Orton attended Marriots Road Primary School, but failed the eleven-plus exam after extended bouts of asthma, and so took a secretarial course at Clark's College in Leicester from 1945 to 1947. He then began working as a junior clerk on £3 a week.
Orton became interested in performing in the theatre around 1949 and joined a number of different dramatic societies, including the prestigious Leicester Dramatic Society. While working on amateur productions he was also determined to improve his appearance and physique, buying body-building courses, taking elocution lessons, and also trying to redress his lack of education and culture. He lost his job and, still 'stage-struck', applied for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in November 1950. He was accepted, and left the East Midlands for London with little regret. His entrance into RADA was delayed until May 1951 by appendicitis.
Orton met Kenneth Halliwell at RADA in 1951, moving into a West Hampstead flat with him and two other students in June of that year. Halliwell was seven years older than Orton and of independent means, having a substantial inheritance. They quickly formed a strong relationship and became lovers, despite Orton's claims of sexual incompatibility. Neither did well in their two years at the academy, although Halliwell did rather worse — earning a Certificate of Merit against Orton's Diploma.
After graduating, both went into a regional repertory work; Orton spent four months in Ipswich as an assistant stage manager, Halliwell in Llandudno, Wales. Both returned to London and "their dreams shifted from the stage to the page." They collaborated on a number of unpublished novels (often imitating Ronald Firbank), and had little success, but some encouragement. The rejection of their great hope, The Last Days of Sodom, in 1957 led them to solo works. Orton would later return to the books for ideas and many show glimpses of his stage play style.
They refused to work for long periods, confident of their "specialness"; they subsisted on Halliwell's money, (as well as the dole), and were forced to follow a quite ascetic life in order to restrict their outgoings to £5 a week. From 1957-59, they worked in six-month stretches at Cadbury's to raise money for a new flat; they moved into the small and austere flat on Noel Road in Islington in 1959.
A lack of serious work led them to amuse themselves with pranks and hoaxes. Orton created Edna Welthorpe, an elderly 'outraged of' whom he would later revive to stir controversy over his plays. Orton coined the term as an allusion to Terence Rattigan's "Aunt Edna", Rattigan's archetypal playgoer.
In another episode, Orton and Halliwell stole books from the local library, and would subtly modify the cover art or the blurbs before returning them to the library. A volume of poems by John Betjeman, for example, was returned to the library with a new dustjacket featuring a photograph of a nearly naked, heavily tattooed middle-aged man. The couple took many of the prints to decorate their flat. They were eventually discovered, and prosecuted for this in May, 1962.
The incident was reported in the national newspaper the Daily Mirror as "Gorilla in the Roses". They were charged with five counts of theft and malicious damage, admitted damaging more than seventy books, and were jailed for six months (released September 1962) and fined £262. The books that Orton and Halliwell vandalised have since become the most valued of the Islington Library service collection.
Orton revelled in his achievement and poured out new works. He had completed Entertaining Mr Sloane by the time The Ruffian on the Stair was broadcast. He sent a copy to the theatre agent Peggy Ramsay in December 1963. It premiered at the New Arts Theatre on 6 May, 1964 under the direction of Michael Codron. Reviews ranged from praise to outrage. Certain influential theatre figures such as Terence Rattigan ensured that Orton's work was performed, however, and there was a clear expectation of good things to come.
Entertaining Mr Sloane lost money in its three week run, but Rattigan invested £3,000 and the play transferred to Wyndham's Theatre in the West End at the end of June and to the Queen's Theatre in October. Sloane tied for first in the Variety Critics' Poll for "Best New Play" and Orton came second for "Most Promising Playwright." Within a year, Sloane was being performed in New York (directed by Alan Schneider, it did very poorly), Spain, Israel and Australia, as well as being made into a film, and a television play.
The chronology of Orton's works thereafter becomes confusing, as his next major success, Loot, was written later, but performed earlier, than the two television plays, The Good and Faithful Servant and The Erpingham Camp. Hence material that seems less Ortonesque, a backwards step in development and skill, is misleadingly positioned.
Orton's next performed work was Loot. The first draft was written between June and October 1964 and entitled Funeral Games, a title Orton would drop for Halliwell's suggestion but would later reuse. The play is a wild parody of detective fiction, adding the blackest farce and jabs at established ideas on death, the police, religion and justice. Orton offered the play to Codron in October 1964 and it underwent sweeping rewrites before it was judged fit for the West End (for example, the character of "Inspector Truscott" had a mere eight lines in the initial first act.)
Codron had manoeuvred Orton into meeting his colleague Kenneth Williams in August 1964. They were "immediately sympatico" and Orton reworked Loot with Williams in mind for Truscott. His other inspiration for the role was DS Harold Challenor, the utter incompatibility of these two sources being lost on Orton at first.
With the success of Sloane evident, Loot was hurried into pre-production, despite its obvious flaws. Rehearsals began in January 1965 with a six-week tour culminating in a West End debut planned. The play opened in Cambridge on 1 February to disastrous and scathing reviews, not for the content but for the plot, the acting, the bright white set, the entire quality of the piece.
Orton, at odds with director Peter Wood over the plot (or lack of same), still tore at the play, producing 133 pages of new material to replace, or add, to the original ninety. The cast were demoralised in rehearsal and uneven and tentative on stage. They were, however, impressed by Orton's energy and efforts. The play staggered on to more poor reviews in Brighton, Oxford, Bournemouth, Manchester, and finally Wimbledon in mid-March. "Loot was a dead horse, but it continued to be flogged." Orton retired from the fray for a promiscuous, hashish-filled, eighty-day holiday in Tangier, Morocco.
In January 1966 Loot was revived, with Oscar Lewenstein taking up an option. Before his production, it had a short run (April 11-23) at the University Theatre, Manchester. Orton's growing experience led him to cut over six hundred lines, raising the tempo and improving the characters' interactions.
Directed by Braham Murray, with a more sympathetic and less abstract set, the tuned play garnered more favourable reviews. Lewenstein was still a little cool, however, and put the London production in a "sort of Off-West End theatre," the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in Bloomsbury, under the direction of Charles Marowitz.
Orton continued his habit of clashing with directors with Marowitz, but the additional cuts they agreed to further improved the play. The London premiere was 27 September, 1966, the reviews producing "stunned delight" in Orton. Loot moved to the Criterion Theatre, Holborn in November, raising Orton's confidence to new heights, "a weird, thrilling, slightly unnerving state of grace," while he was in the middle of writing What the Butler Saw.
Loot went on to win several awards — which had a pleasing effect on the box office — and firmly established Orton's fame. He sold the film rights for £25,000, although he was certain it would flop; it did, and Loot on Broadway repeated the failure of Sloane. Orton was still on an absolute high, however, and over the next ten months revised The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp for the stage as a double called Crimes of Passion, wrote Funeral Games, the screenplay Up Against It for the Beatles, and worked on What the Butler Saw.
The Good and Faithful Servant was a work of transition for Orton. A one-act television play, it was completed by June 1964 but first broadcast by Associated-Rediffusion on 6 April, 1967. With its low-key bitterness and regret, and its genuine poignance, it is tame and naturalistic compared to the joyful, macabre heights of his later modern farces, including those which premiered earlier.
Funeral Games is the real linking work between Loot and What the Butler Saw. It was written and re-written (four times) in July - November, 1966. Created for a Yorkshire Television series, The Seven Deadly Virtues, Orton's play dealt with charity — especially Christian charity — in a mad confusion of adultery and murder.
In March 1967 Orton and Halliwell had intended another extended holiday in North Africa – Libya on this occasion, but the relationship between them had deteriorated so far that they returned home after barely a day. Orton was working hard, energised and happy; Halliwell was increasingly depressed, argumentative, and plagued with mystery ailments.
Orton's controversial farce What The Butler Saw debuted in the West End after his death in 1969. It opened at the Queen's Theatre with Sir Ralph Richardson, Coral Browne, Stanley Baxter, and Hayward Morse. It was booed so loudly by gallery first nighters that the critics could not hear the lines.
On August 9, 1967, Halliwell bludgeoned the 34-year-old Orton to death with nine hammer blows to the head, and then committed suicide with an overdose of 22 Nembutal tablets washed down with the juice from canned grapefruit. Investigators determined that Halliwell died first, because Orton's body was still warm.
The November 22, 1970 edition of The Sunday Times reported that on August 5, 1967, four days before the murder, Orton went to the Chelsea Potter pub in the King's Road. He met friend Peter Nolan who later gave evidence at the inquest that Orton told him that he had another boyfriend, and that he wanted to end his relationship with Halliwell but didn't know how to go about it.
The last person to speak to Halliwell was his doctor, who arranged for a psychiatrist to see him the following morning. He spoke to Halliwell three times on the telephone. The last call was at 10 o'clock. Halliwell took the psychiatrist's address and said, "Don't worry, I'm feeling better now. I'll go and see the doctor tomorrow morning."
Halliwell had felt increasingly threatened and isolated by Orton's success, and had come to rely on anti-depressants and barbiturates. The bodies were discovered the following morning when a chauffeur arrived to take Orton to a meeting to discuss a screenplay he had written for the Beatles.
Halliwell left a suicide note, informing police that all would be explained if they read Orton's diaries, "especially the latter part". The diaries have since been published.
Orton was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium. According to Dennis Dewsnap's memoire (What's Sex Got To Do With It, The Syden Press, 2004) from mostly Tangiers, where Orton and Halliwell went on holiday, Orton and his lover/murderer had their ashes mixed and were buried together. Dewsnap writes about Orton's agent Peggy Ramsay: "...At the scattering of Joe's and Kenneth's ashes, his sister took a handful from both urns and said 'a little bit of Joe, and a little bit of Kenneth. I think perhabs a little bit more of our Joe, and then some more of Kenneth'. At which Peggy snapped 'Come on, dearie, it's only a gesture, not a recipe.', a line surely worthy of Joe himself.
Two archive recordings of Orton survive: a short BBC radio interview first transmitted in August 1967 and a video recording, held by the BFI, of his appearance on Eamon Andrews' ITV chat show transmitted 23 April 1967.