Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton

I have an unwritten rule which compels me to finish every book I open. My readers know of two of my book reviews, pertaining to an alive Elvis and lesbian masochists, which were chores to get through. However, regardless of a book’s length, how boring it is or how far it is from my first impression of what it might be like, I trudge through it, dreading every minute. I always give these books the chance that they might have some redeeming quality which makes the first couple hundred pages worthwhile to stick it out.

In John Lahr’s Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, there was no such redemption. After rubbing the shell of this nut for 361 pages I thought I would be treated to a hidden pecan, but the shell was empty. I started this book on 17 August; that’s over three weeks ago–and this book is only 361 pages. This book was the most boring read of nonfiction I have encountered in twenty years. Barring three exceptions, I fell asleep every time I sat down to read it. If I didn’t believe in my own immortality, I would be worried about wasting my limited life time reading this junk.

I am a big Beatles fan, and I came across the name Joe Orton when I learned that he was approached to write the screenplay for the Beatles’ third movie (after “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!”). This never came to pass. When his script for “Up Against It” was returned, Orton wrote: 

“No explanation why. No criticism of the script. And apparently, Brian Epstein has no comment to make either. Fuck them.” 

Lahr had unrestricted access to Orton’s diaries and quotes from them at length. In the Beatles passages, being allowed into the Fab Four’s “inner circle” is quite a hoot to read. When Orton meets Brian Epstein and Paul McCartney for the first time, he writes: 

“‘The only thing I get from the theatre,’ Paul M. said, ‘is a sore arse.’ He said “Loot” [an Orton play] was the only play he hadn’t wanted to leave before the end. … We talked of tattoos. And after one or two veiled references, marijuana.” 

Shortly after his Beatles script was rejected, Orton was killed by his common-law husband in the summer of 1967 in a murder-suicide. Lahr talks about this tragedy at the beginning of the book, and goes to great lengths to analyze the psyche of Orton’s partner and what drove him to commit murder and suicide. The psychoanalysis is brought up again at the end of the book. Excluding the psych-talk and Beatles anecdotes, the bulk of what fills these two covers is a boring critique of each of Orton’s plays. If one hasn’t seen these works on stage, one is left in the dark. I couldn’t follow the plotlines; the exhaustive dialogue seemed more out of context than having any pertinence to points Lahr intended to make about the playwright; and the general flow was at a snail’s pace. The critiques go on and on… I could only get through ten pages in an hour. So much was quoted from Orton’s plays and his own diaries, and since all the cited sections were reproduced in a minuscule font, it made poor eyes like mine very tired. I really dreaded seeing more lines of dialogue reproduced as evidence of Orton’s personality or reflections of what he was going through domestically. 

Orton’s diaries were more interesting, especially his tales of trolling for anonymous sex in the public toilets of London and around the world. Orton held back nothing in his own diaries, and he probably would have loved knowing that people are now reading about his sexual escapades. I make this remark because Orton loved to talk loudly about lascivious topics in very public places. He would write about how he and friends would sit in an upscale restaurant and during a crowded lunchtime they would all talk oblivious to everyone around them about a (fictional) gay orgy. He and his friends got their kicks out of other people’s shocked reactions. He was just like a little boy in his enthusiastic retelling of how people shuddered in horror at the tales he would tell. This carried over into his plays, as his subject matter often found him in hot water with censors as well as his paying audience. 

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