Orton: Entertaining Sex, Violence and Counter Culture
by Christian Baines
There was something about the British youth culture that fascinated and terrified the mainstream in the 1960s. Whether it was the fear of dystopian moral decay by way of the Rolling Stones, or some misguided fear that the frightfully un-British hippy movement would fuse with that anger to create a countercultural monster, or the near obsession with graphic sex and gore-soaked violence that defined the horror films of Hammer and other studios... the message of overarching paranoia was clear.
Britain was doomed. The kids would destroy us all.
Many of Britain’s writers clearly and memorably shaped these fears into characters –often sexually active and engaging young men – such as Alexander DeLarge of A Clockwork Orange, or on stage, Joe Orton’s Mr Sloane, who returns to stalk Soulpepper Theatre under the redoubtable directing hand of Brendan Healy from July 5.
My introduction to Entertaining Mr Sloane and Orton came in the form of a community theatre production in 2003. Billed as part of Brisbane’s Pride festival, it won me over immediately with its slow burning sense of rising anarchy, and its willingness to teeter on what – for the time – were the boundaries of sexuality and sudden violence. Ten years on, the memory of that production’s screeching, desperate, yet pitifully lonely Kath and the smarmy, yet irrepressibly seductive Sloane remain vivid in my theatregoing memory.
Within a week or two I’d also learned the fate of Joe Orton. In his prime at 34, the playwright was bludgeoned to death by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell in a jealous rage that would prove final for both of them. Halliwell ended his own life immediately after, with a cocktail of Nembutal and canned grapefruit. According to investigators, Orton outlived him – at least in body – by mere hours.
If the playwright had come to such an end today, one might expect the tabloid press to carry sordid headlines about Orton’s fascination with rough trade catching up with him (Tabloids covering theatre? I know, I know. Just go with me on this!). But more accurately, it was by all accounts Orton’s preference for random encounters with ‘rough trade’ that fuelled his arguments with Halliwell, who longed for a less ‘open’ (and frankly, less dangerous) arrangement.
Far from keeping to his personal life, Orton’s obsession with handsome young thugs comes through again and again in Sloane, The Ruffian on the Stair, and Loot among others. This archetype, so feared by his British peers, Orton found both sexually exciting and artistically stimulating.
Many of his young toughs are sexually ‘flexible’
What can be read into that? Many of his young toughs are sexually ‘flexible’ to say the least, and this fluidity is played to varying degrees across different productions. In Sloane, it’s inescapable. The young man’s bisexuality (or assumed bisexuality – whether by nature or convenience) is central to the play’s primary conflict, between siblings Ed and Kath. And for many, there is something inherently attractive about an image so thoroughly – even brutally – masculine being painted queer.
It’s made all the more attractive by its defiance of stereotype. In Orton’s time particularly, Gays were typically portrayed only as predators or sissies. By choosing a sexually ambiguous character to symbolize a youth culture rising out of control, writers could combine two all-pervasive fears within British society. The result? A monstrous new archetype that not only threatened the empire through violence or sexual perversion in equal measure, but who also remained a heterosexual threat by refusing to be confined to ‘safe’ or sissified notions of homosexuality.
This is something I’ve explored in my own fiction work as well, casting sexually ambiguous characters in roles traditionally inaccessible to queers. Indeed, in my experience, it feels almost transgressive and counter-cultural in the sterilized ‘supergay’ age of Glee. Orton, however, was doing this kind of thing decades prior. Whether his fascination was intended as a pro-queer statement or just titillation is anyone’s guess... though what we know of his relationship with Halliwell suggests it was more the latter, which of course makes the characters feel far more real and engaging than many of today’s ‘assembly line’ characters who must somehow represent queerdom at its best.
Britain’s paranoia would of course prove to be self-fulfilling, with the rise of glam rock, combined with the influence of American punk, where alternative sexuality was as much a fashion statement as hair, clothing or music. Around the same time, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange made that potential delinquent future seem almost too credible, particularly when alleged copycat crimes caused the director so much distress, he ordered the film withdrawn from distribution in the UK.
Orton however, seemed to delight in precisely what Burgess feared – the perverse sadism of his characters. He rejoiced in casting the young toughs of his sexual fantasies as sophisticated and sympathetic figures. Street thug with a touch of Shaw. There is a blink-and-you-miss-it suggestion that Dennis, one of the charming young thieves/lovers at the centre of Loot is a one-time rapist. Not to mention the sudden horrifying outburst that marks the end of Act 2 in Sloane. The act progresses the plot, but it earns no punishment, demonstrating a certain sentimentality, even affection for the young psychopath.
Though one suspects the morally bankrupt queers and queers-of-convenience that populate Orton’s world would give the upstanding citizens of GLAAD apoplexy if they were written and gained popularity today, they offer a fascinating glimpse at an era and culture particular to Britain in the 1960’s.
As to Orton’s relationship with Halliwell, in those few violent moments of Entertaining Mr Sloane, one can’t help but see a gruesome foreshadowing of the writer’s own end – one he was perhaps already resigned to. That the killer was not of one of Orton’s young toughs, but instead the man who despised them, is a grim irony worthy of the writer himself.