Kenneth Halliwell. Loot collage poster. 1965.
- Play title: Loot
- Author: Joe Orton
- First performed: 1965
- Page count: 84
Joe Orton’s play, Loot, is best classified under the genre of farce. The action of the play revolves around two events: the recent death of Mrs. McLeavy, and the robbery of a bank next to the undertaker’s premises. All the action of the play occurs on the day of Mrs. McLeavy’s funeral. In this work, Orton pokes fun at the establishment in general but takes particular aim at Catholicism and the police force. Among the types to be caricatured are the diligent police inspector, Truscott, and the benevolent nurse, Miss. McMahon. The plot of the drama deals with Truscott’s humorously slow path to discovering the identity of the bank robbers, as well as the unravelling of the true cause of Mrs. McLeavy’s death. The absurdly intertwined relationships of the characters add to the comedy. The widower, Mr. McLeavy, is depicted as the honest everyman while his son, Hal, is romantically involved with the undertaker’s driver, Dennis, who proposes to Nurse McMahon, who herself has already proposed to Mr. McLeavy on the day of his wife’s funeral. The ending, unsurprisingly, defies all normal expectations.
Ways to access the text: listening/reading.
There is a free audiobook version of the play available on the Internet Archive which has a running time of 1hr and 24mins. A simple internet search for “Joe Orton’s Loot – Internet Archive” will find this audiobook. This is a professional production originally aired on BBC Radio 3.
If you would like to read the text then it is also available on the Open Library Internet Archive, however registration is needed (no payment details required).
Why listen to/read Loot?
In Loot, the appearance of propriety is essential to getting away with murder, so to speak. Many of the chief characters take advantage of this fact while simultaneously exposing themselves as notorious hypocrites. What makes characters like Fay (nurse McMahon) and inspector Jim Truscott quite likeable, even though they are obvious scoundrels, is that they are charismatic villains. These characters present themselves as paragons of society. However, there is a constant and amusing jarring effect between what they are saying and what mischievous deeds they are actually conducting. Their rhetoric is captivating, not least because they have a brash confidence and a knowledge of how the world really works and therefore know how to win. In contrast, Orton sets up Mr. McLeavy as the honest man who is predictably slavish to the demands of conventional society, and whose views seem to be lifted from the newspaper headlines of the day. Orton delights in presenting a world of play where Machiavellian types like Nurse McMahon indulge their immoral tastes and an audience is understandably seduced by such wanton freedom.
Undermining the pillars of society (with a laugh).
Orton’s play, while making his audience laugh, also undermines the pillars of conventional society. The genre of farce, a subgenre of comedy, is normally aimed solely at eliciting hearty laughs through the depiction of caricatures of recognizable types in absurd situations. While Orton does indeed stick to these guidelines regarding character and situation, and he certainly provides much humour, he also invests his work with some depth of meaning. The playwright’s sharp intellect is evident in the very witty dialogue and also his definite intention to critique, even lambast, certain aspects of English society that would still have been considered sacrosanct in the mid nineteen sixties. The pillars of society are namely, law enforcement, religion, and the model citizen. Through observing the characters of Truscott, Miss McMahon, and Mr. McLeavy, we grow to suspect that society does not function as smoothly as usually presumed and that equitable outcomes are often the exception rather than the rule. It is clear that Orton’s own spell in jail for defacing library books led to a more jaundiced view of society, but this political edge adds rather than detracts from the comedy.
Confronting taboo subjects.
Loot was first performed in 1965 and therefore it is all too easy, from a modern reader’s standpoint, to overlook the restrictive society in which Orton worked. The nineteen sixties were a decade of immense societal change in England and only by viewing Orton’s play against the backdrop of such major changes can one appreciate his daring. For example, Loot deals openly with sex, yet in England it was not until 1967 that homosexuality was decriminalized, abortion became legal, and the Family Planning Act made contraception readily available. While a modern reader may enjoy Loot as a rip-roaring farce, the work does have a distinct vein of black humour that shows Orton’s societal critique and gives his humour some bite. Therefore, the humour is not just whimsical but gains its potency from satirizing an old society that Orton openly challenges. Orton was himself very much an outsider and he believed his own imprisonment for defacing library books, obviously a harsh sentence, was actually due to his queer identity. The playwright uses the topics of sex, Catholicism, and death, as vehicles to challenge the status quo of English society, a society that was still very classist, conventional, and prudish in the nineteen sixties.
Sexual escapades are a familiar part of farce, yet Orton is making a statement by putting sex front and centre for the audience. Loot has heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual characters along with references to child prostitution, rape, necrophilia, and even sex with a doll. In the story, Hal is homosexual and plans to flee to Portugal with his lover, Dennis, a bisexual character who unashamedly sleeps with both Hal and Fay. Nurse McMahon has sex with both Mr. McLeavy (unzipped dress incident) and Dennis, and she finally decides on her future husband based on the size of his bank balance. While these sexual relations would have been quite controversial in the era of the play’s publication, Orton transgresses much further. For instance, Hal plans to treat Dennis to some fun at a brothel that is run by three Pakistani children! There is also a reference to Hal being present when Dennis apparently raped Pauline Chung. These references to sordid events, reflective of the underbelly of society, are still presented as humorous because they are cushioned in the fantasy land of on-stage, theatrical farce. However, Orton is undoubtedly using things that really happen in society in his black humour, eliciting a laugh from an audience because there is a sharp edge to the play’s frivolity, and it is the creation of this slight uneasiness that fuels the laugh.
Regarding religion, Orton ridicules Catholicism as he perceives it to be part of the establishment and therefore inherently hypocritical. In the text, Fay says of the police, “God works for them. They have Him in their pockets.” As an authoritarian institution, the church is a legitimate target. Orton makes exceptional comedic capital from his offensive on Catholicism because it is such a prescriptive, rule-laden faith. The McLeavy family are depicted as Catholics as is Nurse McMahon. While both surnames sound Irish, McMahon undoubtedly is, and therefore Orton presents this homicidal nurse as someone with a good Catholic, Irish background. The character of Fay is a superb creation of Orton’s, a woman whose staggering hypocrisy reflects negatively on the teachings of the church she represents. For example, the crucifix she wears along with her wedding ring, both bear the physical marks of a dispute with a previous husband whom she shot dead. As Truscott says to her after recounting the deaths of her seven husbands, “there’s something seriously wrong with your approach to marriage.” Like any good Catholic, Fay cannot divorce or leave a husband – they must die before she can move on! There is a wonderfully comic moment when Fay refuses to return the money to Mr. McLeavy that she had previously stolen from Mrs. McLeavy, insisting instead that they marry to avoid scandal. When Dennis reveals to Hal that he had sex with Fay, proving that she is hardly strictly Catholic, he wryly adds that it happened under her picture of the Sacred Heart. In all, Orton takes aim at religious authority because just like state authority, it presumes to dictate how people should live. If one thinks that Orton’s attack on the church is less harsh than on other targets then one need only consider Hal’s proposed name for his future brothel, “consummatum est.” These were the last words of Jesus on the cross, “it is finished,” and Orton now links them to some ejaculatory fantasy!
Finally, in regard to death, Orton depicts not only disrespect for the corpse but more importantly, he continually shows money replacing the body as the venerated object in the coffin. This tactic, ostensibly necessary for the plot’s twists and turns, also reveals the themes of selfishness and greed. Hal is the epitome of a dysfunctional youth, a lad who refuses to attend his mother’s funeral as it would upset him, but who later plans to dispose of her body in a mine shaft or swamp. These scenes clearly signal that money is the ultimate motivation in life. Even Truscott states that “stealing public money is a crime more serious than murder.” When the detective finally discovers the stash of five-pound notes in the coffin, he protests, “twenty thousand tiaras and twenty thousand smiles buried alive!” The power of the Queen’s image visible on so many bank notes erases the image of poor Mrs. McLeavy. However, Orton does not totally abandon the taboo of the dead body which is itself quite potent. For example, the stripping of Hal’s mother leads to what he calls a “Freudian nightmare.” The constant movement of the body, the dressing of it in a mattress cover making it look like a mummy/dummy, and the loss of bits of the body such as an eyeball, all add to the scene of black humour. One may say that Orton anticipates some unease at scenes with a corpse and counteracts this reaction by having Mr. McLeavy make outrageously comical enquiries about what happened at the funeral parlour during the bank robbery. He solemnly questions Dennis, “was your chapel of rest defiled?” and receiving a negative response, he quizzes further, “human remains weren’t outraged?” This desire to be shocked is identified by Orton as a desire of genteel, middle-class people who need it to feel righteous. Most likely, many such people were in the audiences of Orton’s plays. As Hal says of his father, and by extension the older generation of English people, “his generation takes a delight in being outraged.”
What Orton achieves by his blackly humorous treatment of the topics of sex, Catholicism, and death, is primarily a dismantling of the old guard, a challenge to the norms of society. Orton as the enfant terrible of the nineteen sixties theatrical world steamrollers through the conventions of what is in good taste and encapsulates his message in a farce.
The police force.
Jim Truscott is considered by some commentators to be a parody of Sherlock Holmes, or at least of detective fiction in general. Truscott certainly represents a police force which Orton obviously had little respect for and yet Truscott is one of the most engaging characters in the play. This is a man who gives police suspects rabbit punches (blows to back of head), assaults them until they are on the floor in tears and is a smiling cat-kicker to boot, and yet we laugh due to the outrageous caricature. Part of the reason for the hilarity that Truscott’s presence elicits is due to dramatic irony, for example when Mr. McLeavy is confused by being questioned by a Water Board employee. Another reason is the policeman’s utter disbelief at the gullible nature of the public at large, like when Mr. McLeavy states that the police are there to protect ordinary people and Truscott responds, “I don’t know where you pick up these slogans, sir. You must read them on hoardings.” Orton establishes a particularly important differentiation in the play between the older and younger generations. People like Mr. McLeavy and Dennis’ father accept Truscott’s explanation that he is with the Sanitary People or Water Board, whereas the younger generation like Hal, Dennis, and Fay immediately recognise Truscott’s underhand methods. The generation gap signifies how the older group still retain faith in the integrity of the system including public services, the police, church, and law. The younger generation are rebellious, savvy, and unwilling to accept a transgression of their rights. Orton’s message is that people’s compliance with authority, indeed docility of any kind, is a sign of stupidity.
Even though Truscott is what is traditionally termed a ‘bent copper,’ he is wholly inadequate in his investigative methods. There are several scenes where, despite the detective’s blatantly unethical behaviour and egregious rule bending, he is still unable to decipher the clues that lie in front of him. For example, Mrs. McLeavy’s eye puzzles the detective for an inordinate period of time before he pulls a mini magnifying glass from his pocket to have an even closer look. Orton is presenting a representative specimen of English law enforcement who is too crooked to follow the rule of law and too obtuse to achieve results – a truly terrifying and hilarious depiction. If one needed a clear indictment of how the English system worked then Truscott’s words to a concerned Mr. McLeavy provides it, – “it’s for your own good that authority behaves in this seemingly alarming way.” In the end, Truscott is willing to maintain his silence about the crimes of murder and bank robbery for a twenty-five percent cut of the criminal proceeds. In a superb final twist, the most law-abiding person, Mr. McLeavy, who accommodated Truscott in the investigation, is finally the one to be led away in handcuffs. Orton depicts a topsy-turvy world where abiding by the rules leads to hilarious consequences.
Orton, Joe. Loot. Methuen Drama, 1967.