As a statue of Joe Orton is scrapped, is anything safe?

When even a cultural giant who is venerated by the Left is cancelled… what hope for common sense? As a statue of gay working-class playwright Joe Orton is scrapped amid a row over his sex life, is anything safe?

Can anybody be safe from today’s cancel culture and the modern statue-smashing, history-erasing thought police?

First the woke culture warriors came for their historical hate figures. They pulled down the statue of Bristol merchant and Tory MP Edward Colston over his links to the slave trade. They campaigned to have the statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from an Oxford college because of his role in British colonialism.

Now they have apparently cancelled a planned statue of gay 1960s playwright Joe Orton, long a hero to liberal luvvies, reportedly because of his well-known sexual predilection for teenage boys in Morocco and elsewhere.

The moral contortionists of the woke movement have graduated from toppling effigies of Establishment figures to taking down a statue of a Left-wing icon — before it has even been erected. It seems once again, to coin a phrase made popular during the Great Terror in revolutionary France, ‘the Revolution devours its own Children’.

Now they have apparently cancelled a planned statue of gay 1960s playwright Joe Orton, long a hero to liberal luvvies, reportedly because of his well-known sexual predilection for teenage boys in Morocco and elsewhere

Orton was born in Leicester in 1933 and murdered by his artist lover, Kenneth Halliwell, in 1967, at the age of 34. The memorial to the radical playwright — the first statue in Britain to commemorate an openly gay working-class man — was due to be erected in his home town, appropriately enough in Orton Square, a pedestrian concourse by the city’s Curve theatre.

An appeal for funds launched in 2019 raised more than £115,000 to commission a sculpture, with the support of luminaries of the theatre world such as Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Sheila Hancock, Stephen Fry and Alison Steadman, alongside fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, the choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys.

But having been put on hold during the Covid lockdowns, the statue project has now been kiboshed. Last week, the Joe Orton statue committee announced that the economic impact of the pandemic, alongside the ‘changing public attitudes towards statues’, meant its official project partners had withdrawn their support, ‘which means that a statue is no longer viable’.

A few days earlier, a more specific clue as to what lay behind the cancellation had emerged in a new podcast about Orton entitled Penknife’s Crimes of Passion.

Can anybody be safe from today’s cancel culture and the modern statue-smashing, history-erasing thought police? First the woke culture warriors came for their historical hate figures. They pulled down the statue of Bristol merchant and Tory MP Edward Colston over his links to the slave trade

Leonie Orton Barnett, Joe’s septuagenarian younger sister who runs his literary estate, told the podcast: ‘That’s the main theme running through the Leicester City Council’s thoughts, that we can’t have a statue of this man who they think — or assume – was a paedophile.’

Some might consider that the Labour council has a point in not wishing to commemorate the work of a man who, months before his murder, travelled to Morocco with Halliwell and, as Orton detailed in his diaries, paid for sex with male prostitutes aged between 13 and 18.

But we are on tricky and dangerous ground if we keep seeking to reverse history and judge the public figures of the past by the more sanitised standards of today. In particular, if we abandon the notion of judging the artist separately from his or her art, then whose work will it ever be safe to celebrate?

As Corey Eastwood, one of the podcast makers, puts it, the shift in sexual ethics over the past 60 years means that people hearing of Orton’s antics today might well be ‘outraged’. Yet he still believes Orton deserves his statue.

‘I think when you put people under the microscope, everyone will become problematic,’ said Eastwood. ‘He is such an important figure in Leicester history — a working-class kid made good. His many accomplishments as a playwright, a gay icon who did so much for gay liberation — that should be commemorated.’

It is surely right that Orton, whatever one thinks of his personal life — and I am not defending his actions — should be publicly remembered for his artistic works.

He rose from a humble background to become one of the top dramatic iconoclasts of 1960s theatre. His plays and films, including Entertaining Mr Sloane, Loot and What The Butler Saw, were dark comedies that shattered the social, cultural and sexual taboos of post-war Britain.

Orton’s legacy long outlived his short working life, the absurdist humour and bizarre linguistic games of his writing influencing generations of writers.

At the same time as the campaign for an Orton statue in Leicester was taking off, a petition was launched in the same city to remove a statue of Gandhi, on the grounds that he was really ‘a fascist, racist and sexual predator’. Gandhi still stands in Leicester — for now

He never made any secret of his sexuality or sexual appetites. Halliwell, who took his own life after murdering his lover, left a note blaming the contents of Orton’s diaries, in which the playwright detailed his pursuit of young men, including those teenage prostitutes in Morocco. (That was a fairly well-worn route for gay men from Britain, where any form of homosexual activity was illegal until 1967, when it was decriminalised for over-21s in private.)

Orton’s diaries became the basis for a successful 1987 film dramatisation of his life and death, Prick Up Your Ears. Yet now, 55 years after his death, it seems Orton’s private life suddenly makes him unworthy of public recognition.

There is far more at stake here than the legacy of one gay playwright. If we allow the cancel crusaders to judge everybody from the past through the prism of contemporary values, no one will be safe from being cast down the memory holes of forgotten history.

By these standards, many politicians and public figures of the past century would have their statues removed from their pedestals and their works erased from textbooks for failing to live up to today’s ethical codes.

For instance, Mahatma Gandhi is widely remembered as a hero of the struggle for Indian independence from the British Empire. Yet, at the same time as the campaign for an Orton statue in Leicester was taking off, a petition was launched in the same city to remove a statue of Gandhi, on the grounds that he was really ‘a fascist, racist and sexual predator’. Gandhi still stands in Leicester — for now.

When it comes to artists, there is even more danger. Creative types have always been a strange breed with dark sides to their character. Yet we retained the ability to distinguish between the artist and their art, and to appreciate great works without having to pretend those responsible were saints.

If we lose that ability, and dispense with the art along with the artist, what future is there for the great cultural works of the past?

Who but a handful of neo-Nazi cranks would ever want to attend the Bayreuth Festival celebrating the work of Richard Wagner if they felt Wagner’s music was inseparable from the German composer’s anti-Semitism? But even Jewish maestros such as Daniel Barenboim have conducted his works.

There are already too many woke censors keen to remove ‘offensive’ or ‘harmful’ classic literature from libraries and universities, up to and including the works of Shakespeare and Dickens. If we allow them to go after books based on the authors’ personal lives and opinions, the shelves will be stripped bare. Leading 20th century poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound? Anti-Semites and fascist sympathisers — burn them.

Beloved children’s authors such as Dr Seuss or Roald Dahl? The first drew racist wartime caricatures of the Japanese, the other said of Jews that ‘even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason’. Sorry kids, no bedtime stories tonight!

And so it goes on, the flames flaring ever higher. Many would now like to exile Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling from polite society. Her thought crime? Defending women’s rights against the militant trans lobby by expressing opinions that would have been considered common sense by most people a few short years ago.

The cancelled Joe Orton statue was intended to commemorate and celebrate his creative writing, not his sexual proclivities.

Orton might at least be pleased to know that he still remains capable of outraging the Establishment — even though the pillars of it are now more likely to be on the ‘liberal’ Left. The rest of us, however, should surely be worried about how our cultural history is being cleansed.

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