Prick Up Your Earsposted on 29 Oct 2017
Prick Up Your Ears by John Lahr
I was recently reading a magazine article about the extraordinary things people do in libraries – many of them nothing to do with books and a disturbing number of which seemed to involve parts of the body that no innocent library browser should expect to be confronted with. There was an interesting little passage dealing with the vandalising and theft of the books that made reference to the fact that the famous dramatist Joe Orton and his partner, Kenneth Halliwell had been arrested for defacing library books back in the early 1960s. This brief mention piqued my curiosity – it’s a story I am aware of but really know nothing about when it comes to detail – and so I went off in search of my copy of John Lahr’s biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, with the intention of just reading up on what they actually got up to.
Lahr is a British-based US born drama critic and writes with a lightness of touch and just enough prurient detail to make the story easy to read and to make you want to see for yourself just what it was that the two did with the library books. By using crafty collage and by typing false book jacket descriptions Orton and Halliwell had themselves a jolly time changing books into surreal or obscene artefacts and then lurking around in the library to watch what happened when people picked them up. All rather sixth form humour but undeniably artfully done. But the prank backfired on the two of them in a major way and they not only found themselves with a prison record but were vindictively bankrupted as well. Orton always secretly maintained that the excessive punishment was because they were gay.
Having read this episode I found myself drawn into Orton’s story and so I went back to the start and read the book right through. It is, in many ways, a sad story of obsession and wasted talent but it’s also undoubtedly an extraordinary tale too.
John Orton (later to become Joe to prevent confusion with John Osborne) and Kenneth Halliwell were both failed actors looking for a purpose and a role. Halliwell was Orton’s senior by seven years and was, in the beginning, convinced of his own talent and natural leadership. But he would gradually come to realise that others didn’t see him in quite that light and he was doomed not just to failure and marginalisation but would only ever be acknowledged as an irritating appendage of the charismatic Orton as the latter’s star began to rise.
Orton was initially dazzled by Halliwell when they first met when, with a couple of other drama students, he moved into a flat-share. The two stayed together and became lovers, living cheek-by-jowl in a claustrophobic bedsitting room. After giving up acting for writing, Orton showed astonishing skill as he effectively taught himself to write drama and immediately showed extraordinary capabilities that, combined with his irresistible personality, saw his fame grow rapidly. Over a short period of half a dozen years Halliwell found himself increasingly existing only for Orton while Orton himself was talking to friends about the need to get out of the stifling relationship. By now plays like Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot were becoming cult theatre and were being touted as part of the British 1960s counter-culture. Orton had also been invited to help with the script for one of the Beatles’ films to be directed by Richard Lester – could he have had a bigger invitation into the alternative cultural aristocracy?
It is at this point that tragedy descends. Halliwell’s state of mind at this point was in crisis and he kills Orton brutally with a hammer and then commits suicide with a deadly overdose.
Lahr tells the tale sensitively and handles the issues of homosexuality frankly and without apology – sexuality was, after all, a key element of Orton’s work and personal identity. But I was also impressed that this wasn’t just a biography of a tragic cult personality who just happened to be a playwright nor is it hagiography. This is a legitimate and sophisticated critical appraisal of Orton’s work and I’d especially commend his tracking of the astonishing ups and downs relating to the writing and production of Loot.
However, there are some unpleasant issues the reader has to confront. The book was written in 1978 and there are things here that Lahr accepts or glosses over that might be more difficult to do these days. Orton and Halliwell were practicing homosexuals in an age when it was still illegal to be so in the UK and as a result they would frequently take what can only be described as sex tourism holidays to North Africa. Both men had a penchant for sex with teenage boys that can only now be seen as predatory and exploitative – something that will certainly give the modern reader some concerns. You must make up your own minds whether this has any influence on your views of the man as a writer and artist.
You will find copies of this book quite cheaply on the second hand market and if you’re interested in the development of British alternative theatre, you’ll want to read it.