It was also during this time that he started keeping a diary. The entry for that day is very relevant as to our attempt to understand what drove Orton to join the theater in hopes of an acting career. During the time he spent with the amateur theater company, Orton decided that he wanted to pursue a career in acting, and that his first step towards achieving this goal was to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art: "Last night sitting in the empty theatre watching the electricians flashing lights on and off, the empty stage waiting for rehearsal to begin, I suddenly knew that my ambition is, and always has been, to act." (Diary entry, April 13th, 1949: Joe Orton Online)
He quit the amateur acting company after his first role because he was not offered any other substantial roles. Although he got accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1950, Orton was now facing two major setbacks. Firstly, he suffered from appendicitis, and was operated. Soon after his operation, while he was still recovering, he received call up papers for the National Service. However, 17-year-old Orton was not ready to abandon his dream of becoming an actor. He decided to fake several illnesses and disabilities so that he would be discharged, and succeeded in doing so. Orton was now free to enroll in the Academy. He left for London one year later and enrolled in the Royal Academy. Here, 18-year-old Orton met Kenneth Halliwell, 7 years his senior, a man who would become Orton's friend, mentor and lover. Older and more experienced than Orton, Halliwell was a young man in his mid-20s who had lived and been through a lot such as the deaths of both of his parents which he had witnessed during his childhood and early adulthood. Furthermore, Halliwell was well-educated and well-read which Orton was not. It was only a few months after Orton met Kenneth that the former accepted his sexual orientation by moving in with Halliwell. Despite the fact that both of them eventually graduated from the Royal Academy, they were disenchanted with the idea of becoming actors, and focused their energy on becoming successful writers instead.
The following years were marked by a deeply bohemian lifestyle that was supported by Halliwell's inheritance. This allowed them to focus on writing; Orton abandoned the idea of writing a novel, and shifted to dramaturgy. However, his first play, Fred and Madge, was rejected. Deeply dissatisfied with the books available in the local library, Orton and Halliwell began stealing books, altered their dust jackets, and then returned them. This act was the first sign of rebellion...
In fact, they were arrested in 1962, charged with theft, and sentenced to 6 months in prison. Orton felt their sentence was harsh, and believed it was a result of their sexual orientation: "because we were queers" (Joe Orton Online). The time spent in prison worsened Orton's vision of society even more: "It affected my attitude towards society. Before I had been vaguely conscious of something rotten somewhere, prison crystallized this. The old whore society really lifted up her skirts and the stench was pretty foul." (Orton, 1964: Joe Orton Online). Despite the fact that starting with 1964, Orton's career blossomed, and his plays were finally getting recognition, and were being performed in London, it was also during these final years that Orton's relationship with Halliwell embarked on a downward spiral that would bring their untimely deaths. Halliwell was feeling increasingly threatened and isolated by Orton's success, and had come to rely on anti-depressants and barbiturates. On August 9, 1967 Halliwell killed Orton by bludgeoning him with nine hammer blows to the head, and then killed himself with an overdose of Nembutal.
The art of Marlowe, Wilde and Orton reflects their own personal turmoil. The three cases discussed in this paper illustrate that in order for art to be truly valuable, it must be honest. The artist cannot write about society, love, morality etc., without taking his own experience into account because total objectivity is not possible in art. Their plays are not based solely on social critique but on a deep process of soul-searching and exposing their own intimacy in order for the audience to understand them first as people, and then as artists. These playwrights did not hide behind words, and did not deny themselves. On the contrary, they had the strength to embrace who they were despite public scrutiny and condemnation. Subjectivity allows for interpretation, and it is precisely through interpretation that one can derive meaning. The plays that these artists produced are not only vivid depictions of the societies that they reacted against, but also reflections of selves.
Gillespie, Michael Patrick. Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1996: 17-35.
Poirier, Michel. Christopher Marlowe. London: Chatto & Windus, 1951: 11-72.
Woodcock, George. The Paradox of Oscar Wilde. New York: Macmillan, 1950.
Terpening, William. "The Picture of Oscar Wilde: A brief life." Oscar Wilde Biographical Materials.…
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