Robert Lord Diaries edited by Chris Brickell, Vanessa Manhire and Nonnita Rees (Otago University Press, 2023), 356pp, $45
These selections from Robert Lord’s diaries do not provide a continuous life narrative. The editors have given us eight sections, greatly varied in length, between August 1974 and March 1991. Nonnita Rees, one of the editors, told Kim Hill on Saturday morning Radio New Zealand that they had omitted about half of the diaries, principally sections of detailed commentary about the in-process composition of his plays, which would require readers to have a text of said plays alongside. I presume, as with all diaries, some omissions were for privacy reasons.
From time to time in the diaries, Lord expresses his distrust of diary-writing: ‘Always have trouble with who one writes a diary for, I have trouble not imagining it read by another … I have trouble finding a natural voice for it’. Here, perhaps, is an explanation for the occasionally furtive or tentative quality of these diaries. When he writes, ‘I am of the opinion that diaries should not be published’, one can hear the curious cocktail of hope and dread in Lord’s assertion. And now, here his Diaries are, for all to read.
Robert Lord was born in Rotorua in 1945 and died in Dunedin in 1992. His writing life falls easily into three sections: 1970–75, an extraordinarily productive beginning to his career as a playwright; 1975–87, time spent living in New York, with visits back to New Zealand; and 1987–92, another fertile period for his writing, mostly living back in New Zealand.
Between 1970, when he wrote his first play, the one-act It Isn’t Cricket, and 1975, when his full-length Dead and Never Called Me Mother was workshopped at the Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Connecticut, Lord wrote five one-act and four full-length plays, from which he had six professional or semi-professional productions at five different theatres (four in New Zealand, one in USA), plus one rehearsed public reading and two workshops of his plays by professionals in Australia and USA respectively, not to mention five radio plays. Lord had enrolled in the first tertiary drama course in New Zealand at Victoria University in 1970. Then, in 1971, he worked at Downstage Theatre as a general factotum under Sunny Amey’s mentorship. He clearly experienced a vocational vision of deep personal significance.
The diaries provide two balancing reactions to his first encounter with New York in 1974: ‘so dirty I cannot describe it’ and ‘New York I just love love’. He chose to live there. In terms of writing, these years were not nearly as productive. His writing life changed. Perhaps under the influence of the Playwrights Conference’s workshopping methods and also the New Dramatists group in New York, which he joined, Lord began to revise his work extensively. I’ll Scream if I Want To was staged at the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts in 1976, but it had been a radio play in New Zealand in 1973 (Blood on my Sprigs) and would become a stage play called High as a Kite at Downstage in 1979. Similar reworking was applied to Well Hung from 1974 (four productions, four titles) and Bert and Maisy (four different titles), which I saw as Unfamiliar Steps at the Court Theatre, Christchurch, in 1983. As far as I can tell, the New York years produced only four new works, as opposed to re-workings. The Diaries describe those years as: ‘my Fire Island/New York life with its discos, drugs, spiritualism, enthusiasms’. The impression is more of clubs and cruising than writing. There are constant injunctions: ‘Must write. Must write.’ And admonitions: ‘too much carry-on for too many weeks.’ And endless dashed hopes about money, as the glittering prize of ‘success’ is pursued.
Lord was determined to succeed on his own terms. This meant not approaching his family for money. His father was a bank manager, his mother a cousin of Lady Blundell, wife of the ex-Governor-General. He describes his family milieu as one of ‘extreme conservatism’ among ‘these pleasant supporters of the National Party’. New York was an adventure, but it was also an escape. His New Zealand family knew nothing of his New York life. One wonders if the reverse also held true. There he exchanged one family for another. Lord locates his New York friends and lovers as ‘the family and their fucked-up lives’. He even wants to write a novel about them, though American writer Andrew Holleran had already done this with Dancer from the Dance in 1978.
1982 is a low point, with the AIDS pandemic (which still had no known name or cause) underway (Lord labels it ‘gay cancer’). As 1983 begins, a letter from the New Zealand family (written by Mum, but ‘quoting from my father’) arrives. It is a central document of the diaries. It is all about debt. Calling the prodigal home, the letter dangles the carrot of the comfortable writing den back home where you can ‘work to your heart’s content’.
It’s intriguing to recall that Red Mole’s self-described ‘Romance with New York’ (1979–84) was coeval with Robert Lord’s, but that, as far as I know, they passed each other like phantoms in a play, never making contact.
Lord’s sustained return to New Zealand did not eventuate until 1987, when he was awarded the Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University for that year. From 1987 until his death from AIDS in early 1992, though he did spend time back in the USA, Robert Lord re-emerged as a presence in New Zealand theatre. Circa Theatre in Wellington staged two works Lord had brought from New York, China Wars in 1987 and Glorious Ruins in 1991. During his Burns year Lord wrote a new play, The Affair, which was produced at The Globe, and The Fortune in Dunedin staged Bert and Maisy. And he managed to complete the writing of his dramatic pièce de résistance, Joyful and Triumphant, which opened at Circa just weeks after his death. He also fitted in a deal of writing to order for TV.
In his hilarious and merciless one-act satirical farce from 1972, Balance of Payments (appropriate title from a banker’s son), Mabel and Max live from their Son’s earnings at the local sauna and public baths. When Son’s whoring doesn’t earn enough, Mabel stabs him to death with her knitting needles. Lord here skewers Kiwi suburbia with joyful abandon; not a new undertaking, but the zest with which it is done is delicious. By the time Bert and Maisy appear as further representatives of the tight society of Pākehā suburbia, some of this zest seems to have disappeared. Lord himself notes a letter critical of Bert and Maisy at the Fortune in 1987: ‘snobbish … the play did seem to condescend to the characters.’
The world of 1987 that Lord returned to was quite different from 1972. With Joyful and Triumphant he completed a successful adjustment to this new world. There is no condescension and none of the alienation of Son in Balance of Payments. Instead, in this family drama in eight scenes spanning eight Christmases from 1949 to 1989, all the characters are insiders, denizens of the tight Pākehā society that Lord knew so well. None is more an insider than Rose, the librarian daughter who has never left home, and who had some success with her children’s books about Percy Piwaka, the fantail, which, by 1989, have been forgotten.
Rose is a reverse image of Robert Lord, yet in her way, she is as ‘unseen’ as Lord felt himself to be: ‘wherever I am I’m in the wrong place’. In the final scene of the play, Dad, now in his nineties, says, in front of Rose, the daughter who has been waiting on him hand and foot all her life: ‘Hasn’t she turned into a miserable old thing?’ We see then how ‘sharper than a lion’s tooth it is’ to have an ungrateful father, as Lord exposes the underlying cruelty and lack of compassion in the world he knew so well, tried to escape and somehow never quite could. As I read these Diaries, I felt both sympathy and sadness for the son who had been ‘smoking behind their backs for twenty years’, and who states his strategy for meeting family friends and being asked about his life is: ‘I will lie’.
Apart from his writing, which this publication of the Diaries has extended for us, we owe acknowledgement to Robert Lord’s early energies for being one of the founders of Playmarket in 1973 and for bringing us, from USA Playwrights Conference via Australian Playwrights Conference, the workshopping model for play development, which has been used and adapted so extensively in Aotearoa. I am also grateful, as a fellow sufferer at the same school in Hamilton, for his short piece called ‘Hamilton: Scenes from a life’, published in Landfall 180 in December 1991, in which he writes: ‘Boys’ High with its quasi-military underpinnings failed to make any sense at all.’ How true. Thank you, Bob.
MURRAY EDMOND was born in Kirikiriroa in 1949 and lives in Glen Eden, Tāmaki Makaurau. Recent publications include the cultural history Time to Make a Song and Dance: Cultural Revolt in Auckland in the 1960s (Atuanui Press, 2021); two collections of poems, FARCE and Sandbank Sonnets: A Memoir (Compound Press, 2022); and a collection of fifteen stories, Aucklanders (Lasavia, 2023).