Helen Watson White
Three Plays by Robert Lord, edited by Phillip Mann (Playmarket, 2013), 290 pp., $30
‘The world is divided between those who know the score and those who don’t,’ says John in It Isn’t Cricket by New Zealand playwright Robert Lord (1946–1992). This minimalist and abstract piece, probably Lord’s first-written stage play, was enthusiastically received when given a rehearsed reading by director Sunny Amey at Downstage in 1971, and was subsequently printed as an insert in Act magazine. Along with two later scripts it has now been selected and edited by Phillip Mann for Three Plays by Robert Lord and published in Playmarket’s New Zealand Play Series, to celebrate the agency’s 40th anniversary in 2013.
It Isn’t Cricket is a work of its time. Robert Lord’s character John considers himself a ‘man of the world’, a phrase not nearly as common as it used to be. When Lord used it for John, it was hitched to a number of assumptions in the text or sub-text of all three plays: that you had to make it in the world, especially if you were a man; that the world in which you had to be successful was the ‘real’ world out there, the public and economic world; that you had to be present in this world (difficult if you were out of work), cultivating relationships to get on. Those who ‘know the score’ know how to conduct themselves in the world as they assume it to be.
These three plays all present, in fact, a very limited world. It is never meant to be in any sense the ‘real’ world – an idea that has by now been discredited anyway. Each play’s world turns out to be a creation of the most powerful characters, whose philosophy they imprint on their circumstances in such a way as to render things (and people) favourable to themselves. It Isn’t Cricket is quite a cynical take on that theme, the six characters’ speeches almost equally full of self-implicating irony. The second, slightly longer play, The Travelling Squirrel (1987), satirically exposes the inturned world of New York artists and socialite hangers-on, while attempting – and this is a difficult task – a measure of realism at the same time. The volume’s third and shortest play, Well Hung (developed by the author and later editors through several productions between 1974 and 2011), is outright farce, with a satirical dig at the failings of the police force.
In the near-equality of its less-than-perfect characters, It Isn’t Cricket is like Lord’s 1972 play Meeting Place, in which David Carnegie commented on the ‘sense of isolation of each individual on the shifting and treacherous sands of interpersonal relations’. Because its performance requires no set or indications of social context or time, the text, to me, reads very well on the page as just what Phillip Mann describes, – that is: ‘a play stripped down to its essentials’. A plausible exception to straightforward reading is the very complicated Scene 16, which Mann calls a ‘verbal collage’, where all six characters are (unusually) together at a party. Fragments of their conversations with different people are given emphasis in turn as they move around the room – or come together, as they do for the end of the scene, the climax of the play. But in fact Lord does make it understandable for readers, as well as actors and directors, by giving an initial exposition of the conversational ballet and then clear running instructions on who is talking to whom.
This is clever writing, but not just clever, and it comes from a time when such an assured, stripped-down style would not be expected from a local or beginner writer. In a 1974 interview, Lord recalls that as professional theatres began to be established in our major cities when he was a student in the 1960s, he had excellent models in local productions of plays by Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard. Such ‘stimulating’ experiences, he recognised, ‘turned me away from prose writing [his first success being a short-story award in 1969] and towards the theatre’.
In a general introduction to the volume, Mann traces Lord’s development as a playwright, beginning with the context of the 1960s and early 1970s when – ‘hard to believe’, now – ‘a New Zealand play was still a novelty’, and also somewhat suspect because of the prevailing cultural cringe. Wellington was small enough that personal links were easily made, however, and Lord’s willingness to get stuck in with the work surrounding productions at Downstage, where he was based from 1970, made him an enthusiastic collaborator with local theatre directors – including Mann himself, who was his lecturer that year in the first Drama Studies course at Victoria University. After It Isn’t Cricket was selected for Australia’s first National Playwrights’ Conference in 1973, Lord came back fired up with the passion for theatre that led to his co-founding (with Nonnita Rees and Judy Russell) Playmarket, the publisher of this posthumous volume.
If It Isn’t Cricket is a play of its time, The Travelling Squirrel is a play of both its time and its place. It comes from a very different context, namely the arts scene in New York in the 1980s, where Lord was living from 1975, and where he was working as a typesetter as well as a playwright. While It Isn’t Cricket contains very little to tie it to Wellington or New Zealand, where he wrote it, everything about the double plot of The Travelling Squirrel parallels (but doesn’t exactly replicate) his American experience.
The central character Bart is a struggling writer, this time of fiction, who has to set type for a living because nobody wants his ‘small, good book’, a prose poem; his wife Jane is a struggling actor, first in a popular soap, then – surprisingly – in serious drama, where she – even more surprisingly – succeeds. Roger, the Travelling Squirrel of the title, the sweet, unworldly squirrel hero (or antihero) of one of Bart’s fable-like stories, is a struggling painter who ‘slaves away’ in a nut-and-health-food shop to pay the bills. Indeed, Roger’s lifeline parallels Bart’s own: dipping and then diving, as the fickleness of the art market affects him, into mild and then unmitigated despair – at the same time as his wife Lucinda begins to achieve in her high-fashion field.
Several people have admitted they lose a sense of Bart’s character in the second half of the play, despite his poignant soliloquies to the audience, in which he tells Roger’s parallel tale. The main problem seems to be that the unscrupulous characters around him are drawn, as Mann says, ‘larger than life’; they are indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, the more successful characters.
Lord sums up each one in authorial notes: there is Terry, Bart’s ‘extremely aggressive agent’; there is party-minded Wally, ‘only interested in people who are someone’ so he can write about them, either to praise them to the skies or damn them to artistic oblivion; there’s Sarah who ‘rarely listens to anyone other than herself and believes passionately in her own genius’; there’s the ‘unashamedly manipulative’ Julie; and finally there’s Daryl who, though he never says a word, is easily drawn into affairs with three of the above, and because he is ‘very handsome’ is snapped up as a model, the new face/body for boxer shorts. There are so very many of these crazily satirised characters, and they are so very funny, and so theatrical, that sympathy for Bart and Jane – as for the squirrels Roger and Lucinda – is drowned out by well-deserved and highly raucous laughter.
Humour is the winner, too, in Well Hung, a play of its time (1974) that has nevertheless, in no less than four incarnations, pleased audiences into the 21st century. Although it has succeeded elsewhere, Well Hung is very much a New Zealand play, with several male characters who could be called – with the merest tinge of admiration – ‘shrewd cookies’, as Bert describes Charlie Johnson in Bert & Maisy. To me, it is much more dated than either of the other plays in this volume, in its treatment of female characters: Lynette, a stay-at-home wife who, pregnant to Trev, the young constable, still makes jam sandwiches for her husband Bert, the sergeant; and Hortensia, a romance writer and drama-society director who moonlights as an abortionist. In a posthumous production combining the original Well Hung script with Lord’s reworking of it for Circa’s Country Cops in 1985, both characters were played by one woman. That’s a sure sign they are ‘also-rans’ in the character department, while in It Isn’t Cricket and The Travelling Squirrel the female characters – while still in the minority as is traditionally the case – do hold their own.
I have to agree with Mann, however, that ‘this is a superb comedy’. Farce, by its very nature, deals in cartoons and stereotypes, and these women are so outrageous (Lynette: ‘I’m very proud to be having your abortion, Trev’) that we don’t imagine for a moment we’re meant to believe in them.
In relation to the failures and cover-ups in police investigations of recent history (Well Hung was produced quite soon after the Crewe murders), the satirisation of the three policemen bears a different kind of scrutiny. Lord has a field day with the figure of the self-important Detective Sharp, who reads the romances Hortensia writes and thinks of everything that happens in the manner of how it can be written-about, how it can be (with an ironic double reference) framed:
Bert: He wrestled the gun off me and and killed himself. There was nothing I could do.
Sharp: I think I can work with that. There’ll be an inquiry of course, but you’d be amazed at how resourceful we can be when it comes to exonerating our own.
The writing in this comedy is at least as good as that in Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, with the exposure of easily corruptible policemen giving a satirical edge to what is already fine-tuned farce.
HELEN WATSON WHITE, a Dunedin-based writer and reviewer, has been a theatre critic since 1974.