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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Joe Orton : the Oscar Wilde of the welfare state Levinson, Karen Janice


This thesis has a dual purpose: firstly, to create an awareness and appreciation of Joe Orton's plays; moreover to establish Orton as a focal point in modern English drama, as a playwright whose work greatly influenced and aided in the definition of a form of drama which came to be known as Black Comedy. Orton's flamboyant life, and the equally startling method of his death, distracted critical attention from his plays for a long time. In the last few years there has been a revival of interest in Orton; but most critics have only noted his linguistic ingenuity, his accurate ear for the humour inherent in the language of everyday life which led Ronald Bryden to dub him "the Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility." This thesis demonstrates Orton's treatment of social matters: he is concerned with the plight of the individual in society; he satirises various elements of modern life, particularly those institutions which wield authority (like the Church and the Police), and thus control men. Orton's satire on these institutions may be seen as extending to an attack on the Welfare State, a social phenomenon which epitomises all the aspects of control Orton disliked so much. The title of this thesis therefore makes the connection between Orton's verbal brilliance and his concern for humanity. The introductory chapter discusses theatrical traditions which may have been an important influence on Orton's work. These traditions are not only considered in general terms; they are also discussed with particular reference to playwrights (and other authors) whom Orton admitted to admiring greatly. Writers analysed in this chapter include Ben Travers, Strindberg, Pinter, and, of course, Oscar Wilde. These dramatists are not examined to deny Orton's originality, but rather to prove it; it is shown that Orton's plays cannot be categorised; his work is a fusion and revision of several different theatrical forms. Orton's seven plays can be divided into two groups: the earlier, more realistic dramas, and the later farcical plays. This division is made purely on account of form; the thematic concerns may differ slightly from play to play but do not vary from group to group. The central themes in these dramas include man's isolation in society, the greed and bestiality of mankind, the corruption of the Church and the Police, and man's hypocrisy. Chapter II treats the earlier, more realistic "comedies of language"; the major analysis is of linguistic devices, particularly the characters' use of euphemism, and the dislocation between the propriety of their words and the amorality of their deeds. Chapter III discusses Orton's use of farce, and his great theatrical achievement in using a traditionally light-hearted genre to make a serious comment about mankind. Orton's farces show man as a victim of modern society, the frantic pace of farce provides a theatrical correlative for his view of man's struggle for survival in a hostile universe. In both these chapters, each play is examined individually for themes, tone, form and linguistic devices. The final chapter considers Orton's effect on some important dramatists of the late 1960's and early 1970's. The works of David Mercer, Simon Gray, Tom Stoppard and Peter Barnes are briefly examined, and similarities to Orton in theme and tone are noted. It is stressed that although Orton's greatest achievement may well have been in the establishment of Black Comedy as a genre, his influence can be said to be wide-ranging since many modern writers have emulated individual elements of his style. However, this chapter, and the thesis as a whole, stresses that in the final analysis, Orton's work must be considered inimitable.

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