Crimes Of Passion: The Ruffian on the Stair / The Erpingham Camp
Richard C. Broughton and Val Foskett
The Wimbledon Studio Theatre
Tuesday 29th October to Saturday 2nd November 1996
On 1st January 1933 John Kingsley Orton was born in Leicester. His mother was a char, his father a gardener. He was sickly and often absent from school and failed his 11+. His mother sent him to the fee-paying Clark's College, thinking it was a public school, but it was actually a commercial college where Orton learned shorthand and accounting. At 15 he couldn't spell and had a lisp, but he took up amateur dramatics. He found the theatre more exciting than any of the short-lived dead-end jobs he had, and decided to try for RADA. After lessons with a voice coach to get rid of the lisp and his Leicester accent, he ewon a place at RADA and a council grant to finance it.
At RADA he met and moved in with Kenneth Halliwell, seven years older and with an academic background. They became lovers and Halliwell set about educating Orton's literary taste. While liking the student lifestyle, neither of them did well at RADA, and they spent their time making collages with pictures cut from library books and writing novels, none of which was published, although one at least attracted some interest from Faber.
In 1962 Halliwell and Orton were charged with malicious damage to public library books and with stealing plates from them. They had been altering book jackets, adding scandelous resumes to innocent volumes, them replacing them on the library shelves and watching the reactions from browsing readers. For these heinous crimes they were sent to prison for six months. "Being in the nick brought detachment to my writing" wrote Orton, and soon after his release the BBC accepted the radio version of Ruffian on the Stair. Orton began work on Entertaining Mr. Sloan.
Sloan opened in May 1964, and transferred to the West End amid an outcry of protest at its amorality. Orton joined in by writing a "disgusted" letter to the Daily Telegraph signed Edna Welthorpe (Mrs). Sir Terence Rattigan, however, described Sloan as the best first play he'd seen "in thirty-odd years".
Orton wrote the TV play, The Good and Faithful Servant in 1964, although it was not televised until 1967. 1964 also saw the appearance of Loot, but this was initially a flop, as neither actors nor directors understood how to play it, and it closed in Wimbledon, never making the West End. Orton was angry at Loot'sfailure, but went on to write another play for television in 1965 - The Erpingham Camp. It appeared in 1966 and in rewritten form at the Royal Court Theatre in 1967.
In September 1966 a new production of Loot opened and was a smash hit. It won the Evening Standard Award and the Plays and Players Award for best play of the year, and Orton was a star! Between October 1966 and August 1967 he wrote Funeral Games, another play for television, and revised Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp, produced at the Royal Court as a double bill entitled Crimes of Passion. He also wrote Up Against It, a filmscript intended for the Beatles, which was never produced (although it has been performed recently as a radio play), and began the farce What the Butler Saw.
In May 1967 Orton had written in his diary "We [he and Halliwell] sat talking of how happy we felt, and how it couldn't, surely, last. We'd have to pay for it. Or we'd be struck down from afar by disaster because we were, perhaps, too happy." On 10th August 1967 Halliwell beat Orton to death with a hammer, then committed suicide with sleeping pills, apparently through jealousy of his erstwhile protege's success.
When the BBC accepted the original radio version of The Ruffian on the Stair, it marked Orton's first success after nearly ten years of literary failure. That Orton's ideas were still unfocused is shown by the fact that it took him four months to hit upon the play's title, which he found in the above poem. The BBC forced him to concentrate on the plot and encouraged him to discard unnecessary "arty" dialogue. After three draftes, the play was accepted.
The 1962 radio version differes substantially from the 1966 rewrite which Orton produced for the Royal Court. The radio play stuck closely to Harold Pinter's early style, some parts being an almost direct "steal". Orton never admitted Pinter's influence, although he did acknowledge that the only living playwrights, apart from himself, that he admired were Pinter and Samuel Beckett. The early version also overplays the characters' sense of loss and isolation, so they become whingers and whiners.
In contrast, in the 1966 version, Orton knows exactly where the play is going; he uses characterisation and action to move the plot along. In is notes the the Royal Court production, he emphasises the way it should be played: "The play is clearly not written naturalistically, but it must be directed and acted with absolute realism... unless it's real, it won't be funny." He makes the point that everying the characters say is true: Mike has murdered the boy's brother, Joyce is an ex-call girl, Wilson has had an incestuous relationship with his brother. Orton even made the relationship between Wilson and Frank (Wilson's brother) more obvious, in order to be more shocking: in the original version it was too vague. He notes that the new version is a "much more Ortonish play", and this appears in the character of Wilson. Orton tended to link himself with the main young male character in his plays: Wilson, like Sloan, and Hal in Loot, as a younger, sexier version of Orton himself. There is a comic sparkle and dynamism to the character which was not apparent in the radio play. Far from being an almost pathetic character, he is now fully driven by a purpose, as he seeks out his revenge on both the other characters. The twist for the audience is how he finally carries this out.
It is also in this play that Orton expresses genuine homosexual love, in a way in which he would never do again. Wilson admits that without his brother, he is "going round the twist with heartbreak", and Orton adds details about his life with Halliwell, the "older" man and the "comfortable" bedsitter where "we spent every night in each other's company. It was the reason we never got any work done."
The Ruffian on the Stair, then, marks a contrast between the past - of John Orton, the failed actor and writer - and the future - of Joe Orton, the enfant terrible of the literary world. Its acceptance by the BBC in 1962 encouraged Orton to attempt a full-length play, Entertaining Mr. Sloan, which propelled him into notoriety and success.
In 1962 he was still unsure of himself. By 1966 he had tasted fame and could only rise higher. The rewrite reflects this, with the confident pen strokes of an artist at the height of his powers.
Richard C. Broughton (director)
Orton wrote The Erpingham Camp for an ITV series based on the Seven Deadly Sins: his theme is Pride. He writes in his diary of his love of the classics, and based the play on the Greek tragedy The Bacchae by Euripides. In the tragedy, the pride and intransigence of King Pentheus clashes with the frenzy of the worshippers of the new god, Bacchus. In spite of several warnings, from the God himself and from others, that the sensible course would be to accept the inevitable and mediate with the Bacchic revellers, Pentheus attempts to defy heaven and is destroyed.
In Orton's hands, the story is set in a British holiday camp. Erpingham, who runs the camp, sees himself as a king ("this is my camp. I make the laws"). Like Pentheus, he has no time for wild behaviour, and prudishly suspects sexual decadence even where none exists; even two plastic ducts stuck together are seen as "smutty". Kenny, a violent yob who speaks in what now sounds like Sun taboildese ("Our Love Was Banned", "Have a Bash for the Pregnant Woman Next Door"), is enraged not by religious frenzy, but by righteous indignation, and, clad in a Bacchic leopard skip he leads the ensuing riot. In spite of warnings from Riley, the Padre and the rest of his staff, Erpingham is obdurate, and, like Pentheus he is struck down.
Orton's target is, as always, hypocrisy. The hypocrisy of rulers who repress joy and self-expression (Orton was gay at a time when homosexual activity, even between consenting adults in private, was still illegal), and of authorities who are obsessed with the sexuality they abhor and see filth everywhere (Orton was a playwright when the Lord Chamberline still censored plays before they were allowed to be performed for the public). Yet as the Profumo scandal indicated, for those in the establishment, the sin was being found out. The church, lampooned in Loot and Funeral Games as well as in Ruffian and Erpingham, was just as bad, emphasising the ritual and losing the meaning, like the Padre's text ("The words are obscure, but the picture will keep you from harm"), not practising what it preaches, moribund, better equipped to deal with death than life. At the end of the play, the establishment rituals swing into action, tribute is paid which bears no relationship to truth.
But Orton also attacks the personal hypocrisy of the upwardly mobile would-be-middle-class: the unthinking jingoism which, taken the the absurd, turns the organising of an evening's entertainment into a campaign of missionary zeal, the substitution of platitudes or crude slogans in place of real communication, and the replacement of natural human feelings by generalised gestures (like that of Wilson's father in Ruffian, who did not attend his son's funeral because he was on the British Legion float "representing something").
Val Foskett (director)
|Campers||~||Richard C. Broughton
|Stage Manager||~||Sarah Hewitt|
|Stage Crew||~||Ian Burfoot, Richard Foskett, Joe Morgan|
|Lighting||~||Simon Harris, Julia Garrett|
|Redcoats Costumes||~||Carshalton Pantomime Company|
|Poster Design||~||Russell Thompson|
|Box Office and Front of House||~||Penny Stone and friends|
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