ITS HARD TO IMAGINE anyone better equipped than John Lahr to write the biography of Joe Orton, the young British playwright who was murdered in 1967 by his homosexual lover. A novelist and drama critic as well as the author of an affecting life of his father Bert, Lahr moves easily through the several dimensions of his chosen task. The book is a detective story-like tracking down of an elusive and wayward existence, literary criticism on a high level, and a shrewd, deep inquiry into complicated social and psychological pathology. Pick Up Your Ears (the title comes from an abandoned work of Orton's and is a deliberately vulgar pun) is sharply intelligent, often inspired and always disturbing.
When he died at 34 Orton ws riding a wave of celevrity as the current enfant terrible of English drama, a writer whose half-dozen stage and television plays were distinguished by what Lahr rightly calls "the gorgeous wicked fun . . . (they) . . . poked at the world." He had lived for years with Kenneth Halliwell, a failed writer an artist who had been of much help to him when he began writing but who had become increasingly anguished by Orton's brilliant rise contrasted with his own sense of sterility. On a hot August night Halliwell killed Orton by repeated hammer blows to the head and then committed suicide with sleepingpills.
In 1970 Lahr learned about some diaries Orton had kept for a few years during his youth and again in the last year of his life. They proved to be immensely informative. Filled with the most intimate details of his sexual activities-Orton was given to nocturnal encounters in parks and public lavatories and to adventuring in the boymarkets of North Africa-they also told much about his relations with his family and his intellectual development, a painstaking self-education and seizing of sophistication from an unpromissing start.
Orton grew up in Leicester in a working-class family. His father seems to have been dim and ineffectual, his mother ill-tempered and pretentious, and Orton came to see them as incarnations of everything seedy, socially marginal and at the same time aggressively conformist, a quality he would later mock in his work. An early ambition for the stage led to membership in local theatrical groups and a scholarship to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
His acting career was short-lived, and was succeeded by long periods of indolence and odd jobs and the writing of fiction, much of it in collaboration with Halliwell, whom he had met at RADA, and none of it published. The two spent six months in prison in 1962 for defacing library books (they replaced dust-jackets with their own satiric and bawdy creations), after which Orton settled down to the serious study and writing of plays. In 1964 Entertaining Mr. Sloane , his first work to be staged, was an immediate sensation. Its "nonchalant anarchy," Lahr writes, was in "radical contrast to the shabby genteel setting that had been familiar on the British stage."
Throughout his detailed, intelligent readings of Orton's plays, all of which deride the values of the middle-class and particularly its fetish for categories, Lahr moves back and forth between the work and the life. This can be dangerous, of course, the pitfall being that kind of biographical criticism that reduces imaginative writing to case history. But applied to Orton, Lahr's method seems fully justified. The relations between his psyche and experience and his dramatic inventions were close and intricate. As has been true for others, writing was a means both of imposing himself on the world and getting revenge on it. But his mockery had a liberating as well as a brutal edge. The comedies, Lahr says, "celebrate instinct and gratification, and Orton aspired to corrupt his audiences with pleasure."
"Corrupt" is ambiguous in this context. Whatever one's attitude to Orton's homosexuality (Lahr is wholly nonjudgemental), it was perverse by bourgeois standards, and one of Orton's strategies was to throw that perversity against his audiences' moral complacency. Not that he proselytized; what he did was mix things up, play on the shifting boundaries of sexual identity. And here the work reflected the dark life in comic form. Orton was extremely promiscuous, and "promisucity," Lahr writes, "was a submersion inchaos, a flirtation with death, a ritual wasting with its 'magical' corollary of renewed fertility." In a wonderful image Lahr calls Orton a "volupturay of fiasco." To a certain point he was able, as D.H. Lawrence said about himself, to shed his sickness in his works; but turned to fatality.
If there is anything at all questionable about this skillful and sensitive book, it's the stature Lahr understandably claims for his subject. Orton may have been on the way to it, but he wasn't yet quite the "great" comic writer Lahr calls him. For one thing his influences-Pinter in the early plays, Wilde in the later ones-were never wholly absorbed. For another he was far more interested in commercial success and hence willing to tamper with his work in the interest of the box-office than Lahr will admit (the book is full of evidence of Orton's wanting to have it borth ways). Still, he wrote one extraordinarily fine comedy, What the Butler Saw , his last play. For the rest he was big enough and good enough to justify Lahr's energy and devotion and to bring about in us an especially painful sense of giftedness cut short.