Joe Orton’s prank play on homosexuality turned down by Hampstead church
Playwright Joe Orton gained notoriety for his comic writings during the 1960s but had it not been for a venerable Hampstead minister the writer’s genius might have emerged earlier.
The Rev G W Sterry, of the Heath Street Baptist Church, rejected a request for the 1861 church to be transformed into the backdrop for one of Orton’s plays in 1958, according to a collection of letters which have been found and are on display in the church until Sunday.
Masquerading as Edna Welthorpe, serial letter writer Orton had asked if his theatre troupe the Phallus Players could put on The Pansy in the church hall which – as Mrs Welthorpe – “pleads for greater tolerance on the subject of homosexuality”.
Orton often used this pen name to poke fun at members of the establishment and it was highly unlikely The Pansy ever amounted to anything more than a comic ruse.
In a letter penned on November 2, 1958, from his flat in West End Lane, West Hampstead, Orton wrote: “It is with the upmost heitance (sic) that I approach a minister upon so controversial a topic; but the attitude of enlightened churchmen seems to have undergone a favourable revolution during the past decade.
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“It is with this thought in mind that I decided to contact you.”
Another, more heated letter followed, berating the minister for his lack of “common courtesy” in failing to reply to his missive.
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But the Rev Sterry hit back in kind two days later criticising Orton for not attaching a self-addressed letter.
The current minister, Ewan King, 32, who has put the letters on display as part of an art exhibition for the church, said: “Orton was writing to people he considered ridiculous representatives of the establishment, among them my predecessor.
“The funny thing about the letters is just how very, very English they are. The Rev Sterry is not that bothered about the homosexuality but the fact that someone could have the cheek to reproach him for not replying when someone did not attach a self-addressed envelope.”
Mr King, said: “The Rev Sterry would not have known Orton would have been remembered in 50 years time. I don’t think he knew when the history of the 1960s was written that it would belong to John Lennon and Joe Orton.
“Maybe if the Rev Sterry had known he would have allowed it, but then Orton would actually have had to write it!”
The collection of letters is on show until Sunday at the Heath Street Baptist Church.