Thoughts after reading ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ biography

“In some thirty years of experience I have never seen anything of this nature before”

In last month’s post “Librarians make their mark in ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ (1987),” I analyzed the reel librarian portrayals in the 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears, the movie adaptation of the 1978 biography by John Lahr. Then I realized that the biography was available as an e-book on our local public library’s Hoopla subscription, so I decided to read the source biography in order to extend the conversation this month on playwright Joe Orton (who identified as queer). It also feels fitting because here in Tacoma, we celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month in July, so as not to compete with all the Pride Month celebrations and activities in nearby Seattle during June. I like that we do this, because we essentially get to extend Pride Month for an extra month. Win-win! 🙂

The record for the Prick Up Your Ears biography, in e-book format via Hoopla

I had mentioned in my prior post about how the movie begins with Kenneth Halliwell covered in blood after murdering Joe Orton, and it ends with Orton’s funeral, with flashbacks and flash-forwards in-between. This cinematic structure actually does (loosely) follow the structure of the book.

  • Chapter 1 begins with the murder-suicide of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell and then details the last few months of their life, counting down toward “zero hour.”
  • Chapter 2 details Joe’s childhood and entry into RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and ends with his diary entries upon meeting Kenneth Halliwell.
  • Chapter 3 focuses on Joe’s and Kenneth’s early life together and their creative collaborations. This is the main chapter that includes the info about their defacement of library books, thus firmly positing their library books project as part of their creative experimentations.
  • Chapter 4 is about Orton’s early successes, mainly the process of bringing Entertaining Mr. Sloane to the stage.
  • Chapter 5 mainly details the process of Orton’s play Loot and its eventual success.
  • Chapter 6, the final chapter, focuses mostly about Orton’s final play, What the Butler Saw, and ends with details about Orton’s and Halliwell’s funerals.

It’s clear that the screenwriter excised the details about Orton’s most famous plays that comprise the latter half of the biography, which makes sense for a movie adaptation. But after reading the biography, I had so much more of an appreciation for Orton’s creative process and how much he excelled in rewriting his plays and shaping everything “until it sparkled.” You also get much more detail about how much writing and (failed) experimentation Orton did during the first decade he spent with Halliwell, and how all this work paid off for him as it helped him shape his craft and style. If you just watch the movie by itself, you really don’t get a sense of how hard Orton really did work at his writing. And I think that’s ultimately why the Prick Up Your Ears source biography was highlighted in The Guardian as a “book to give you hope.”

Below, I’ve highlighted some of my favorite “golden lines” and information that I learned from each chapter of Orton’s biography.

Thoughts from Chapter 1

Lahr has a devastating opening paragraph: “Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell were friends. For fifteen years, they lived and often wrote together. They wore each other’s clothes. Their wills each named the other as sole beneficiary. They shared everything except success. But on 9 August 1967, murder made them equal again” (p. 8).

These observations also felt on-point and devastatingly poignant, as well:

  • Orton died from his short-sighted and indecisive loyalty to a friend” (p. 11).
  • Through murder Halliwell achieved the public association with Joe Orton’s career he’d been denied in life” (p. 41).

The title “Prick Up Your Ears” came from Halliwell! After Orton finished drafting What the Butler Saw, he shared in his diary that he wanted to start work on a new play, an “historical farce set on the eve of Edward VII’s coronation in 1902 and called (at the moment) Prick Up Your Ears. I hope I can write a play worthy of one of Kenneth Halliwell’s most brilliant titles” (p. 27).

Thoughts from Chapter 2

Orton kept a diary during his youth, and he mentions the local public library in Leicester a few times, including:

  • In February 1949, he had a date with a girl, Penny, who was supposed to meet him “outside the library,” but she stood him up! He “waited like a fool in the howling wind and pouring rain” (p. 68).
  • When Orton started elocution lessons with Madame Rothery, he worried about how he was going to pay for the lessons. So he “wrote a letter to the library about a job this evening” (p. 76). WOW, Orton was willing to work in the local public library! Did Lahr include that to indicate just how desperate Orton was to earn money?! 😉

However, Orton tended not to hold down jobs very long, and I don’t think he would have worked very long at the library, especially if they had found out about how he had been stealing books from libraries from a very young age! His sister, Leonie, shared a memory of her brother, laughing “at the recollected sight of John [Joe’s birth name] with her in tow stealing a copy of Black Beauty from the Bishop’s Street Library where he spent so much of his time” (p. 80).

"Joe Orton - Walk of Fame - Leicester" photo by Ned Trifle, CC BY NC SA 2.0 license
Joe Orton – Walk of Fame – Leicester” photo by Ned Trifle, CC BY NC SA 2.0 license

Thoughts from Chapter 3

Details of the library prank

Like I mentioned earlier, the library books prank and subsequent prison term are covered in-depth in this chapter. And we get a LOT more details about what really happened, including:

  • In addition to stealing 72 library books, they were charged for “damaging a number of books, which included the removal of 1,653 plates from art books. Total damage was estimated at 450 pounds.” (p. 85). These art plates are what they used to decorate the walls of their flat!
  • The article about the crime was reprinted in Reader’s Digest (p. 85)!
  • Halliwell would smuggle library books out in a service gas-mask case (p. 89). Such an odd detail… and this detail will come up again in a later chapter. 🙂
  • Librarians were actively — but quietly! — on the lookout for the book thieves for eighteen months (!!!), even having librarians from other branches come in and pose as members of the public so that Orton and Halliwell wouldn’t recognize them. The librarians wanted to catch them red-handed, but they never succeeded in that (p. 89).
  • Homophobia WAS the reason the librarians suspected Orton and Halliwell in the first place. “In January 1962 a branch librarian became suspicious of the two men who always visited the library together and shared the same address” (p. 89). Just… ugh. 😦

Details about how they were caught and sentenced

I mentioned in last month’s post about the movie version of Prick Up Your Ears that the film shows the librarians as the ones who personally trap Orton and Halliwell, but that in real life, Sydney Porrett, a senior clerk with Islington Council, did the detective work. After reading all the details about Porrett and his methods in this biography, it’s clear that Porrett was very prejudiced against the gay community and had a personal vendetta against Orton and Halliwell. And as bad as the (fictional) Mr. Cunliffe, the senior librarian, is in the movie version, the real-life events are even worse! Here are personal quotes from and about Porrett in describing his (unethical) actions against Orton and Halliwell:

  • I had to catch these two monkeys. … I played them a slightly dirty trick. I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll let my ethics slip a little bit‘. I wanted to get them aggravated. They were a couple of darlings, make no mistake” (p. 90).
  • When Orton complained to Porrett about his methods, Porrett responded, “‘I fetched myself down to your level. I’m quite happy to let you think I’m a fool, but I’m one step ahead of you all the time.’ It was just my psychological attempt to get on top of them. They realized they’d met somebody as cute as them” (p. 91).
  • Porrett’s personal vendetta continued even AFTER Orton and Halliwell served their prison sentence in fall 1962 and scheduled to pay off the remaining fines. “But Porrett wasn’t finished with them. He had, as he says, ‘another trick up his sleeve’ to ensure that he got the remaining 62 pounds in damages. He threatened them a charging order which would give him power of sale over their mortgaged apartment to meet the unsettled debt. ‘I was still that much on top.’ … ‘They paid up like little darlings,’ Porrett smiles. ‘I left them financially pretty rocky'” (p. 95).
  • In a final letter to Porrett in December 1962, Halliwell details the impact of Porrett’s vendetta: “For what was (surely?) a comparatively mild crime, we have thus: a) lost our jobs and been thrown on the barest subsistence level of National Assistance b) done six months prison sentence c) paid practically all our pathetically small bank accounts. Justice has certainly been done. Some people might think, perhaps, even a little bit more than justice” (p. 95).
  • Orton also shared his emotions in a letter to the Cordens, who owned the building their flat was in: “I really feel so angry. Admittedly what I did is not to be defended, but I’m paying for it here. They want me to come out of prison literally penniless” (p. 93-94).

I also agree with Orton when he privately shared that he thought their severe sentence — 6 months in prison and a fine that forced them to go on National Assistance for over a year — was “because we were queers” (p. 91). And it wasn’t just Porrett who displayed homophobia and an overzealous sense of justice:

  • The magistrate stated that “In some thirty years of experience I have never seen anything of this nature before” (p. 88) and described the prank as “sheer malice” (p. 91). Side thought: Leicester must be the MOST BORING PLACE in the world if the defacing of library books inspired this kind of hyperbolic reaction.
  • The magistrate also (accidentally?) acknowledged the creative skill behind the library books prank: “Most perturbing to the court was not the abuse of private property but the care and intelligence with which Orton and Halliwell tampered with the books” (p. 88).

It’s no wonder that the word ‘magistrate’ “would become a term of abuse in Orton’s vocabulary — a word which epitomized everything quietly violent, sterile and inflexible in the English middle class” (p. 91).

A creative act

As I mentioned above, Lahr definitely places the library prank within the context of Orton’s and Halliwell’s creative acts:

  • I found this description of Lahr’s to be very thought-provoking and illuminating: “They turned the library into a little theatre where they watched people reacting to their productions. There was sorrow in their anger, but also hilarity” (p. 88).
  • Lahr continues this metaphor of the library prank as a form of theater: “The book-defacing was brash, simple, and often childishly rude. The library escapade set the stage for the literary impact that was lacking in Orton’s fictions. Begun by Orton in August 1959, the project mushroomed obsessively with repeated literary rejection into a kind of art form by 1961. […] The defaced books infiltrated the public and goaded it to respond. Orton was testing the destructive power of his laughter and watching for signs of shock. […] The library prank was a misguided piece of theatre, but the work was very funny. The book jackets were concise, straightforward, irreverent and vulgar: everything that Orton’s fiction was not [at that time]” (p. 133).
  • Orton began defacing library books about the time his writing became obsessed with laughter as revenge” (p. 126).

Different reasons for the library prank

Lahr notes that there is never any official explanation in the court records about the library prank — “Orton and Halliwell never admitted their rationale for this prank to the court” (p. 88) — so he explores several theories and reasons expressed about their motivations in defacing the library books.

  • Orton shared in a later interview, “I’m not excusing myself. I’m just unrepentant” (p. 92).
  • Orton also stressed the effect he wanted from the prank: “I used to stand in corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch the people read them. It was very funny, very interesting” (p. 87).
  • Orton gave a very basic explanation to the police when they asked why he had stolen the library books: “I wanted these books but haven’t been able to afford them. That’s why I took them.” (p. 89).
  • The police also asked Halliwell, and he told the police his (very different) opinion of why Orton typed fake blurbs on the inside of library books, framing it in the realm of literary criticism: “I saw Orton typing the covers of books. I read what he typed, and I considered it a criticism of what the books contained” (p. 86).
  • Orton himself often echoed this literary criticism angle in later interviews, and also revealed once how personal it felt for him: “The thing that really put me in a rage about librarians was that I went to quite a big library in Islington and asked for Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They told me they hadn’t got a copy of it. They could get it for me, but they hadn’t one on their shelves. This didn’t start it off, but it was symptomatic of the whole thing. I was enraged that there were so many rubbishy novels and rubbishy books. … Libraries might as well not exist; they’ve got endless shelves of rubbish and hardly any space for good books” (p. 88).
  • There may be a clue — or just an excuse? — in Orton’s and Halliwell’s 1960 play The Boy Hairdresser, in which the main characters confess that they steal library books: “We’re public benefactors in a way. We steal — the shops order more — the publishers are pleased — and everybody is happy. We finance literature” (p. 89). Personally, as a librarian, I find this argument the least convincing one of them all, and it demonstrates a profound ignorance of how libraries, or bookstores, actually work. First of all, it takes a lot of time and effort to track library books/inventory and compile lists of missing or lost ones, and budgets are ALWAYS tight, so there’s no guarantee that libraries will realize in a timely way when books are missing and/or that they will have the funds to repurchase the titles.

After reading this chapter, I came away with the idea that Orton himself was an unreliable narrator. I think there were probably several reasons for his years-long work on defacing the library books, and he would pull out a reason that sounded right to him in the moment. In some sense, the myriad of reasons were all true, and therefore they were all never quite the whole truth individually.

I also found it intriguing that Lahr explores whether or not the prank was successful and how that also had an impact on Orton’s creative expression: “Orton enjoyed talking about prison and the defaced books. But he always sidestepped the question of the prank’s success. […] Orton waited to see a reaction from the public, but got no satisfaction. ‘He couldn’t understand why the public wasn’t getting stirred up,’ Sidney Porrett remembers. The work did incite the public, but Orton couldn’t gauge the reaction. When he understood the elaborate lengths to which Islington went to catch them, he realized just how disturbing the work had been. This pleased him” (p. 134)

The effects of prison

The movie version of this biography is quite succinct when it comes to the effects that prison had on Orton (“Prison worked wonders for Joe“).

Lahr goes into much more detail and nuance: “Prison was more of a turning points in their life than either Orton or Halliwell at first admitted. Orton found a focus for his anger and a new detachment in his writing. For Halliwell, prison was more humiliating — a symbol of the larger pattern of defeat in his life. … Having once savoured the role of literary renegades, they now had bona fide criminal credentials” (p. 95).

The effects they had on each other

Lahr really has a way of capturing the dynamic between Orton and Halliwell:

  • The greatest impression Orton and Halliwell made at RADA was on each other” (p. 103)
  • Writing, like most things at the beginning of their relationship, was Halliwell’s idea. He was working on a novel when Orton moved in, and before long, Orton was seated at the living room contributing to Halliwell’s effort the only literary skill he possessed: his typing. But as Orton transcribed Halliwell’s novel, he would make suggestions. Halliwell found them useful and incorporated them into his work. By including Orton in his literary ambitions, he was also binding him closer to his life” (p. 108).
Joe Orton 1933-1967 (Islington)” photo by Spudgun67, CC BY SA 4.0 license

Thoughts from Chapter 4

Orton mentions the public library when describing the plot of his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane: “It’s about a young man, eighteen or nineteen, who wants a room and comes into this house. He’s met the woman of the house in a public library. He comes to the house and she shows him around” (p. 157).

Remember the gas-mask case that Halliwell used to smuggle books he stole from the public library in Islington? Orton continued to use it! “Orton carried his papers in the same gas-mask case Halliwell used to smuggle books” (p. 173). WOW! I just love details like that.

We also learn, in great detail via his diary, that Orton was almost denied a passport/visa to travel to the U.S., where his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane was preparing its Broadway debut, due to his crime of defacing library books! And although he described the crime as “a joke” to the American Embassy officials, Orton wrote in the same entry that, “This wasn’t true. The outrages against a middle-brow reaching public were serious enough. They’d occupied my time and energies for close on five years before I was caught. They could never be justified. Or explained” (p. 183).

Orton also paints a rosier picture of the effects of his library book pranks: “Many people borrowed the book from the library on the strength of my blurbs. And returned them with complaints when the published story didn’t live up to mine” (p. 186).

Thoughts from Chapter 5

I had no idea that Loot, Orton’s most famous and successful play, had such a torturous and ill-reviewed path to stage success. Lahr really goes in-depth into how much Orton rewrote and reshaped this play, which eventually earned him the award for best play in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 1966.

Although boasting about his prison stint and library book prank in interviews, Orton revealed that he was still bitter about the experience in private. He would tell friends that he had been “entrapped by police” because he was a homosexual (p. 207).

Thoughts from Chapter 6

I liked how Lahr summed up Orton’s accomplishments while also acknowledging Halliwell’s influence — something that Orton could never do in public: “The plots of old, failed novels (some of them partly Halliwell’s invention) were being recycled by Orton into new commercial products. He was free to be himself, and he had found a way of making that self acceptable to the world” (p. 251).

Thoughts from the Acknowledgements

Bonus thoughts! I mentioned in last month’s post that the movie version of Prick Up Your Ears featured Lahr as a character in the narrative, played by Wallace Shawn, and how the movie highlighted his research into Orton and how he “reads his diaries and pieces together Orton’s and Halliwell’s life together.”

After reading the source biography, I am personally convinced that the screenwriter decided to add Lahr into the screenplay after reading the Acknowledgements, because of how Lahr details his own research process: “The biography became a mosaic, pieced painstakingly together with his own words and the observations of those whose path he crossed” (p. 321).

Continuing the conversation

Overall, I found the Prick Up Your Ears biography quite engrossing (and I’m not usually one for reading biographies or non-fiction in general). I feel like I came away with a much greater understanding of Orton’s and Halliwell’s dynamic and a greater appreciation for Orton’s writing and creative genius. Highly recommended!

I am really glad I decided to continue the conversation into Joe Orton’s works and life in John Lahr’s 1978 biography. Now it’s your turn! Have you read the biography, or watched the movie version? Please leave a comment and share your own thoughts!

Sources used

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

2 thoughts on “Thoughts after reading ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ biography”

  1. Sounds like a very interesting book! Thanks for writing about this. I haven’t watched Prick Up Your Ears, but I’ll have to watch it at some point. The description of how libraries are part of the story reminds me of what Mike Reiss talks about in Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons. I don’t remember the page, but I vaguely remember him talking about them trying to come up with silly names for books to show in the library, and how hard it was to do that. Sorry if that’s not totally related to this, but reading this post made me think of that, I’m not sure why.

    1. Thanks, Burkely! That’s an interesting detail about the Simpsons book. There was a Simpsons art exhibit here in Tacoma a couple of years ago, and I think I remember a section just about all the various names they had to come up for things, and I think library books were included in that part of the exhibit. 🙂

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