It is an April morning in early 1960s London, England, and the police are hammering on Joe Orton’s door. His relationship with his partner, Kenneth Halliwell, is still illegal, but the authorities aren’t interested in that particular crime. Instead, the cops were there to make arrests for another of the pair’s collaborations. The wanted men are accused of stealing and vandalizing council property – library books, to be exact. This was to be an early chapter in an unlikely saga that would ultimately spell the end for one of the country’s most promising and infamous playwrights.
John Kingsley Orton – known as Joe – was born in Leicester, central England, on January 1, 1933, into a modest household. The eldest of four siblings, the young Orton struggled with asthma, with his condition leading him to fail the entrance exams for a local selective school. This effectively barred the bright boy from academic success. Consequently, when he left school, rather than go on to university, Orton signed up for a secretarial course instead. Soon after, he began working as a lowly paid junior office clerk.
However, at the same time, the late 1940s, Orton was developing a keen interest in the theater. While performing with amateur companies, such as the Leicester Dramatic Society, he sought to improve himself both physically and mentally. Then, in a bid to become more cultured, he put himself forward for a scholarship at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, or RADA.
Against the odds, the provincial, working-class young man was successful, and started at the prestigious RADA in May 1951. Once there, he met fellow student Kenneth Halliwell, a man seven years his senior. Born in affluence in Merseyside and classically educated, Halliwell had inherited his well-heeled family’s wealth when his father committed suicide in 1949.
Although they were from different worlds, Orton and Halliwell soon formed a strong bond. Although the older, more sophisticated man acted as a sort of mentor for Orton, there was also a romantic component. While living together in a shared house, the pair became gay lovers. It should be remembered that homosexual acts were still illegal in England, and would remain so until 1967.
Initially separated after graduation from RADA to work separately in far-flung regional theaters, Orton and Halliwell soon gravitated back to London. Once again living together, the pair began collaborating on a series of novels. However, their work failed to attract the interest of publishers, and the pair resorted to living off welfare and Halliwell’s inheritance.
Eventually, by the late 1950s, Orton and Halliwell had saved up enough money for a small apartment in a run-down part of Islington, North London. There, the two men lived a simple life, dining on cheap food and sleeping in a pair of single beds in the apartment’s one bedroom. But however unassuming their surroundings, Orton and Halliwell were anything but.
Without employment to keep them both occupied during the day, the pair began to look for more creative ways to fill their time. Soon they found themselves frequenting their local libraries – both the close by Essex Road Library and the larger, more elaborate Islington Central Library, located just over a mile away from their apartment.
However Orton and Halliwell were disappointed with the literary quality of what was on offer on the library bookcases. “They were appalled by what they found,” Islington historian Mark Aston told U.K. newspaper The Guardian in 2011. “It was endless shelves of rubbish, as they saw it.” As a form of cultural protest, the two men decided to take action.
Beginning in January 1959, Orton and Halliwell took up another criminal practice to add to their homosexuality. They began stashing books from the libraries in their bags and smuggling them out of the doors under the eyes of the unwitting staff. However, the plot did not end there. In fact, instead of keeping the stolen books, the two men would dutifully return each one – albeit with a few satirical alterations made to the book jacket.
Back at their lair, the duo would use Halliwell’s typewriter to modify the blurb on the books, often with very rude results. In addition, they would draw upon Halliwell’s vast collection of found images – often “found” in other library books – to create new cover art that was sometimes similarly rude. Orton and Halliwell would return to the library and sneak the defaced books back on the shelves. Then the pair would wait and watch happily as chaos unfolded.
Through this method, many popular books were given a new and bizarre lease of life. For example, a collection of the venerated English poet John Betjeman’s works was adapted to feature a scantily clad, heavily tattooed man as its cover star. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s Othello was made to ignore Desdemona in a scene that heavily implied he had taken a male lover instead.
In a more surreal twist, the cover of Agatha Christie’s mystery The Secret of Chimneys now incongruously featured three giant cats. And Orton and Halliwell’s puns were by no means just visual, either. Under the thwarted authors’ influence, the synopsis of a whodunnit novel became littered with obscene plot points. Similarly a collection of innocent plays adopted some rather suggestive titles, including “Knickers Must Fall,” and “Up The Back.”
For months, Orton and Halliwell terrorized the patrons of Islington’s libraries with their unorthodox and unwholesome protest. Meanwhile, local authorities launched a full-scale operation to catch the mischievous culprits. Eventually, Halliwell was tricked into writing a letter of protest to the council on the same typewriter used for altering the stolen books. Typewriters can be just like fingerprints, in that each one was made with or developed distinctive characteristics in the letter forms they produced. Subsequently, it was easy for investigators to match the type on the letter of complaint to that on the doctored books. This particular whodunnit had been solved.
Now that they had their men, the response of officialdom was merciless and harsh. In 1962, Orton and Halliwell were each sentenced to six months behind bars, and ordered to pay damages to Islington council. It was a move that left the couple financially bereft, and one that Orton considered particularly unjust. In fact, he would later claim to a friend that the council had made an example of them “because we were queers.”
On their release from separate jails, Orton and Halliwell reunited to find that the episode had left them practically bankrupt. But while the older man became suicidally depressed, Orton drew creative inspiration from the ordeal. Driven by his time in jail, and channeling his hatred for society, he began to churn out ever more successful plays.
After selling a radio play to the BBC in 1963, Orton swiftly became a respected name in the theatrical industry. With the support of famous U.K. playwright Terence Rattigan, he went on to pen a number of critical and box-office hits. Among them were many that are still performed today, such as Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot and What the Butler Saw. His notoriety and success even attracted the attention of The Beatles. After the box office smashes of their films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Orton was invited to write their third feature, which he called Up Against It.
Although Orton had now left the library far behind, his penchant for the risqué and controversial remained. For example, Loot’s satire of the justice system had to be rewritten before it was deemed suitable for production. And the wild farce What the Butler Saw features cross-dressing and is rammed full of sexual innuendo.
Sadly, as Orton’s star was on the rise, Halliwell was descending deeper into despair. On the morning of August 9, 1967, Orton was due to attend a meeting to discuss his Beatles script. Instead, a drug-addled Halliwell murdered Orton with a hammer before committing suicide by poisoning. They were 34 and 41 years old, respectively. Apparently, the younger man had been planning to end their relationship and Halliwell had found out.
Today, Orton is considered one of England’s most famous playwrights, and authorities have relaxed their attitude to his previous indiscretions. In fact, Orton and Halliwell’s modified books can now be seen in pride of place at Islington Local History Museum. What’s more, the museum is operated by the same council that prosecuted the pair. But perhaps Orton and Halliwell would have relished the black irony of this epilogue in their sorry tale.