Thoughts & Musings

Dangerous Liaison: Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964)

©2015 by Eileen Warburton

“The final chapters of my book are knitting together: incest, buggery, outrageous women and strange love-cults catering for depraved appetites. All the fashionable bric-a-brac.”  

Dr. Rance in What the Butler Saw (1969) by Joe Orton

Once upon a time in the so-called Swinging Sixties in Britain, in the raw working-class Midlands of England, in a house with the pretensions of suburban gentility perched isolated on the edge of a rubbish dump, there lives a family with pretensions of gentility and success who have built their lives on a rotten foundation. In the blackest-and-bluest of black comedies, they have secrets that come spilling out almost as soon as the play opens. Seventeen years earlier, Kath had a baby boy out of wedlock and her brother Ed took it away and put it up for adoption. Was he safeguarding his rising career from the scandal? Or was he getting revenge on the sister who seduced away his “mate,” Tom, who was clearly his lover? Kath, in any case, operates on sedatives and baby talk as she weaves fantasies from old memories and cares for their aged, irascible father, Kemp. Kemp threw his son, Ed, out of the house for some teenaged sexual “felony” and hasn’t spoken to him for twenty years. The old man is also a material witness to a murder, but refused to involve himself in identifying the perpetrator.

Into the smoothed-over morass of this cheery family wanders the glamorous and sinister “Mr. Sloan,” the lodger from hell. He’s a handsome, charming, sexy psychopath, completely without morals, shame, or remorse. Glib and callous, he drifts along, owning nothing and caring for no one. He also seems to be the physical manifestation of everyone’s buried sin, as though he’s the ghost of nightmares past. He’s a version of Kath’s long-lost baby as well as of her long-lost lover. She’s immediately lusting after him even while she’s mothering him, casting away whatever stability she’s gained as she resurrects her past. Ed, who has built his professional success by “turning away” from involvement with his former lover, is soon ignoring all his well-founded suspicions in order to pursue his attraction to Mr. Sloan. Almost licking his chops, he gives the manipulative youth a job, money, his rent, and the use of his car. He swallows any and all lies Sloan chooses to tell him. And Kemp? He begins to recognize in Sloan the unidentified murderer of his employer several years earlier.

Sloan is like a mirror. He takes what he wants, says what people need or want to hear, and pushes everyone’s buttons with comic ease. When exposed, he satirically excuses away every selfish, violent action with the claptrap criminal psychology of the day. “It’s my upbringing. Lack of training. No proper parental control . . . I’m easily led. I been dogged by bad luck.” Having nothing himself, he gains control by using and abusing the dreams and emotions of the people he depends on, who are only too pleased to be used if they can get a bite of tasty Mr. Sloan. He is a sexual predator being bounced between two other deeply cynical sexual predators, siblings who can come to their own kind of understanding.

Joe Orton (John Kingsley Orton, 1933-1967) was for four brief, wild years the enfant terrible of London’s West End. Born in Leicester in 1933 to a gardener and a tubercular shoe factory worker, he grew up in council housing, poorly educated and openly, promiscuously homosexual in the days before decriminalization. “I’m from the gutter,” Orton would declare after his success and fame, “and don’t you ever forget it, because I won’t!” With his brilliant turn for the dramatic, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) where, in 1951, he met and became the lover/partner of Kenneth Halliwell and they embarked together on provincial stages. Certain of their genius, the two lived off the dole and Halliwell’s inheritance finally, in 1959, buying a tiny one-room flat (what the English call a “bed-sit”) in Islington. This was the post-war era of the “Angry Young Men” in English theatre, playwrights and directors sympathetic to working class life, filled with fury at what they saw as a morally bankrupt society, and reacting against the upper class and middle class snobberies of the conventional stage. Very much in tune with this anger and mockery, Joe and Kenneth wrote together, unsuccessfully, and together embarked on an “art” project whereby they stole books from public libraries, dissected them, altered the covers and interior plates with obscene and macabre collages, and placed them back in circulation. They each served 6 months of prison time for this.

Released from prison in 1961, Orton found his black comic, independent voice in playwriting with The Ruffian on the Stair (radio, 1964), Entertaining Mr. Sloan (1964), Loot (1965), and The Erpingham Camp (1966). He was overnight the darling of the campiest London Society, socially celebrated, sponsored by Terrence Rattigan, a friend of Harold Pinter (whose dialogue so obviously influenced Orton’s), a valued working colleague of the Beatles. But Kenneth Halliwell? Now addicted to tranquillizers, failed at writing and art, increasingly clinging and needy (indeed, Kath in Mr. Sloan is supposedly based on Ken), he creeped out everyone. As Orton blossomed as a playwright, Halliwell withered. Orton met someone else. And on August 9, 1967, in their tiny Islington bed-sit, Halliwell took a hammer and bashed out the brains of the sleeping Joe Orton with nine frenzied blows. Halliwell then offed himself with 22 Nembutal tablets washed down with grapefruit juice. Their ashes were mixed at the funeral. Of Joe Orton, only 34 when he died, Harold Pinter emotionally declared in the eulogy: “He was a bloody marvelous writer.”

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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