Review: Robert Lord Diaries

Reviewed by John Smythe

‘Given Robert never got round to writing the book about New Zealand and his life, Robert Lord Diaries fills the bill in ways that are sometimes tantalising, making this reader feel like a director or actor, seeking clarity and deeper truths in the subtext, and prompting further searches via the internet which Robert never got to experience. As such it is informative, evocative and curiously engaging.’

Readers of this ‘Portrait of a Playwright as a Middle Distance Creator’ – he died aged 46 – will respond to different elements, empathising with some experiences, learning from others and possibly puzzling at some. I come to it as a sometime actor, playwright, TV scriptwriter, screenwriter (who knew?) and theatre critic who crossed paths with Robert Lord and his works intermittently over several decades.*

Those who lived or worked more closely with him or were creatively involved in producing or performing in any of his many stage and screen plays, will feel a special connection and be fascinated at finding out more. Any artist in any discipline who has tried to ‘make it’ in New Zealand, Australia and especially New York, juggling multiple projects in the hope one will ‘fly’ and earn actual money, will feel strong empathy. Likewise gay men seeking to balance their public and private lives – especially those who, like Robert, felt the need to hide their sexual identities from close family. He even kept his HIV status (which he called “gay cancer”) secret.

This comprehensive Introduction to Robert Lord Diaries does note that his one-act Balance of Payments and longer play Meeting Place involve gay men while others embody ‘a persistent focus of erotic ambiguities.’ It also tells us Robert had studied at Otago University, Victoria University of Wellington and Wellington Teachers’ College then returned to Vic in 1970 as an inaugural student in NZ’s first university drama course, taught by Phillip Mann.

Inevitably Robert gravitated to Downstage Theatre where he worked as a stage manager, christened the theatre cat Fucky, played Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, was seconded to the committee and became assistant editor (to Nonnita Rees) of Act Magazine. Robert ‘came out’ as a playwright in 1971. Artistic Director Sunny Amey directed a reading of It Isn’t Cricket, described in the Introduction as his first successful play and in Downstage Upfront (my history of the first 40 years of New Zealand’s longest running professional theatre; VUP 2004) as a highlight of her time at Downstage.

“I didn’t have the guts to put it in as a main bill,” she told me. “I feel I should have because there was Robert, this big softy, nobody knew that he could write and the theatre was packed ... I think we just stood up and clapped. It was so moving.”

On his return from the inaugural Australian Playwrights Conference in Canberra (1973), where It Isn’t Cricket was workshopped, Robert co-founded Playmarket, New Zealand’s playwrights’ agency and publisher. He was also represented by agents in Australia and the USA. The book’s Creative Works appendix lists 23 stage plays plus three incomplete; seven original radio plays plus three adapted from his own stage plays and three unproduced); two television plays adapted from his stage plays, episodes of three TV series and two unproduced series; two films and two unproduced. All that in just 20 years!


Robert in 1973 when he stayed in Tauranga to stage It Isn’t Cricket and Balance of Payments. MS-1907/006/003, Hocken Collections.

Then there is what he enigmatically calls “the book,” the nature of which seems to change as time moves on: “Some of the diaries appear to have been written with an eye on future publication,” the editors note. The first diary entry, on 14 August 1974, was written in the rehearsal rooms of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center where he was about to attend the National Playwrights Conference. Full of enthusiasm for all the places and people – often ex-pat Kiwis – he had encountered enroute, it sets the style for his stream of consciousness jottings. Especially intriguing are his notes-to-self on ideas for plays, and musings on his dreams.

The editors have judiciously footnoted concise introductions to the many names dropped. The five further entries scattered over the rest of ’74 include restaurant and theatre-going experiences, exhortations to himself to “be serious” about his work and a declaration that his problem with “this book ... is that I do not like its messiness. Therefore I will now start a new format.”

A gap of nearly six years follows, editorially bridged with accounts of Robert’s time back in NZ, where Auckland’s Mercury Theatre and Wellington’s Downstage produced Well Hung, he adapted another of his plays for radio, and Pacific Film’s John O’Shea co-opted him as co-writer of Pictures, in which a photographer’s images of Māori prisoners taken during the Land Wars are suppressed by colonial masters seeking to attract new settlers.

Meanwhile Robert had a new play, Dead and Never Called Me Mother, workshopped at the O’Neill, with actors including Meryl Streep and Joel Brooks, and Well Hung was produced in Australia, the United States and Canada. His works in development had readings with New Dramatists but he “struggled to capture American subtexts in his writing” so embarked on a Kiwi play called Hint of Scandal. But none of his agents managed to spark any interest so he decided to stay on in New York. (It later evolved into Bert and Maisy, premiered at Wellington’s Circa Theatre in June 1986 and spun off into a 1988 TVNZ series with a Christmas special in 1989.)

The diary entries that resume in August 1980 paint a work-in-progress picture of Robert’s time-and-emotion-consuming gay lifestyle in NYC replete with names of his many friends and colleagues, the shows he sees and the judgements he passes on both. His problematic love life and the casual encounters that offer fleeting respite are revealed along with the health issues he and others endure. He records new thoughts about his works-in-progress and abiding penury provokes plaintive cries like, “Feel I really should try and get a job. John O’Shea please send me some money. Shit.”

Many photos of Robert, evocative shots of the key players in Robert’s life and a number of posters for productions of his plays (invariably showing date range but not the year) adorn the 354 pages. Along with the helpful footnotes, a comprehensive index allows readers who are conversing internally with the book to cross reference elements according to their personal interests. But you may need to search online to glean that Hurrah was a Manhattan nightclub, Cahoots a gay bar, and Mystic was a place in Connecticut where friends were suggesting Robert might settle.  

Workshopping Dead and Never Called Me Mother at the National Playwrights Conference, 1975. From left: Arthur Ballet, Martin Esslin, Meryl Streep, Joel Brooks, Robert Lord, Jill Andre. Ben Masters sits on the far right. MS-2438/148/001, Hocken Collections.

The year 1981 begins with a brief burst of positive energy, born somewhat of having paid employment. Then, after a 10 month gap, despite the intense irritation and self-scrutiny being with Kiwis in New York has provoked, and the socio-political portents in letters from friends and family, he’s heading for NZ via LA and expressing a need to write “the book ... about New Zealand & my life, I want to find out if I ever could live there again & how that country has shaped this 36-year-old penniless writer, typesetter, realtor.”  He confronts his cultural problem: “I am not now & never will be an American but I have ceased to be a New Zealander, I exist in a limbo [yet] I can still write with ease about New Zealand.”

Robert’s abiding impressions of the US include, “New York is the easiest city in the world to do nothing in – and not notice it. And being gay accentuates this.” Aloft in a “rather ancient DC8” he writes, “New York life with its discos, drugs, spiritualism, enthusiasms and speeches seem unreal, a dream, just as New Zealand at this moment seems an absurdity.” He goes on to eloquently recall, reflect on and interrogate his life-to-date and cross-examine the country he’s returning to. An LA departure lounge full of Kiwis intensifies his observation-fuelled enquiry. Back home in Auckland, “saturated, smothered, barraged” with images and memories, he can’t see how his idea for a book will work. But “Just being here & the flood of new feelings makes me want to write a new play. I will never be an American. These are my roots.”

It was Muldoon’s NZ, post the divisive Springbok Rugby tour, that Robert returned to. Readers familiar with his plays may see his vivid accounts of home life and road trips with his conservative parents, and encounters with even more right-wing relatives, offset by eloquent descriptions of rural NZ and Kiwi culture, as source material for them. By the end of the year he’s back in NYC. It’s becoming the 1987 Burns Fellow in Dunedin that brings him back to home to a period of relative financial and cultural security. He even buys the tiny Titan Street house which has become his legacy: the Robert Lord Writers Cottage.

Bouts of self-doubt punctuate the diaries, mostly provoked by potential productions of plays falling through, difficulties with writing to order (e.g. the television series Peppermint Twist) and the cancellation of other series work that promised an income (Gloss). He usually feels like a failure when he’s in Sydney, frustrated in NYC “and now I’m an outsider in New Zealand.” The ‘Broadway Clause’ – “a mythical precondition that says a play must reaffirm the values of its audience if it’s to be a success” – gives him pause:

I have run aground in New Zealand because I haven’t tried to reaffirm the values of the general public (which Roger Hall’s plays do so well) or indeed of the avant garde. I don’t think of my plays in terms of their audience. My plays have a logic of their own, a world in which they are true, in which the language is consistent. I tend to create a world independent of the audience. Twice this has spilled over: Well Hung and Bert and Maisy both have strong enough Kiwi roots to speak beyond an opening night. Plays like Meeting Place and Heroes and Butterflies, both of which I think are good, exist slightly to one side of their audience.

 Geographically Robert is all over the place in 1989 as he becomes aware that HIV has insinuated itself into his body. Nevertheless, and probably because he’s back in NZ and keeping his health issues secret, yet-to-materialise plans and brand-new ideas percolate persistently while he compulsively revises existing works every time a new production looms. “And now this dying business is beginning to sink in and confusing me,” he writes. “Having heard about the months of suffering others have gone through I’m petrified of the same – not so much of dying.”

Robert’s main preoccupation in March 1991 is to complete the play he first thought of in November 1981: “set during a New Zealand Christmas. Heat. Hot food. Christmas pudding. Family. Three or four generations.” Two years later he mentions “my Christmas play – set on Christmas Day but over 40 years (1945-85) – but action on a single day so there may be some plot but the characters will age and change.” Now Circa Theatre has commissioned it. His final diary entry, on 29 March 1991, after returning to Dunedin from twice-daily treatment in Christchurch, is:

Now the thing is to make headway on Boxing Day and I’m determined to plot out the action and get some dialogue under my belt before the weekend is over. Oh, do I want it done!

And done it was! The editors simply note it had a reading in June, was renamed Joyful and Triumphant and scheduled for production in early 1992. I recall how tragic the theatre community felt it was that Robert Lord died in Dunedin in January before Circa Theatre premiered Joyful and Triumphant, An Incidental Epic on 20 February 1992, directed by Susan Wilson. Widely acclaimed as his best play, it was revived for a State Opera House season and nation-wide tour in July/August 1993 then invited to the Sydney Festival in January 1995 and The Adelaide Festival Centre in July/August 1995. In 1993 it was adapted for television by TVNZ (with only two of the original cast) and it remains his most licenced stage play for production. All those royalties – at last! – he didn’t personally get to enjoy!

Given Robert never got round to writing the book about New Zealand and his life, Robert Lord Diaries fills the bill in ways that are sometimes tantalising, making this reader feel like a director or actor, seeking clarity and deeper truths in the subtext, and prompting further searches via the internet which Robert never got to experience. As such it is informative, evocative and curiously engaging.

For more details about two of Robert’s many plays, see my Theatreview reviews of Circa Theatre’s second production of Joyful and Triumphant (2007) and The Travelling Squirrel (2015).

  • Full disclosure: Robert was born in the same year as me but I’d worked for three years in a city office before going to ‘Vic’ (now Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington) in 1967. Bob, as we knew him, was completing the BA he’d begun at the University of Otago. We were both involved with VUW Drama Club but not in the same productions. The following year he was a theatre critic for Salient.

    While my birth date marble had dropped me into National Service training, Bob’s must have stayed in the barrel – and what if it hadn’t? I toured with the NZ Players Drama Quartet for the rest of 1967 then went on to NIDA in Sydney, so our paths diverged although I did get to know many of the people he name-checks in his diaries.

    I returned to Wellington in 1985 and was cast in a Circa production of Country Cops, his revised version of Well Hung which had premiered at Downstage in 1974. I seem to recall a quiet presence at one rehearsal and on opening night he avoided me which is not surprising as I had performed in ‘when in doubt shout’ mode and was inappropriately costumed – but that’s another story. In 2013 I played George Bishop in a Paekakariki play reading of Joyful and Triumphant which gave me a deep appreciation of how true his writing was to the New Zealand ‘voice’ and its distinctive characters.

Reviewed by John Smythe

This review was originally published on Theatreview ( and is reproduced here with kind permission.