It was 35 years ago today: Nihilism with a smile

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The Independent Culture
This week in 1964, after nearly a decade of rejection, the 31- year-old Joe Orton finally got publicity for his craft, rather than his craftiness. (The year before, he and his lover Kenneth Halliwell had gained a few column inches - and six-month prison sentences - for defacing library books.)

Entertaining Mr Sloane, Orton's first, blackly comic, stage play, was premiered at the New Arts Theatre. Dudley Sutton was Sloane, the murderous young lodger who sparks sexual jealousy between his middle-aged landlady and her brother. Some critics questioned its subject matter; most were certain of Orton's potential.

Bernard Levin wrote that he was "the dramatic equivalent of what, in painting, is called a primitive. But his talent is a real one". John Mortimer felt the play was "bright and fresh ... and done in the best contemporary styles" (Standard). It was "a milk-curdling essay in lower-middle-class nihilism" (Guardian). The Observer compared Orton's "flashes of wit" to Wilde; and in the Sunday Times Harold Hobson cited Jane Austen, calling the play "the Northanger Abbey of our contemporary stage". It was a "vision of total evil", but it was "possible to perceive its merit without approving it".

Some critics did neither: "not for a long time have I disliked a play so much" (Telegraph). This was the cue for Orton's letter-writing alter ego, Edna Welthorpe, to begin a moralistic debate on his own merits in the Telegraph's letters pages. Other Orton pseudonyms contributed to it. Orton then found an unlikely patron in Terence Rattigan, who called Entertaining Mr Sloane "the best first play I have seen in 28 years" and put up pounds 3,000 for its transfer to Wyndhams.

Loot, starring Kenneth Williams, had a disastrous first tour in 1965, but there was a successful West End resurrection in 1966. Three TV plays were also produced before Halliwell murdered Orton in August 1967. What the Butler Saw was produced - shambolically - in 1969, but with an acclaimed staging of the plays as a trilogy by the Royal Court in 1975, they became a permanent feature on the theatrical landscape.

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