JUNE 4, 2017
“I’M FROM THE GUTTER. And don’t you ever forget it because I won’t,” British playwright Joe Orton sneered at the height of his career. Orton had risen from a “gutter” in Leicester to become one of the most celebrated and controversial playwrights of the Swinging ’60s. He completed three comedic masterpieces — Entertaining Mr Sloane, Loot, and What the Butler Saw — before his increasingly depressed and jealous lover, Kenneth Halliwell, bashed in his brains with a hammer and then took a fatal overdose of Nembutal.
Orton would likely be a cult figure today even if he had not been murdered at the age of 34. His scandalously savage and hilarious plays made a splash on the theatrical landscape, mixing macabre situations with social commentary and bawdy humor in a style that came to be known as Ortonesque.
Orton biographies often feature a photo of his younger sister, Leonie Orton Barnett, a pretty young woman frozen forever in shadowy black and white. Leonie, now 72, emerges in vivid color in her engrossing memoir, I Had It In Me, telling of her relationship with her famous brother, their family life, and her own remarkable journey of self-discovery.
Leonie grew up in the same gutter, but she did not find the avenues to climb out of it as quickly as Orton did. “Being born a girl, the odds were stacked against me,” she says. She was born in 1944 to a poor family and was raised with three siblings: Joe, Douglas, and Marilyn. “The tragedy of my life,” Leonie explains from her home in Norwich, Norfolk,
like millions of other kids then and now, is that no one cares to guide them, and [parents] fail to see how important education is, mainly because they’re uneducated and unaware parents themselves. I knew from a very early age that I was growing up in the disadvantaged working classes. I felt like a tiger trapped in a cage, going nowhere.
Leonie does not flinch when chronicling the dark side of the “dysfunctional” family life that inspired Orton’s cynical humor and grotesque characters, but, unlike her brother, she gives her parents’ backstories in an attempt to understand them. “I prefer to think that [Joe] did have a heart,” she writes in the memoir, “but his heart would have no truck with self-indulgence or overemotional sentimentality. Because of this he was sometimes labeled detached and heartless.”
Their father, Bill, was a shy, mild-mannered man who worked as a gardener and showed as much concern and personality to his family as a tiny houseplant. In What the Butler Saw, Orton has a character say, “I lived in a normal family. I had no love for my father.” Leonie, on the other hand, understands that their father was beaten down by “the wretchedness of poverty.” She recalls a time that “my surge of pity for him was so intense that I have never forgotten it.”
It was the Orton matriarch, Elsie, who ate up all the oxygen in the household. A loud, vulgar, enormously bitter woman, angry that she was part of the working class, she belittled her husband, raged at and beat her daughters, swindled her neighbors, and lashed out at strangers. Elsie was exceedingly vain and liked to put on airs, but she was also sloppy and careless, often misplacing her false teeth (all of which Orton found endlessly amusing and made brutal use of in his plays). Her behavior was disheartening to Leonie. “I never knew her once to embrace or kiss me,” she writes. “I was never encouraged to achieve anything. My mother’s only guidance about my future was ‘Make sure you marry a man that’s got a trade.’”
Again, in an interview, Leonie attempts to explain her mother as
a product of a society where money got you the best life. We were poor and the situation frustrated and hampered her. The beatings and cruelty stemmed from poverty. I can’t really explain why she was so hostile to her daughters. Maybe she saw us as the competition — the youthfulness she’d lost.
Leonie also describes their mother’s influence on Orton and his blistering recreations of her in his characters. “I think Elsie was anathema to Joe,” she explains.
However, I don’t think he would have made this public knowledge. Look at Kath in Entertaining Mr. Sloane — she is both ridiculous funny and pathetic, and yet, at the end of the play, she considers her options objectively. Sloane isn’t going to escape her clutches. Fay in Loot proves to be a cold, unfeeling, calculating female too. I don’t believe Joe was a misogynist. But there was, I think, a certain type of woman that he despised.
Leonie describes herself at 22 as semi-literate, working in a hosiery factory seaming socks, and acting as a “substitute mother” for her apathetic husband, George Barnett. She married young because that’s what girls of the era did. For the most part it was a loveless, passionless marriage. Her husband showed her no affection, often ignoring her for days. “The idea that my insensitive husband uses his power to exploit me never enters my head,” she writes in the book. “So instead of packing a suitcase and clearing out I accept my lot and stop complaining.”
But deep within, she felt a yearning, a feeling that perhaps she could do more with her life. It troubled her, but she didn’t even know how to articulate it, let alone act on it. Many of the women in her social class had dreams of escape; the streets were teeming with hundreds of Leonie Orton Barnetts. But they were often lost in the drudgery of survival. “It was still a man’s world,” Leonie says today.
Oh, there were more women going to university, but in the main women did what were deemed women’s jobs: housewives, hosiery workers, cleaners, primary school teachers. If you took shorthand and typing courses, you might become a secretary, but getting into a top management job was as rare as hens’ teeth. What women aspired to when I was a teenager was to be a fashion catwalk model like Jean Shrimpton. The problem was that British men, in general, didn’t want emancipated wives and daughters. They sanctioned the social and work restrictions that kept their women firmly under their authority.
Meanwhile, Joe Orton’s career was thriving. In 1967, he had completed a screenplay written for the Beatles, and his play Loot had won the Evening Standard award as the best play of the year. Charming, mischievous (he flaunted his promiscuity and growing popularity), and enormously talented, Orton was in demand. His older, longtime partner, Kenneth Halliwell, was not. Halliwell felt that he was a failure and couldn’t bear the thought that he might lose Orton as he ascended. He bludgeoned Orton to death as he slept, then took his own life.
Inheriting a part of Orton’s estate, Leonie first bought material things, but it bothered her that she really didn’t understand her brother’s work. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a strong desire to understand Joe’s plays,” she states. A turning point came when John Lahr started writing Orton’s biography, interviewing the people who had been close to the playwright. Lahr saw something in Leonie and encouraged her to believe in herself. “You’ve got a curiosity about life, and a desire to know more about it,” Lahr told her. “That’s the most important thing.”
Eventually, after having two daughters, Leonie began taking courses in history, sociology, geography, English literature, human biology, and, for several years, art history. She started to work at a library. It was a slow process, but she was determined to continue on her road to self-improvement. As her confidence slowly grew, she found the courage to separate from her husband and live her life as her own woman.
When she was in her 50s and more secure with herself, Leonie discovered true romantic love through a personals ad. And with a deeper knowledge and understanding of literature, she could, at last, fully appreciate her brother’s works, becoming the spokesperson for the Joe Orton Estate. She is described as “the keeper of the Joe Orton flame.” Like Joe, Leonie was able to overcome her humble, even cruel beginnings, in order to develop and thrive. But unlike Joe’s, her lively mind has found peace.
Joe Orton is one of those iconic literary figures whose life was so colorful and brilliant, and whose end was so gruesome, that it’s difficult to remember that he himself is not a fictional character (he was memorably played by Gary Oldman in the 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears). He actually lived and worked, walked the streets, and cruised public bathrooms. Leonie Orton’s memoir adds another layer to Orton’s humanity. He was born into a very difficult environment, but his genius was bigger than his circumstances. “I think if he’d lived, we would have collaborated and shared our family memories,” Leonie says. “I hope my book would have pleased him. I have tried to show where we came from and the Herculean challenge he overcame to become a celebrated writer.”