I discovered Joe Orton in a second-hand bookshop, on the bottom shelf, between a travelogue and a potboiler thriller. The front cover featured a cubist grotesque, while the back cover showed a man in his early thirties, crisply sunburnt, sitting back on a patio folding chair wearing nothing but an amused smirk and a pair of decidedly front-and-centre white briefs, fashionable half a century ago. He’s looking at the camera as if to say: “What you see is only the tip of what you’ll get.”
The mixed metaphor, the innuendo, and the natural smugness are a comedic staple—black comedy in his case. The picture spoke to me. I placed a coin on the counter and the yellowing, 1987 copy of his life’s work became mine.
It’s always poignant paying virtually nothing for all that somebody’s left behind, though I suspect that’s not what got me the awkward smile from the cashier who rang up the purchase.
As it turns out, a preposterous dismembering of sensibilities—hinted by the book covers—is just the beginning of what follows.
There are four shorter plays: The Ruffian on the Stairs (innocent absurdity that turns deathly), The Erpingham Camp (demonic farce set in a holiday camp with a dictatorial manager), Funeral Games (upending of the adultery and wife-gone-missing trope), and The Good and Faithful Servant (a farcical end to a worker’s fifty years at a firm).
The three longer plays are even more amusing to read. Staged, they must be hilarious.
Entertaining Mr. Sloane is about a young man (Mr Sloane) who blunders into a combative, unhealthy brother-and-sister relationship, making for a ridiculous third-wheel act.
What the Butler Saw pushes the mistaken identity trope to the limit. It’s set—naturally—in a psychiatrist’s clinic. And the psychiatrist—naturally—keeps asking people (potential secretary, page-boy, policeman) to undress and swap clothes. The psychiatrist’s wife is—naturally—a lesbian nymphomaniac who gets sexually attacked, then blackmailed, by the page-boy. As the play commences, a government inspector who is also a psychiatrist comes around to the clinic and—naturally—finds reason to certify most people, at one time or another, as insane. Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong in imaginatively implausible ways.
Loot is probably the most controversial of Orton’s plays. Hal and Dennis have robbed a bank and need a place to hide the loot. Hal’s mother has just died, her burial is today, her coffin is as good a hiding place as any. Though, what should they do with the body? The old woman’s nurse, Fay, has a backstory of her own. A policeman, Truscott, claims to be from the Metropolitan Water Board and “therefore” needs no warrant to enter the house and inspect it. McLeavy is father of Hal, husband of the deceased, grieving widower.
Turn off your sensibilities, and step into the shoes of a pachyderm. Don’t forget this is black comedy, where controversial is the means for social commentary, and to paraphrase the first quote: Orton runs the gamut of all insults. It’s okay to laugh a little if no one’s watching. It’s okay to question yourself afterwards why you laughed.
Here’s Orton, outrageous, shining.
The following quotes from Loot are given in order of appearance.
FAY. What will you do when you’re old?
HAL. I shall die.
FAY. I see you’re determined to run the gamut of all experience.
FAY. Here—(she puts the embroidered text on the coffin)—the Ten Commandments. She was a great believer in some of them.
On the location of the corpse.
FAY. Where will she be?
HAL. In the back seat. (He puts the comb away.) She always was a back-seat driver.
Beating the paradox on the head.
TRUSCOTT. If I ever hear you accuse the police of using violence in custody again, I’ll take you down to the station and beat the eyes out of your head.
On traffic lights as cops.
MCLEAVY. I know we’re living in country whose respect for the law is proverbial: who’d give power of arrest to the traffic lights if three women and a Liberal M.P. would only suggest it…
On equality before the law.
FAY. You must prove me guilty. That is the law.
TRUSCOTT. You know nothing of the law. I know nothing of the law. That makes us equal in the sight of the law.
FAY. Had euthanasia not been against my religion I would have practiced it. Instead I decided to murder her.
On the Gentleman.
HAL. God is a gentleman. He prefers blondes.
On accepted facts.
MCLEAVY. Is the world mad? Tell me it’s not.
TRUSCOTT. I’m not paid to quarrel with accepted facts.
On public money.
MCLEAVY. What’s more serious than mass murder?
TRUSCOTT. Stealing public money. And that is just what your son and his accomplices have done.
On fools’ secrets.
TRUSCOTT. I’m no fool.
FAY. Your secret is safe with me.
On neonate liaisons.
MCLEAVY. Where did I go wrong? His upbringing was faultless. (To DENNIS.) Did you lead him astray?
DENNIS. I was innocent till I met him.
HAL. You met me when you were three days old.
(Reversed) Murphy’s Law applied.
TRUSCOTT. The safest place for it [the loot] is in my locker at the station. It’s a maxim of the force: ‘Never search your own backyard—you might find what you’re looking for.’
When you think about it, the never search maxim applies in a worryingly large number of cases. It’s better not to think about it.