A modern tragedy

I was reminded of the previously reviewed The Dumas Club when re-reading Joe Orton's diary. The Dumas Club spoke of the influence that one book has upon another - how when reading the reader is not just reading the book that is in front of them, but also in a sense every other book that they've ever read. I first read Orton's diaries in John Lahr's (son of The wizard of Oz's cowardly lion, Bert Lahr) wonderful edition some years ago. Coincidentally around the same time I also read the then recently published Kenneth Williams' diaries. Reading the two sets of diaries together produced an amazing effect.

Williams was a close friend of the Sixties playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell. Halliwell and Orton's partnership was complicated. At first Halliwell had been the dominant member in the relationship, with Orton the Eliza Dolittle of the relationship to Halliwell's Professor Higgins. Halliwell taught about acting, writing, literature, and being a gay man at a time when it was still illegal. Gradually however the dynamic of the relationship changed, as Orton became the dominant writing partner, and little by little the more celebrated member of the pair. By the time the diaries commence in late 1966 Orton is at the height of his power, immensely gifted, incredibly promiscuous and outrageously funny; the diaries are a snapshot of a dynamic period in British theatre and artistic culture. Sadly the diaries would be cut short when Orton was bludgeoned to death by Halliwell in August '67.

I enjoyed reading the diaries in isolation. They're not always the comfiest of reads; Orton's homosexuality is not an issue now as it would have been when they were first written (it was still illegal in the UK at the beginning of the diaries). His penchant for young boys however is not easy to stomach, especially the sections set in Morocco, where he and Halliwell holiday primarily as sex tourists. What is good about the diaries though is their sheer exuberance : Orton's joy in his talents as a playwright, the wonderfully, sometimes bitchy gossip about other actors and writers, his gift for language and dialogue, his humanity, and his loyalty to his partner in what was becoming an increasingly difficult relationship.

What I got from reading the Williams diaries at the same time however was something more. Kenneth Williams was a close friend of both men, and he wrote his experiences with them as he saw it. He loved Joe, who was proudly gay and very sure in his own skin, the complete opposite of Williams, and exactly what he would have liked to have been, while he understood the sensitive, neurotic, insecure Halliwell - he was not unlike himself in many ways. What Williams saw clearly was Orton's love for Halliwell, and his loyalty to him in the face of increasing disdain from Joe's new circle of friends. He also saw Halliwell's increasing jealousy and insecurity around Joe as Halliwell becomes increasingly sidelined by others, and sometimes even Joe himself, from his life. The two diaries combined elevate the Orton diaries to a Greek tragedy. There is a dreadful sense of inevitability to the whole relationship culminating in such a brutal ending. Sensitively edited by John Lahr, these diaries are a must read for anyone who is interested in the British theatre of the 1960s. For their social commentary alone they are utterly fascinating.


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