Document Reference NumberMS 237
TitleThe Orton Collection: records relating to Joe Orton, playwright (1933 - 1967)
DescriptionThe Orton Collection comprises the literary and personal papers of Leicester born playwright John 'Joe' Kingsley Orton (1 January 1933 - 9 August 1967). The collection includes correspondence, photographs, diary entries and newspaper cuttings relating to Orton's personal life, particularly: his family, education at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), his 6 month imprisonment for stealing and defacing books from Islington Borough Library, and Orton's sexuality.

The literary papers of the collection trace Orton's career as firstly an (unsuccessful) novelist, and latterly an award winning playwright. Early drafts and unfinished works reveal Orton's creative writing process, whilst completed scripts with annotations by both Orton and theatre producers highlight the developmental process from script to stage. Theatre programmes, production photographs, scrapbooks and newspaper cuttings compliment staged productions of Orton's works, both contemporaneous and those staged posthumously. Correspondence between Orton and his agent Margaret 'Peggy' Ramsay, alongside correspondence with other literary contacts contextualise the theatre industry of the 1960s, whilst the 'Edna Welthorpe' letters and others penned under various pseudonyms depict Orton's sense of mischief. Within the Collection there also resides a small amount of material relating to Orton's partner Kenneth Halliwell, which has been assigned as a subfonds.

The Collection, purchased from the Orton Estate by the University of Leicester in 1997, is an amalgamation of original material and photocopies created by Orton and collated by his sister Leonie Barnett (nee Orton), his agent Margaret 'Peggy' Ramsay, biographer John Lahr and other unknown individuals. Additional material within the Collection includes that produced by Orton's associates, material created posthumously, and that identified as memorabilia. Contents therefore do not neccessarily reflect Orton's original order or records management, and consequentially have been disorganised throughout use and transfer of material prior to acquisition.
Date1928 - 2009
Extent2 vols, 15 files + 1149 items
Related MaterialPR17 Joe Orton Memorabilia
FormatNewspaper or cutting
ArrangementThe Orton Collection is arranged into the following sections:
- Personal Papers
- Creative writing process and unfinished works
- Completed scripts
- Theatre programmes and production posters
- Photographs
- Newspaper cuttings and press reviews
- Joe Orton's correspondence
- Third party correspondence relating to Joe Orton
- Joe Orton memorabilia

An additional subfonds has been added as section 10:
- Papers relating to Kenneth Halliwell

The Collection was originally catalogued by J. G. Clark in 1998 onto the University's library catalogue Symphony (now supersided). This new catalogue is an enchancement of its original, with the old document reference numbers retained within the 'Other_Number' field and their original catalogue descriptions recorded in the 'Notes' field. Any material donated to the University after this date and outside of the initial deposit has been directed into 'PR17 Joe Orton Memorabilia'. This should be used for any future acquisitions of material relating to Joe Orton's personal or literary career.
AdminHistoryJoe Orton (1933-1967), playwright, was born in Leicester to William and Elsie Orton and grew up on the Saffron Lane Estate, South Leicester. After failing his eleven-plus, Orton attended a local secretarial school Clark's College, during which time he joined various amateur dramatic groups across Leicester. In 1951 Orton won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA).

Whist at RADA Orton met Kenneth Halliwell who, for the following sixteen years played a large role in Orton's life, both as a collaborator on early literary works and as Orton's long-term partner. In the subsequent years following their graduation from RADA, Orton and Halliwell submitted numerous manuscripts to publishing houses but failed to secure publication. Whilst residing in a small bedsit in North London, Orton and Halliwell began the lengthy act of stealing and defacing book jackets from Islington Borough Library, an act which convicted them both to 6 months imprisonment.

Upon release, both individuals experienced contrasting levels of success. While Orton steadily gained literary prominence as a playwright, Halliwell did not. Orton's first found success as a playwright in 1964 when his radio play 'The Ruffian on the Stair' was broadcast by the BBC. Within a short period of time, Orton succeeded in producing works which challenged convention, societal norms, and traditional values held by some 1960s audiences.

Reviews were mixed, however Orton's most acclaimed plays: 'Entertaining Mr Sloane', Loot' and 'What the Butler Saw' (produced posthumously) all received West End runs, with some productions transfered to Broadway and other European cities. Additionally, both 'Entertaining Mr Sloane' and 'Loot' were later adapted for the screen. Whilst some productions were heavily scrutinize by critics, Orton's achievement as an established playwright was cemented in 1966 through receiving The Evening Standard's award for best play. The high demand for Orton's literary talent is evident through the continuous stream of requests for new material; particularly pertinent was Orton's commission to write the screenplay for a film starring The Beatles (entitled 'Up Against It', which was later dropped from production).

On 9 August 1967 Orton's literary career and celebrity status was cut short when he was murdered by his lifelong companion, Kenneth Halliwell. Soon after Halliwell took his own life, leaving a [suicide] note which alluded to the contents of Orton's diary in offer of an explanation. The location of Orton's final diary is unknown.

Orton's life, both private and public have long been of interest to researchers and the media alike. The first biography 'Prick up your Ears' was written by John Lahr and adapted for the screen by Alan Bennett in 1987. Since his death numerous dramatisations, biographies, documentaries and research papers have focused on the life and career of Orton, securing his longevity in the history of Britsh Theatre.
AccessConditionsSome material within Sections 7 and 8 may be unavailable for general access; researchers wishing to view this material must complete a green DPA disclaimer form
AccessStatusSome material may be unavailable for general access
    Powered by CalmView© 2008-2023