Writing Joe Orton

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Playwright and Joe Orton specialist Phil Setren asks, How were we as gay men and women expected to thrive, when prior to 2003 museums feared prosecution for exhibiting gay culture under the restrictive laws of Section 28? So, it's with pride that we can today exhibit the work of 1960's playwright Joe Orton, one of the West End Theatre's first 'unashamedly out' gay writers who dared his audiences, and corrupted them with pleasure.

Comedies like 'What the Butler Saw' wildly mock society's institutions, collecting new targets as they crank up farcical speed. With cross-dressing policemen bursting from closets with naked bellboys, we are in the safe hands of an unashamed gay humorist that helps us shake the guilt away from sexuality.

Like the outrageousness of performers The Divine David or Johnny Woo, and the topicality of an acts like Topping and Butch, Joe Orton's plays performed like modern ' wit- fests'. He locked his targets in a room and fired shots of wicked humour at them, to get even.

Orton struggled for a decade before getting a play on stage, teaching himself how to write with little success. When boredom set in, he and lover Ken Halliwell became avid readers. If they disliked a library book, they cut and pasted a witty alteration to the book jacket. Then, the boys hid amongst the book aisles to gage the reaction. The cover of 'Queen's Favorite' they changed to a picture of two shirtless, muscular men in a wrestling clench. This is one of the many witty book jackets presently exhibited at the Museum of Islington.

After spending six months behind rusty metal bars for this, Orton emerged the detatched humorist, beyond guilt and no longer giving a toss about the rules.

He took on society with full force in his plays, so when 'Loot' premiered at the Arts Theatre dividing audiences and critics, his irreverant writing won him an Evening Standard Theatre Award and made his first play the hottest ticket in town. And still, Orton remained true to his gay sensibility. When invited to write a film script for the Beatles, he refused to change a scene with fab four in bed together. This film 'Up Against It' was never made, but Joe Orton continued his career with a larger bank balance and barely a scratch.

What is so current about Orton is that he challenged government, the medical profession, education, the police, the class system, the family institution and many aspects of modern sexuality with a dignified wit, while making the point of how 'de-humanizing' society had become. But most importantly, he used writing as his outlet and was brave enough to document his points of view in a body of work before his early death.

Write Queer London hosts a number of London museum events, in support of the future of Gay and Lesbian culture. At this one, you'll get to see the famously defaced book jackets, watch some good actors perform a few scenes, and even try your hand at writing a few scenes of your own with Joe Orton's comedy as an influence. Gay and lesbian culture grows with every heartbeat of history we share with one another in the museum, the library, the university and the institution. If Joe Orton is one of many gay and lesbian writers that has broken a few barriers in the late 60's for us, might we try to put pen to paper in 2012 and see what emerges. We may not be filling the museums right away, but isn't it time we got started?


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