A critic once wrote that Joe Orton, the Sixties playwright, would “rub baby oil into his face until it gleamed. He took similar pains with his dialogue, and it glitters.” In Ruffian on the Stair, a character admits to an incestuous relationship with his brother, and the man hearing his confession spits: “There’s no word in the Irish language for what you were doing.” The brother replies: “In Lapland they have no word for snow.”
Orton was himself an out, proud and well-practised homosexual in an age of moral hypocrisy. “I suppose I’m a believer in Original Sin,” he explained. “People are profoundly bad but irresistibly funny.”
BBC Two’s documentary Joe Orton Laid Bare recreates a few scenes from Entertaining Mr Sloane, in which Orton’s amoral, eponymous hero seduces first a middle-aged landlady, Kath, and then, when he realises who has the more money, her gangster brother, Ed. The actors hammer home every innuendo. The director cranks up the camp.
Yet Orton is far subtler than the documentary suggests. One of his greatest insights is the way in which people use cliché not only to mask their desires but also to convince themselves that everything is upright. Mr Sloane is psychotic, yes, but Kath deludes herself that he is an angel in need of a mother’s touch. Ed might be a dirty old devil, but he presents himself as respectable: “I’ve a certain amount of influence. Friends with money. I own two cars. You judge for yourself.”
Orton writes the lines to be funny; it’s up to a good director to infer the tragedy and tease it out.
In real life, Orton’s partner, Kenneth Halliwell, was tortured by Joe’s promiscuity. When Joe was just 34, Kenneth bludgeoned him to death with a hammer before taking an overdose of pills. There were consequences to all that fun. As Halliwell once observed, one rarely experiences ecstasy without some karmic pain around the corner; partly, I assume, because the restless pursuit of pleasure is almost always driven by loneliness.
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