Homosexuals had a hard time until the Sexual Offences (No. 2) Act was passed in 1967. They had to be afraid of being caught and imprisoned. Nonetheless, many gay men stuck to their love for other men and satisfied their desires as heterosexuals satisfied theirs. One man even dared to deal with the topic (homo-)sexuality openly. This man was Joe Orton, a gay playwright, who became famous in 1963. In 1967 he wrote a play - Entertaining Mr. Sloane. This paper focuses on that play and tries to answer the question: What role does the aspect of sexuality play in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane?
The introduction is followed by an overview of Joe Orton’s life in which the main stages from his birth to his early death are mentioned and described. In chapter three the play is put into his historical context. There, I will inform about the reasons why homosexuality was forbidden in England and how the Sexual Offences (No. 2) Act came about. The next chapter deals with the three main characters of the play, starting with Mr. Sloane. The second person to be characterized is Kath and the third is her brother Ed. Chapter six focuses on the aspect of sexuality in Orton’s play. The former chapters, however, are necessary to understand in what circumstances Orton lived and wrote and in which way the protagonists’ characters are vital for answering the guiding question. The sixth chapter is followed by a conclusion on the aspect of sexuality in Entertaining Mr. Sloane. A personal assessment rounds this seminar paper off.
Having given a short overview of this essay, I will now start with the synopsis of Joe Orton’s life. It is important for the answer of the guiding question, because his life reveals some interesting aspects which are crucial to the way he wrote. Bigsby argues in his book Joe Orton that his sexual identity is crucial to his art (cf. 1982, p. 67).
2 Joe Orton
John Kingsley Orton was born on 1st January 1933 in Saffron Lane Estate in Leicester as the first child of William and Elsie Orton, two working-class members. William Orton first worked in the footwear industry but changed his profession to gardener for the city of Leicester, due to his physical weakness (cf. Puchner, 1999, p. 364). The “mother, Elsie Orton, was a machinist in the hosiery industry” (s.p. ). Orton was a quiet child who read a lot. He suffered from “asthma attacks which kept him out of school for long periods of time” (Coppa, 2005, p. 188). This might have been a reason why he failed his eleven-plus exam and in consequence was not allowed to continue his education at the academically oriented grammar school he attended. But to offer her son a further education, Elsie spent her savings and sent him to the private Clark’s College (a secretarial college) where he was taught in typing and short hand. After graduating there he had several temporarily jobs but could not “pursue a career that would satisfy his mother’s ambitions” (Puchner, 1999, p. 364). He got interested in the theatre, however, and gave his debut on stage in 1949 playing the small parts of Dorset and a messenger in Shakespeare’s Henry III. After having participated in this play he was so interested in acting that his main goal was to get accepted at England’s premiere drama school the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). He worked hard to achieve this aim and finally “auditioned successfully with a piece from Peter Pan and started the three-year programme in 1951” (Puchner, 1999, p. 364). He graduated in 1953. At the Academy he got to know his roommate and later lover Kenneth Halliwell who was seven years older than him. Halliwell and Orton were lovers for sixteen years and worked together on several projects (The Last Days of Sodom, The Mechanical Womb and The Boy Hairdresser). Halliwell was Orton’s most important teacher and inspiration during that time but in 1956 they ended their literary collaboration (cf. Puchner, 1999, p. 365) and Orton began to write on his own; his first novel written by himself was Between Us Girls (1957). Six years later, Orton achieved some public recognition for his work and then, on advice of his agent Peggy Ramsay, changed his name from John Kingsley Orton to “the simple (and demonstrably working-class) Joe Orton” (s.p.). In 1964 he wrote a drama exclusively for the stage. This drama was Entertaining Mr. Sloane which is the main focus of this paper. Two years earlier, Orton and Halliwell had been arrested for stealing 72 library books from the Islington Public Library, ‘unlawfully and maliciously causing damage’ to an additional 62, and ‘wilfully’ damaging others by removing from them a total of 1,653 art plates’ (Coppa, 2005, p. 193).
They both were sentenced to six months in prison and as well as a substantial fine. Orton was convinced that their penalty was so hard because they were homosexual (cf. s.p.) which was outlawed at that time.
In December 1966 his mother died and is buried in Leicester. From his diary one gets the impression that Orton does not really feel affected by this tragic event since the only thing he noted down was “that her displayed corpse look[ed] ‘fat, old and dead’” (Puchner, 1999, p. 368). Only eight months later (9 August 1967) Orton is murdered by his lover Halliwell at the age of 34. He killed him with nine hammer blows to the head and then committed suicide via overdose (22 Nembutal tablets). The couple was found by a chauffeur who wanted to pick up Orton for a meeting with the movie director Dick Lester (cf. Coppa, 2005, p. 200). Orton and Halliwell had been lovers for fifteen years.
With his novels and plays which often included violence, sex as wells as hints at the gay culture and the gay way of living, Orton had become “an icon of the ‘New Wave’ of English theater as well as of the increasingly visible gay culture” (Puchner, 1999, p. 363). His way of writing is often referred to as “ortonesque” which can be described as outrageously macabre. His plays gained this description because in the course of their actions “[s]creens and closet doors that conceal moral and sexual hypocrisy are forced open, inviting gossip, scandal and intrigue” (Puchner, 1999, p. 371).
After having given an overview of Joe Orton’s life in this chapter, it is useful to briefly explain in which historical context the play Entertaining Mr Sloane was written, in order to understand what role the aspect of sexuality plays in this drama.
3 Historical context of the play
Entertaining Mr. Sloane was written and performed when homosexuality was still outlawed. Two men were strictly forbidden to have any sexual intercourse. This law goes back to Henry VIII who declared sodomy as a “detestable and abominable vice” (Coppa, 1999, p. 89, quoted from Goodman, 1994) and punished it by death. Later the death penalty for this crime was replaced by lifelong imprisonment (cf. Coppa, 1999, p. 89). In 1885 the British parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Bill and along with it the Labouchere Amendment which declared sexual intercourse between men as “gross indecency” (cf. s.p.). It also constituted that homosexuality between men was punished by two years in prison, “either with or without hard work” (s.p.). This law was valid until the 1967 reform when the parliament passed the Sexual Offences (No. 2) Act. This Act “decriminalized private homosexual acts between men over twenty-one” (Coppa, 1999, p. 88). Until then “homosexuality was [also] considered a mental illness [...]” (Coppa, 2000, p. 200) and as a result prevented homosexuals from getting unbiased psychiatric treatment. (Such treatment would have been necessary for Kenneth Halliwell who had attempted suicide once, in 1962, since, in the light of Orton’s success, he had the feeling of being unworthy and a burden).
The information given above show that, when Orton wrote his play, queer men always had to deal with prejudices and furthermore had to be afraid of being arrested by the police and sent to prison, which happened quite often at that time. The police were observing the law in such a strict way that the prisons were about to be crowded by homosexual men. “The number of recorded cases of sodomy rose from 134 in 1938 to 1,043 in 1953, and the number of cases of gross indecency skyrocketed from 316 in 1938 to 2,322 in 1955” (Coppa, 1999, p. 89). However, it happened quite often that the police caught men who were not even gay but happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result many people lost their confidence in the police force because its legal legitimacy was no longer apparent to the citizens. Due to this the Sexual Offences (No. 2) Act was actually intended to bring the legislature and criminal justice system out of disrepute, and to make sure power stayed within proper channels (cf. Coppa, 1999, p. 91). But the pr]o-reform side argued that the current law provoked a lack of faith in the government since civil society had recently undergone social changes (cf. s.p.). So in the end they were successful in legalizing homosexuality for men over twenty-one.
4 Summary of the play
Entertaining Mr. Sloane was Joe Orton’s first play exclusively written for the stage. It premiered on May 6, 1964 at the New Arts Theatre in London.
The whole play takes place in the living room of the house where a woman (Kath) and her “frail, though imposing, father, Kemp” (Puchner, 1999, p. 374) live. At the beginning of the play, Kath is talking to a man (Mr. Sloane) who wants to rent a room. She is attracted by him right from the start and desires him as a lover. When Kemp and Sloane meet for the first time, the reader gets to know that the former suspects the latter to be the murderer of his old boss. This is proved at the end of Act two, where Sloane admits the deed in a fight with the old man, but emphasises that it was an accident; he did not intend to kill Kemp’s former boss.
Shortly after Kath and Sloane have agreed on the room, Kath’s brother Ed comes around to visit his sister. When he sees the new lodger, he is attracted by him as well and wants a private word with him. He asks him questions about his youth and interests and is happy to hear that Sloane is as fond of sports as he was in his youth. In the end he offers him a job as his chauffeur. Act one ends with Sloane being seduced by Kath on the sofa of the living-room in the evening of the day.
 s.p. means “same place” in the source
- Quote paper
- Florian Knetsch (Author), 2008, What role does the aspect of sexuality play in Joe Orton’s "Entertaining Mr. Sloane"?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/154406