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Robert Lord (Photo: Supplied)
Robert Lord (Photo: Supplied)

BooksNovember 21, 2023

The very relatable diaries of New Zealand playwright Robert Lord

Robert Lord (Photo: Supplied)
Robert Lord (Photo: Supplied)

Messy gay playwright Sam Brooks reviews the newly-published diaries of one of New Zealand’s original messy gay playwrights.

Early on in the diaries of Robert Lord, I found a kindred spirit. It was in this one simple sentence, written during the New Zealand playwright’s time in New York, where he bounced to and from across the 1970s and 80s.

“Got v drunk watching tele and rang Craig & Donna in Sydney.”

I nodded sagely as I read this, over a glass of cheap sauvignon blanc, glancing from the diaries to my gossip groupchat blowing up on my phone. Another sentence, later on in the book, has a very similar level of relatability: “Another Christmas come and gone. Money spent. Liquor consumed.”

Robert Lord is not a household name, although arguably no playwright in our country is except Roger Hall. Lord’s most famous (adjust for inflation) plays include The Travelling Squirrel, Bert and Maisie, and his best play, perhaps the best family drama ever written in New Zealand, Joyful and Triumphant, which holds up decades later. His heyday was the 1970s and 80s, which his published diaries helpfully cover, until he died of Aids-related causes in 1991.

When it comes to projects like these, I often question the purpose. Diaries are perhaps the one form of writing that are not intended to be read by any audience. Diaries are winks in the dark, whispers into the wind, secrets buried in the ground. I think of an audience reading my own diaries only in so far as that I cannot imagine an audience being interested in reading my diaries in the slightest. It feels like taking a look behind a curtain that should remain firmly closed, no observers please, the wizard is not at work today.

Which is not to say there is no purpose here. Robert Lord was not our country’s first queer playwright, but definitely its most prominent queer playwright for his time, give or take a Renée. His work is not revived as often as it should be, although you could say the same for any NZ playwright from his era. What the diaries reveal, more than anything, is the struggle of a brilliant, tireless artist who wanted so badly to be a commercial success, often at the expense of reaching his own brilliance.

Compared to most published diaries, Lord’s are, to be frank, an absolute mess. He is hilariously inconsistent with keeping a diary, and even admits in one entry that “it is becoming clear [he] is not a great diarist.” Hell, he literally also writes:

“There is no way this diary can provide a cohesive narrative of the past four months. The prospect of flashback covering the past is too daunting.”

He’s right! It doesn’t. It does though, somewhat ironically, put him in a similar place to most diarists. There is no way this man truly expected anybody to be reading his diaries, 40 years later, and that’s what makes them feel weirdly more tangible, more human. 

It’s not as though he only lived his life when he wasn’t writing his diary – the entries that we do have are full of parties, strife, jaunts across the world and a decades-long love for a man he treated pretty badly. There are so many famous names dropped from across the world and country, although somewhat hilariously, not Meryl Streep, who only features in a photograph of a workshop of one of Lord’s plays that she participated in (perhaps he wasn’t a fan?). It is also a portrait of the rare writer who spent as much time writing, it seems, as he did partying. That writing just wasn’t into his diary.

Meryl Streep (third from left) at a workshop held by Robert Lord. (Photo: Supplied)

As with any diary, part of the value is in its snapshot of history. The entries tell us what life was like for the writer, and about the world around them. Across the decade, Lord doesn’t just give us a window into his life, he also shows what it was like to be a gay man in New York in the 80s (albeit an outsider) and a playwright in New Zealand, and a man who loved a family which couldn’t quite comprehend his sexuality.

Which is all pretty bleak, to be honest. But perhaps the bleakest things are not bleak because they’re depressing in context, but because Lord (or anybody) could have written them today and they’d be no less true. To wit:

“Why can’t a summer theatre start in Auckland?”

“Another major problem is how to write the play without a cast of thousands.”

“… a very competent version of the old amateur groups doing plays which seem to be daring but which really are not.”

Also? He paid $34,000 for a house in the 80s. That house remains the Robert Lord Cottage to this day and hosts writers on residencies year-round. I stayed there last year, and wish that I had brilliant observations that I gleaned about the man from my time there. Alas, the only observation I have is that Lord was a very tall man, and like many men of great height, he does not mention that in his diaries, probably because, also like many men of great height, everybody else did it for him.

Robert Lord at work. (Photo: Supplied)

That’s all pretty Inside Baseball, though. While I can’t imagine a general audience who might be interested in Lord’s diaries – no shade on anybody involved, including Lord, it’s just a niche product – there’s definite value in the observations that Lord makes not just of his specific milieu and country, but on life in general and work in general.

He describes Wellington as a “neurotic city” that is “turned in on itself with no natural way out”; as beautiful, harrowing and correct a description of our capital as I’ve ever heard. His little bon mots are even better than those he delivered in his scripts; just listen to the way the words in this phrase knock against each other:

“Life is better than I have allowed myself to think.”

But honestly, the thing that resonates with me, treading a similar path to the one that Lord didn’t just blaze, but paved after him, is all the things that aren’t in the diary. Lord’s untimely death hangs over the entire endeavour, and moments like those where he separates his projects into categories (“Major Projects, Revision Projects, Future Projects”) don’t so much tug at the heartstrings as yank the organ against the ribcage. The last line, which I refuse to spoil here, is equally potent. If only we could all be so eloquent – and witty – towards our ends.

I’ve heard about Robert Lord (the person) a lot throughout my career. Many of his friends, including those in the books, are still pillars of the industry today. Some of those friends have mentioned how much he would’ve liked me, which seems a very unfair thing to put on a person who isn’t around to object. There are some moments of savagery towards his colleagues here that I can definitely empathise with, and which make me thankful that nobody will ever unearth my diaries and publish them, edited or otherwise. One of New Zealand’s most successful plays is referred to as “an awful creepy-crawly play with some good moments”, and at least three of our most well-known playwrights are given the kind of linguistic side-eye that only a well-schooled homosexual is equipped to deliver.

A Robert Lord selfie. (Photo: Supplied)

However, the beauty, and the tragedy, of these diaries lies in how much Lord pivoted, reworked, and sanded down the beautiful rough edges of his work for the sake of success; and how his plays, while often brilliant, feel mediated by the need to appeal to an audience who was so far behind him they hadn’t even started the race.

“So many ideas at present and simply must get to work on them.” Same.

Robert Lord Diaries, edited by Chris Brickell, Vanessa Manhire and Nonnita Rees, ($45, Otago University Press) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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