Books: The Last Joke

PRICK UP YOUR EARS

by John Lahr

Knopf; 302 pages; $15

"I have high hopes of dying in my prime," Joe Orton confided to his diary in July 1967. Less than a month later Orton, who was only 34, was granted his wish. In a scene that could have occured in one of Orton's dark farces, the playwright's male lover smashed his head open with a hammer, then committed suicide with a lethal draft of grapefruit juice and Nembutals.

Orton's grisly end and stark beginnings enclose one of the most compelling biographies of the...

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