What would his family think, fretted playwright Robert Lord (1945-1992), if they knew about New York’s gay clubs, his frequent drug-taking, and the blowjobs in the baths and bookstalls? “Being gay & effeminate in a country which above all prizes rude masculinity doesn’t make life simple”, he wrote somewhere over America, on his way back to New Zealand. Lord was profoundly attached to his home while struggling to exist here. Relatives made their way to his parents’ Auckland house one Sunday afternoon for drinks “so I can be inspected. Hideous! They will all ask what I do. How things are going. What sort of life I have. Am I going to tell them I dance my life away, that I’m a disco maven? That I’m a faggot slut?” No, he resolved. “I will lie.”

Along with Vanessa Manhire and Nonnita Rees, I have edited the newly published diaries of this vivid and funny chronicler of queer New Zealand. His diary entries reveal the dramatic contrast between life as a gay man in 1970s and 80s New York – a world of sex, drugs and socialising – and provincial New Zealand, with its respectable living rooms, fields of carrots and the occasional homoerotic demonstration of sheep shearing.

Dunedinites of a certain age will remember Lord as an excessively tall man with a long, loping walk, striding around town during the late 1980s. He was Burns Fellow in 1987, and he made friends with the arty locals, chatted with students in the pubs, and wrote a quirky play about southern life (The Affair). He also bought a tiny brick cottage in North Dunedin – “the smallest house in the southern hemisphere, if not the world” – which now hosts visiting writers from across New Zealand and around the globe.

Lord was born in Rotorua, grew up in Hamilton and Invercargill, and studied in Dunedin and Wellington. During the early 1970s he joined Downstage Theatre where he wrote and directed; he also played Eeyore in a production of Winnie the Pooh. The poster for one of his early plays, Well Hung, showed two nearly-naked policemen. Lord flatted with a large and eccentric cast of characters. “My apartment had crooked floors, an old gas stove, a gas copper in lieu of a washing machine. We bought a fridge at an auction. My friend Tim kept it full of lobsters, which he dove for off the rocky coast. Many people lived there from time to time. For several weeks a group of hippies camped in the living room.”

After moving to New York in 1975, Lord partied with celebrities, including Iggy Pop and David Bowie, and Meryl Streep participated in a reading of his play Dead and Never Called Me Mother. A 1981 photo shows Lord at a Fire Island party, dressed in a slinky leopard-skin outfit and a lampshade for a hat. He loved Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin’s novel that chronicles gay San Francisco during the 1970s and ’80s, and his own New York friends were just as creative and passionate as Maupin’s. Lord’s diaries tell of parties, gossip, relationships and drunken infelicities. His friends’ complex emotional lives frequently went awry. “We are fortunately given to our immoderations at disparate times & do not all, except occasionally, go crazy at once.”

“Sex, of course, is a major problem these days because one dreads having it”, Lord wrote in 1981, “the plague being forever in the spotlight”. He worried Aids would give rise to “a hideous backlash” against gay men. Many of his friends and erstwhile lovers died as the years wore on, and he wrote about how difficult it was to deal with. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and his funny, on-point social observations gave way to a darker introspection.

Lord and his beagle Becky, December 1977. Photo: MS-1907/11/065, Hocken Collections

If Auckland was a place of secrets, Wellington was “neurotic”, Christchurch oddly empty (“I always used to feel, & perhaps still do, that a great deal goes on behind drawn curtains in Christchurch. All the people must be doing something”), and Dunedin “like visiting your grandmother. But I like it”. Lord found the small towns even more bemusing. One night, in the pub at Lake Ohau, “we were joined by 2 shearers & a carpenter. A variety of stories, mostly lewd, a demonstration of how they shear – one shearer using the other as a sheep & the two bus drivers doing the same & one pulling the other’s trousers down – which everyone else overlooked.” The simmering sexuality of rural New Zealand was a million miles away from Greenwich Village and Fire Island.

His plays reflect the colliding aspects of his own life. Joyful and Triumphant was his most successful work, staged in February 1992, just six weeks after his death from an Aids-related illness. It deals with suburban conformity and shifting affective allegiances, perennial Lord themes. There are intimate relationships between Māori and Pākehā, and familial tussles over politics. In Bert and Maisy, which later became a film and a television series, a suave outsider challenges small-town New Zealanders’ ideas about gender and upward mobility. Other plays are quirkier. Meeting Place is a psychological thriller with powerful homoerotic undercurrents. In Balance of Payments, a mother stabs her rent-boy son to death with a knitting needle. He brings home only eight dollars after an afternoon spent trying to pick up men at the local swimming pool.

Sometimes Lord’s work lost its sharp edges as it inched towards the stage. His queer themes were often watered down through successive rewrites, and some plays – including one that tells of a man who attempts to murder his wife so he can be with his male lover, and another in which two men pick each other up in New York’s Central Park – were apparently never performed in public. Lord wanted to challenge people, but not too much; he needed to earn a living by having his plays accepted by theatres and audiences. A rebellious spirit and constant compromise were uneasy bedfellows. The theatre need not be ‘revolutionary’, he said, but plays could help people understand the world – and themselves – in new ways.

Robert Lord Diaries edited by Chris Brickell, Vanessa Manhire and Nonnita Rees (Otago University Press, $45) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Chris Brickell is the editor of James Courage Diaries, published by Otago University Press in 2021. His previous books include Mates and Lovers: A history of gay New Zealand, and Teenagers: The rise of...

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