England to honor gay playwright Joe Orton with a statue 50 years after his gruesome death

England to honor gay playwright Joe Orton with a statue 50 years after his gruesome death

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Sir Ian McKellen supporting the Joe Orton statue.

England will get a statue of legendary gay playwright Joe Orton – over 50 years after his love killed him aged just 34.

Despite his early death, Joe Orton has been influential on generations of writers to follow him.

Now campaigners and celebrities have crowdfunded almost £116,000 to pay for a permanent statue to him.

Sir Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Sir Matthew Bourne, Pet Shop Boys, Alison Steadman, Kenneth Cranham, Sheila Hancock, Adam Kay, Patrick Gayle, Jake Arnott, Graham Fellows and The Connor Brothers were among the high-profile donors.

Today they have launched an appeal to find an artist to create the sculpture. It will sit outside the Curve theatre in Orton Square, in his native city of  Leicester, in the Midlands of England.

Who was Joe Orton?

Joe Orton in 1964.
Joe Orton in 1964. Wikimedia Commons

Joe Orton, was an English playwright, author and diarist. His public career only ran from 1964 until his death in 1967. But in that period he built a lasting legacy.

He wasn’t afraid of controversy.

Indeed, he and his partner Kenneth Halliwell got in trouble for vandalising books in public libraries. They returned a book of John Betjeman’s poems with a new dust jacket, featuring a photograph of a nearly naked, heavily tattooed, middle-aged man.

In the end, they went to jail for six months and paid a fine. But when Orton came out, he started to write plays.

He is most famous for his scandalous, dark comedies Loot, Entertaining Mr Sloane and What the Butler Saw. He shocked, outraged and amused audiences.

And even today the word Ortonesque means a dark, yet farcical cynicism.

But by 1967, Orton was apparently considering leaving his partner Halliwell.

Then, on 9 August 1967, Halliwell bludgeoned Orton to death at their home in Islington, north London. After killing him with nine hammer blows to the head, Halliwell then killed himself with an overdose of Nembutal.

Showing a ‘working-class’ gay icon

The Joe Orton Statue Appeal hopes the new statue in Leicester will be ‘a destination artwork’.

And the appeal claims it will be ‘the first statue of a self-identified working-class homosexual man in Britain’.

Leonie Orton, sister of the late playwright and administrator of the Joe Orton Estate said:

‘I hope that the statue will  become a memorable and exciting  addition to Leicester’s cultural landscape that raises awareness whilst celebrating his life, work and legacy.

‘It is not a “statue” that people should be in awe of, rather something they want to interact with and associate with.’

They also hope its position in Orton Square, which bears his name, will reinforce Leicester’s reputation for diversity and inclusivity.

Artists have until 31 May to submit initial designs.

Singer and songwriter Holly Johnson will be of the judges of the competition.

She said: ‘Joe Orton challenged hypocrisy with his barbed humour, always swinging the other way in the Swinging Sixties.

‘It’s an honour to be asked to help select the statue that will commemorate this working-class hero who was an antidote to the stiff upper lip British establishment.’

They hope to unveil the finished statue in spring next year (2021).

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Author: Tris Reid-Smith