Loot by Joe Orton
“The Ortonesque refers to that which is macabre, outrageous and absurd”. This is the main topic that will be object of discussion in this essay in relation to Joe Orton's
Loot. Ortonesque is the way the writing style of Joe Orton was named after the success of this play. This technique is based on talking about topics or describing actions in a very disrespectful way, as if he did not mind the feelings of the readers / spectators.
The aim of this essay is to justify these ideas, to put into practice a study of the language in this play in order to defend this premise.
The ideas will be structured as follows: first of all, the way he covers death and its cruelty will be examined; secondly, the way he describes the bizarre relationship between three of the characters; and, finally, absurdity in general and the way it is reflected in this play.
First of all, the most remarkable thing about this tendency that Joe Orton had in treating everything in that peculiar way is how he deals with death in this play. He talks about this as if it was a normal thing, as if it was an everyday topic.
It is seen and proved that the cause of the death of Mrs. McLeavy is that Fay committed assassinate on her. During the play, everyone talks with such naturalness about this subject that the reader can actually feel shocked, since this is something quite serious that people do not usually like to talk about; it is not a thing that can be -in any case- the object of a joke, and it is not pleasant that people like to trivialize on this. However, Joe Orton treats this and every other topic in a very cold way: he makes laugh of death and of the dead. When the characters in the play talk about Mrs. McLeavy, it seems as if they treated any other trivial, superficial issue, as if nothing strange had happened, for instance they mention the defunct, they wear her clothes, and they undress her without hesitating at any moment, as if there was nothing weird on this. One could think that they are a little “mad”, since one does not expect to find these types of comments in this context, with such little sensitiveness, but then one realizes that this is all due to the absurd that characterizes Orton's plays.
He achieves this touch of insensitiveness by endowing his characters with no morality, just by letting them act in the same cold, disrespectful way as he would in this situation. Some examples extracted from Loot concerning all this could be the following ones:
HAL: Perfectly preserved body of a woman. No sign of foul play. The uniform we'll burn. The
underwear you can keep.
FAY: Your mother's underclothes?
HAL: All good stuff
FAY: I can't, our sizes vary.
HAL: For the bonfire then. Her teeth can go to the river.
HAL: In the back seat. She was always a back-seat driver.
Hal and Dennis enter with the coffin. It is charred, blackened and smoking.
FAY: Who'd think she'd be back so soon?
MCLEAVY: She could never make up her mind in life. Death hasn't changed her.
MCLEAVY (to HAL): Where are your tears? She was your mother.
HAL: It's dust, dad.
McLeavy shakes his head in despair
TRUSCOTT: Did she ask to be buried like that?
TRUSCOTT: Your wife was a nudist you say?
TRUSCOTT: Yet she asked to be buried in that condition?
MCLEAVY: What condition?
TRUSCOTT: In the nude.
The door right is flung open, Dennis and Hal burst in with the corpse. Truscott looks steadily and searchingly at them. He points the corpse with his pipe.
TRUSCOTT: What are you doing with that thing?
DENNIS: We were taking it outside.
TRUSCOTT: Why? Did it need the air?
HAL: We were putting it in the garage.
These few dialogues are unpleasant and amoral. They are only some few examples of the cruelty in the treatment of this topic, but there are several others which are, besides, out of context, such as when Fay and Hal are moving the corpse out of the wardrobe and suddenly something falls on the floor and it is Mrs. McLeavy crystal eye; or when Fay asks McLeavy if he is going to marry again, only three days after the death of his wife, when she was not buried yet; or when some of the remains of he dead were in a casket and they empty out its content to put the money in, as if it was the most important thing to worry about in a situation like that; and all the circumstances by which the defunct has to pass throughout the whole play, which are a touch of bad taste and, once again, out of context.
The whole play itself is full of senseless situations, for instance when the funeral car has the accident and the undertaker dies, they simply worry about the state of the coffin, and the only thing McLeavy says is: “People remarked on the extreme durability of the lid. I was about to give the undertaker a recommendation. Then I remembered that he wasn't capable of receiving one”.
Nevertheless, these details and several others, are partly what enhances the text with some kind of “fun”, since one does not expect things like that to happen, and, in the beginning, one finds with these situations quite funny, but after such a quantity of repetitions of bad-taste jokes, in the end one does not laugh at them anymore. He also plays with words in order to make a dialogue like the following one sound funny, funnier than in real life:
TRUSCOTT: Whose mummy is it?
TRUSCOTT: Whose was it before?
HAL: I'm an only child.
Orton makes several references to the teeth of Hal's mother as well. In most of his plays, he likes to mention the teeth somewhere in between. Quoting the words of Ryan McKittrick in “The Dentures in the Dummy” : “The false teeth, in all his plays, are real. This paradox gives his farce a bite”, and Orton himself, who appeared in Ears saying: "There's supposed to be a healthy shock at those moments in Loot when an audience suddenly stops laughing. So if Loot is played as no more than farcical, it won't work (Ears, 226)”, one can see the morbid nature of Orton with reference to this topic. He seemed to enjoy these macabre issues. In fact, when his mother died, Orton did not hesitate in removing her teeth, taking them to the performance of Loot and giving them to one of the actors. This extract should be considered:
FAY: Are you committed to having her teeth removed?
HAL: These are good teeth. Are they the National health?
FAY: No. She bought them on her winnings.
No other writer could have based several conversations on the teeth of somebody. Apparently, he was rather obsessed; he seemed to be a fetishist with teeth.
Another Ortonesque feature within this play, a very bizarre thing that one can find in it, could be the way he describes the relationship between Dennis and Hal and Fay: the boys are, presumably, lovers (it can be seen in Hal calling Dennis “baby”, he is all the time combing his hair, he tells Dennis to go to live with him after McLeavy is taken into prison); however, Dennis is completely in love with Fay and they have actually had some sexual relationships together, and are certainly going to get married; but Hal does not feel bothered, but he acts like a normal friend who listens to the sexual affairs of his mate. Sex, friendship and fantasy are all mixed up in a strange way. The dialogues that prove these facts are, once more, quite absurd:
HAL: Have you had her? (Dennis grins) Knocked it off? Really?
In her room. Often.
DENNIS: On Wednesday nights while you were training at St Edmund's gymnasium.
I'd like to get married. It's the only thing I haven't tried.
TRUSCOTT: You don't want to spend your time with a youth like him. He's not your type. He's
got five pregnancies to his credit.
HAL: Anyone can make a mistake
TRUSCOTT: You scatter your seed along the pavements without regard to age or sex.
HAL (to Dennis): You can kip now here baby. Plenty of room left. Bring your bags over tonight.
FAY (sharply): When Dennis and I are married we'd have to move out.
FAY: People would talk. We must keep up appearances.
As one can see, absurdity and incongruity are present in the whole play. Other examples of these Ortonesque characteristics may be found within the text in other situations in which he waffles about many other issues. In some of them, he tries to satirize of some untouched entities of that time such as church or police, and deal with issues which people did not dare to talk about as homosexuality or the breakdown with religion. The dialogues that reflect these ideas are, indeed, absurd and out-of-context: Hal, for instance, is a Catholic. He cannot lie and he cannot see a relative without clothes, but he does steal a bank and has sex with men. This is incongruent, because from the moment that you are a believer you do not do all these things.
Some other dialogues are rather nonsense as well: they lack coherence and are totally out of context, for instance talking about brothels, money, sex, prison and a long etcetera in the middle of a funeral:
Page 537: MCLEAVY: She treats washing her feet as a Catholic problem
Page 558: The dialogue between Fay and McLeavy about the will, where she warns him that if she gives him the money there would be a great scandal, unless they were married and they joined their bank accounts.
FAY: What will you do with the money?
HAL: I'd like to run a brothel… …I'd make Proestants take Catholics. And Catholics take
Protestants… …and a tall bird with big tits.
Page 576: (McLeavy shocked by the accident, cannot answer with words to Truscott)
TRUSCOTT: If he's going to make a habit of it he ought to learn a sign language. (to McLeavy)
Do you understand me sir?
They speak between them with such naturalness, without any misunderstanding that one thinks that has not got the proper sense of the conversation, since it has no meaning for us, but it has indeed. This is the way the absurd theatre represents its ideas.
To conclude, it could be assumed that Orton had no respect for anything. If his life is examined carefully, one may realizes that it could have something to do: the way he treated his lover and couple, Halliwell, the way he behaved towards his mother death, the problem the couple had with justice because of the photographs in the books they borrowed from a library.
Shall the following lines be considered, a declaration made by the same Joe Orton: “To be young, good-looking, healthy, famous and comparatively rich and happy is surely going against nature. And when to the list one adds that daily I have the company of beautiful fifteen year old boys who find (for a small fee) fucking with me a delightful sensation, no man can want for more". Reading these lines one is not surprised at the cruelty, coldness and outrageousness exposed in his plays, since his own life, the real context into which he lived, was the same. It could be said, then, that his plays are nothing far from a reflection of his own reality. As he liked to say, “art imitates life".