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AUGUST 9th

On this day in history in 1967, died Joe Orton.

Orton was a prankster, petty criminal and satirical playwright whose morbid plays captured the public imagination and led to the coining of the word Ortonesque, meaning  macabre.

John Kingsley Orton was born on 1st January 1933, at Leicester, one of four children. His father was a council worker, his mother worked in a shoe factory until she contracted tuberculosis. The family lived on a council estate in Leicester. Young Ortonís childhood was plagued by asthma and, despite his obvious intelligence, he did not do well at school and left aged 14 to take up a position as a clerk.

Orton joined the Leicester Dramatic Society and became involved in numerous productions, neglecting his work in the process and getting himself dismissed in 1950. Being unemployed, he took the opportunity to apply for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), for which he was accepted and moved to London in 1951.

When at RADA, Orton met Kenneth Halliwell, a fellow student, and the two became amorously involved, sharing a flat in Islington. After graduating from RADA, Orton went into a repertory work with only moderate success. With Halliwell, he turned to writing and produced several novels, none of which interested the publishers. Having little to occupy them, they amused themselves with a series of hoaxes, usually involving a character named Edna Welthorpe, a persona whose disgust at the mores of the Sixties enlightened the letters columns of the local newspapers. Another prank involved borrowing books from the local library and adding scurrilous comments to the pages. In May 1962, they were prosecuted and sentenced to six months imprisonment. Ironically, the books that they vandalised are now a priceless part of the collection of Islington Library and are occasionally exhibited and heavily insured.

In 1963, Orton started to write plays. His work was unconventional and outrageous in its portrayal of violence, corruption and sexual avarice, but modified by the black comic undertones which pervaded the compositions. He had some success with the radio play, The Ruffian on the Stair, which was followed by Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot and What the Butler Saw. By 1964, Ortonís works were appearing in the West End and he had achieved long awaited success. He was able to sell the film rights for Loot for a considerable sum and was now financially, as well as artistically, secure.

Meanwhile, Halliwell was descending into depression, suffering from physical and mental complaints, and behaving in an increasingly bizarre manner, almost like a character in one of Ortonís plays. On 9th August, 1967, Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer, and then committed suicide by a drugs overdose. Orton and Halliwell had a joint funeral at Golders Green Crematorium, where their ashes were mingled before being scattered. [Plot 3C. Golders Green Crematorium, Hoop Lane, London, NW11 7NL]

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