An extremely intimate diary of New Zealand playwright Robert Lord
Gay anarchist playwright Sam Brooks reviews the newly published diary of one of New Zealand’s original anarchist gay playwrights.
Early in Robert Lord’s memoirs, I found a kindred spirit. It was in this simple sentence, written during the New Zealand playwright’s time in New York, where he moved to and from the 1970s and 1980s.
“I was drunk watching TV and called Craig & Donna in Sydney.”
I nodded sagely as I read this, sipping a glass of cheap Sauvignon Blanc, and glancing from my diary to the gossip group chat that had exploded on my phone. Another sentence, later in the book, has a very similar level of association: “Another birthday comes and goes. Spent money. Drank liquor.”
Robert Lord is not a household name, although there is no playwright in our country except Roger Hall. Lord’s most famous plays (Adapting for Inflation) include The Traveling Squirrel, Bert and Maisie, and his best, and perhaps the best family drama ever written in New Zealand, Joyful and Triumphant, which endures decades later. The height of his activity was in the 1970s and 1980s, which his published memoirs helpfully cover, until his death from AIDS-related causes in 1991.
When it comes to projects like this, I often wonder what their purpose is. The diary is perhaps the only form of writing that is not intended to be read by any audience. Diaries are winks in the dark, whispers in the wind, secrets buried in the ground. I think of an audience that reads my own memoirs only insofar as I cannot imagine an audience interested in reading my memoirs at all. It is as if you are peeking behind a curtain that should remain tightly closed, without anyone noticing, the magician is not at work today.
This does not mean that there is no purpose here. Robert Lord was not our country’s first gay playwright, but he was certainly the most prominent gay playwright of his time, take au René. His work is not revived as much as it should be, although you could say the same about any New Zealand playwright of his era. What the memoir reveals, more than anything else, is the struggle of a brilliant, tireless artist who desperately wanted commercial success, often at the expense of achieving his own brilliance.
Compared to most published memoirs, Lorde’s is, frankly, an absolute mess. He is laughably inconsistent with keeping a diary, and even admits in one entry that “it has become clear[that]he is not a great memoirist.” Hell, he also literally writes:
“These memoirs cannot provide a coherent account of the past four months. The prospect of covering up the past with flashbacks is extremely daunting.
He’s right! no. However, somewhat paradoxically, it places him in a similar place to most diarists. There’s no way this man could really expect anyone to read his memoirs, 40 years later, and that’s what makes them feel strangely more real and more human.
It’s not as if he only lived his life when he wasn’t writing his memoirs – the entries we have are full of parties, conflicts, travels across the world, and a decades-long love for a man who treated him so badly. There are many famous names dropped from around the world and country, although it’s rather funny, not Meryl Streep, who only appears in a workshop photo of one of Lorde’s plays she was in (maybe he wasn’t a fan?). It is also a portrait of the rare writer who apparently spent as much time writing as he did partying. That writing was not in his diary.
As with any diary, part of the value is found in the glimpse of history. The entries tell us what life was like for the writer, and about the world around them. Throughout the decade, Lorde not only gives us a window into his life, but also shows what it was like to be a gay man in 1980s New York (albeit a queer one), a playwright in New Zealand, and a man who loved a family that couldn’t quite understand his sexuality.
This is all pretty bleak, to be honest. But perhaps the most depressing things are not so depressing because they are depressing in their context, but because God (or anyone) could have written them today and they would be no less true. For lightness of shade:
“Why doesn’t summer theater start in Auckland?”
“The other major problem is how to write the play without a cast of thousands.”
“…a very competent version of the old amateur groups performing plays that look bold but in reality are not.”
also? He paid $34,000 for a house in the 1980s. This house remains Robert Lord’s country home to this day and hosts writers on residencies throughout the year. I stayed there last year, and I wish I had great observations about the man during my time there. Unfortunately, the only observation I have is that Lord was a very tall man, and like many tall men, he did not mention it in his memoirs, perhaps because, like many tall men, everyone did it for him. .
That’s all nice inside baseball, though. Although I can’t imagine a general audience who would be interested in Lorde’s memoirs – no shade on anyone involved, including Lorde, he is merely a niche product – there is definite value in the observations Lorde made of not only his specific environment and country, but On life in general and work in general.
He describes Wellington as a “nervous city” that is “turning in on itself with no natural way out”; As beautiful, harrowing and as true a description of our capital as I’ve ever heard. His little words are better than those he presented in his texts; Just listen to the way the words in this phrase collide with each other:
“Life is better than I let myself think.”
But honestly, the thing that resonates with me, about walking a path similar to the path that God not only blazed, but paved after him, is all the things that aren’t in my journal. Lord’s untimely death hangs over the entire endeavor, and moments like the one in which he separates his projects into categories (“major projects, review projects, future projects”) don’t tug at the heartstrings so much as pull the limb from the ribcage. And the last line, which I refuse to spoil here, is just as powerful. If only we could all be so eloquent – and smart – in achieving our goals.
I’ve heard about Robert Lord (the one) a lot throughout my career. Many of his friends, including those in the books, remain pillars of the industry today. Some of these friends mentioned how much he liked me, which seems very unfair to put on someone who isn’t there to object. There are some moments of brutality towards his colleagues here that I can certainly relate to, and which make me grateful that no one will ever dig up and publish my diaries, edited or otherwise. One of New Zealand’s most successful plays has been referred to as “a terrible, terrible play with some good moments”, and at least three of our most famous playwrights have attained the kind of linguistic outlook that only the well-educated get. Gay equipped to provide.
However, the beauty and tragedy of this diary lies in the extent to which Lord rounded out the beautiful rough edges of his work, reworked and polished them for success; And how his plays, although often brilliant, feel mediated by the need to appeal to an audience that was so far behind that it had never even started the race.
“There are so many ideas out there right now that they simply have to be worked on.” same.
Robert Lord’s memoir, edited by Chris Brickell, Vanessa Manhire and Nonita Rees, ($45, Otago University Press) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.