked my cock, and the man beside me pulled my jeans down even further) I noticed that the sixth man was kneeling down beside the youngish man with fair hair and sucking his cock. A seventh man came in, but by now nobody cared. The number of people in the place was so large that detection was quite impossible. And anyway, as soon became apparent when the seventh man stuck his head down on a level with my fly, he wanted a cock in his mouth too. For some moments nothing happened. Then an eighth man, bearded and stocky, came in. He pushed the sixth man roughly away from the fair-haired man and quickly sucked the fair-headed man off. The man beside me had pulled my jeans down over my buttocks and was trying to push his prick between my legs. The fair-haired man, having been sucked off, hastily left the place. The bearded man came over and nudged away the seventh man from me and, opening my fly, began sucking me like a maniac. The labourer, getting very excited by my feeling his cock with both hands, suddenly glued his mouth to mine. The little pissoir under the bridge had become the scene of a frenzied homosexual saturnalia. No more than two feet away the citizens of Holloway moved about their ordinary business. I came, squirting into the bearded man’s mouth, and quickly pulled up my jeans. As I was about to leave, I heard the bearded man hissing quietly, ‘I suck people off! Who wants his cock sucked?’ When I left, the labourer was just shoving his cock into the man’s mouth to keep him quiet. I caught the bus home.

I told Kenneth who said, ‘It sounds as though eightpence and a bus down the Holloway Road was more interesting than £200 and a plane to Tripoli.

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 1 January 2013.

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