Wednesday, March 22nd, 2023

Joe Orton’s Diaries

The Orton DiariesThe Orton Diaries

by Joe Orton

Edited by John Lahr

Published by Methuen Publishing

Published 1986
Reprinted by Harper & Row, 1996
310 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

May 19, 1988

Joe Orton’s diary of the last year of his life is absorbing. Usually, I can only read a few diary entries at a time, but I read directly through Orton’s.

One surprise was the extent to which he read Restoration comedy.

The Orton DiariesMethuen Publishing, Nov. 6, 1986
The Orton Diaries
Methuen Publishing, Nov. 6, 1986

Other readers may find the casual sex (in Britain and in Morocco) shocking, but Orton was considerably less promiscuous than many other young and successful gay men. He rarely had more than one partner a day and preferred getting to know partners to getting off and getting on. Even in Morocco, he more or less settled down with one lad (Mohammed Yellow-shirt) and was not multi-orgasmic.

The dialog he recorded from riding trams, conversing, and overhearing neighbors reinforces his claim that his work was “naturalistic.” The outrageousness of characters and speech in his plays were to a considerable extent observed, outlandish and absurd(ist) though they seem.

Although there are intimations of—indeed, seeming hopes for—mortality, there is nothing to make the last weeks of the Orton-Halliwell relationship more ominous than earlier times recorded in his journal. Orton took suggestions from Halliwell on What the Butler Saw after their Moroccan vacation and still valued Halliwell’s instructions. There was no increase in whoring around. Both of them knew that Butler was his/their best work yet.

What pushed Kenneth Halliwell over the edge to bludgeon Orton’s head in remains mysterious.

Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell
Joe Orton, playwright, was murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell at their Islington home in 1967.

Editor and Orton biographer John Lahr(more recently biographer of Tennessee Williams) manages some sympathy for the “wife spurned” and marginalized as the husband succeeds (like Eliot, Hardy, et al.). There are too many annotations of trivial points, but there are also some quirky outtakes Lahr did not use in his biography, Prick Up Your Ears. These enliven many of the notes.

Orton’s mind was interesting, and his matter-of-fact reporting worked well in the diary, just as playing his theatrical pieces “straight” brings out the looniness of British institutions and individuals. Orton was certainly on top of what everyone involved with the theatre in Britain was doing (as well as on the top of his own game). By the time of his death, he was well-read, at least in drama, and had a very sure taste.

For ethnographic reportage, the diaries tell what British repression was like for one renegade from it and what Moroccan boys would do with foreigners (who knows what they did with each other of local elders!): little cock sucking, a preference they shared with Orton for fucking, and some versatility.

©1998, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

written 19 May 1988, later posted on the defunct website

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.