Early death ARTS
Joe Orton, who died last week, was often said to be a black comic, an anarchist, genial freak and minor talent of undoubted promise..Also a follower of Pinter, which, in the sense that Mr Pinter rediscovered the English language and passed it on as a useful tool, he clearly was: but, though he left only three full-length stage plays, • one of which hasn't yet been seen, Orton was rather more than promising. 'There is more of Humor in our English Writers than in any other Comic Poets, ancient or modern.' wrote Congreve, and Orton was one of these : an original with a keen, not to say proprietary, sense of his own identity and of his place in the English comic tradition.
His first play was the notorious Entertaining Mr Sloane. Capsule summaries of the plot made outraged headlines but one should remember that, when Orton began writing plays in the late 'fifties and early 'sixties, he simply went to work on the available plot machinery--thuggery, rape, sexual malpractice and so forth-- which had by then become as conventional as, say. lost wills and injured virtue some seventy years earlier, or pre-marital intrigue at the Restora- tion. If the theatre at large subsisted chiefly on a diet of cheap sentiment, the 'serious' play which, unlike Orton's, seldom reared its head in the West End, was as a rule drab, violent, shock- ing on a fairly naïve level and nearly always set in a rubbish dump. One of the great pleasure,. on the first night of Mr Sloane, was the realisa- tion that for once the rubbish dump was to do no more than raise problems for the postman. and to account fora sinister crunching when- ever feet approached the parlour window.
Mr• Sloane was, so to speak, an energetic clear- ing of the ground, a play to put the alleged idle- g,ories, the ineffectual menaces and obscurely portentous suburbia of the Pinteretti in their place. With Loot, Orton had already moved towards greater clarity and a surer grasp of his own intentions. Again the subject-matter is ex- aggeratedly gruesome and treated with the same brisk relish. But Loot is at once more polished and epigrammatic, also a much harder play than its predecessor. Onehas only to compare Sloane in his black leather rocker's kit, casual, brutal and crude, with his smooth-working counter- parts in the later play to see the difference. All three, in the time-honoured manner of young comic heroes, are handsome. unscrupulous. clear-sighted, and all have designs on the elderly gulls and simpletons who surround them Os this what we listen to the Week's Good Cause for?' asks one, enraged at the depths to which modern youth has sunk in Sloane). But Hal and his mate. Dennis the undertaker. are not only sharper, wittier, more imaginative in their methods, more ambitious in their criminal ten- dencies, altogether a superior class of person as Sloane might have said. Their function has bee)) developed, inside a more complex organisation. to include commentary which works both with- in and without the play: 'He's going to be shocked,' murmurs Hal, watching his aged un- suspecting father lift the coffin lid. 'See him preparing for it. His generation takes a delight in being outraged.'
This confrontation between the generations
depraved youth and age valiantly upholding decency an moral standards-- -is in one sense peculiarly modern; but it is also an ancient dis- pute. reaching back at least to Prynne and the first Puritans. English comic battles have tradi- tionally been fought over the same ground, be- tween on the one hand the honesty of the comic poets -often fantastically disguised. always un- palatable- and on the other the outraged public. If the public sometimes seems disproportion- ately excited-as it did with Orton or with Congreve, Wycherley, even Farquhar it is be- cause the outcry is directed at the ostensible rather than the real target, at the modish trappings (in Orton's case, vice, crime, ever more rarefied brands of kinkiness) rather than the essential. and more deeply offensive. truth- fulness which they conceal.
For Orton. as much as any of his predeces- sors in the comedy of manners and here some confusion arose, partly because of misplaced naturalism in his two latest productions at the Traverse now transferred to the Criterion and the Royal Court), was concerned with ex- ploring on strictly moral lines the society in which he lived. And if in interviews and casual remarks he was absolutely clear that this was the ground to be covered-a rich and fruitful ground which few today have even set foot 00 • it was already well charted in Loot. 'there were even signs of his moving beyond his ori- ginal suburban pocket-land of woollies, hickies. British Legion floats and well-loved figures of the concert platform into a more traditional, sophisticated metropolitan territory.
But his basic preoccupations were there from the start, with honesty and insincerity, with the callous frankness of his heroes and with the moral and mental confusion which is their natural prey, a kind of comforting vagueness
in small things ('Bombay . . 'Dieppe . . murmur a pair in Mr Sloane. swapping experi- ences of foreign parts, 'Ah ... it's all the same. 1 don't suppose they know the difference them- selves") as in large. Inevitably in this climate the knaves and villains- -Sloane, Hal, Dennis and their accomplices, the murderous nurse and, Orton's most brilliant creation, the ineffable Inspector Truscott--- -are triumphant. They are ruthless, brutal and practical. Their victims --in each ease a helpless, trustful widowed father who has all the outraged reactions the public might he expected to feel- are maltreated, beaten. finally bumped off. But these victims, who stand for decent moral values and behave often with considerable dignity. are also guilty; their crime is that they sincerely believe the trite formulae. the cliches, the cheap admass slogans which make up our daily language and which the others manipulate for their own evil ends: and their punishment. meted out by those more clear-sighted than themselves. is cruel in proportion to their impenetrable, unwitting insincerity.
Language. in Orton's hands, became a subtle tool for searching out and displaying sentimen- tality, banality or weakness. But it was not simply this verbal excellence which reminded admirers of Oscar Wilde; he had also a techni- cal maturity, an unexpected tact in dealing with sexual or social innuendo and-already in the • comparatively uncomplicated intimacy of Mr Sloane-an extraordinary assurance in the shapely ordering of his scenes and in his control of emotional shifts within a scene. Powers of organisation of this order are almost completely lacking in the, English theatre today. This was presumably why Terence Rattigan recognised him so eagerly and early; why his more gullible avant-garde supporters. who mistrusted effi- ciency, seemed. vv ith his growing success, to become a shade disgruntled: • and why, as playwright, .‘e could least afford to lose him.