Lordania revisited, Laurie Atkinson

Three Plays 
Robert Lord (Phillip Mann ed)
Playmarket, $30.00,
ISBN 9780908607464

The playwright Robert Lord died in Dunedin on January 7th, 1992. His last play, Joyful and Triumphant, was premiered seven weeks later at Circa Theatre on February 20th as part of the 4th International Festival of the Arts in Wellington.

Lord wrote 16 full-length plays and six one-act plays. Twenty-two plays, however, is a debatable number as he was an inveterate tinkerer with his own works. He re-wrote his first major success, Well Hung, a couple of times, and his other great success had three titles for the three versions that preceded Bert and Maisie. But, as Phillip Mann points out in his lengthy, sympathetic and detailed introduction to Lord’s life and work and in his perceptive introductions to these three plays, “he may be seen as a perfectionist in his art, hence his willingness to rework plays in the full knowledge that what is perfect in one situation may not be perfection in another.” Mann is the ideal editor of these plays as Lord was a student during the first year of the drama course established by Mann at Victoria University in 1970 (the first academic course in drama in New Zealand), and he was also assisted by Lord in his production of The Bacchae (1970) at Downstage.

Lord’s death, at the age of only 46, all too easily leads one into the futility of thinking about what he might have further achieved, because, of all the playwrights who appeared in the 1970s, with the possible exception of Vincent O’Sullivan, his work is the most varied, experimental and individualistic with form and language. Another factor that differentiated Lord from the playwrights of the day was that he lived and worked as a playwright in New York for 10 years from 1975. However, he still visited New Zealand and continued to write for film, television and radio here.

The three plays chosen by Mann to represent Lord’s work in the latest of the excellent New Zealand Play Series published by Playmarket (which Lord was instrumental in founding) are the black farce Well Hung, the minimalist psychological drama It Isn’t Cricket, and the tragic-comedy The Travelling Squirrel. These demonstrate Lord’s strengths, as well as his weaknesses, but one is left in no doubt as to his dedication to the art of playwriting.

His early plays, like It Isn’t Cricket and Well Hung, show the influence of Pinter and Albee, whose works were performed at Downstage while Lord was employed there and where his own early plays were first performed. The cock-a-snook at bourgeois double standards of Joe Orton’s plays is also clearly evident in the subversive farces of Well Hung and the shorter Balance of Payments.

It Isn’t Cricket is a spare play: six characters, 17 scenes (11 of which are duologues), a lack of narrative, the use of stichomythia, and a cat’s cradle of emotions eventually revealing subtle and sometimes complex shifts in relationships – hence Mann’s description of it as “minimalist”.  Another early play, Meeting Place, is written in much the same elliptical style. This minimalist approach can lead to accusations of aridity and ambiguity. An early critic of Lord’s work, Cathy Wylie, found the characters in his plays “disturbingly interchangeable” and that “people supposedly close to one another engage in the kind of sizing-up conversation one makes at large parties.” However, the popular success of Well Hung allowed Lord the luxury of being able to write full-time, as well as no doubt assisting him in being awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council travel grant, which took him to Britain and then the United States.

And Well Hung is, as Mann points out, “far removed from the charming innocence of Rookery Nook or Charley’s Aunt”. Farce is never subtle, but it can still hit hard with unpalatable truths. The play’s initial success at Downstage was tinged with scandal, because the farce is built around a murder with similarities to the notorious Crewe murder case. The playwright insisted this was unintentional, as he had only read the headlines of the case. The Downstage poster advertising the production also caused unfavourable comment in some quarters, because it showed two naked policemen covering their genitals with their helmets.

When Wally, “the local town idiot” who hangs around the two-man rural police station hoping for a job, is finally offered one, he asks excitedly: “Can I spend all day telling people off, and can I whack them with a truncheon if I don’t like them?” To which Detective Jasper Sharp, as incompetent a cop as Inspector Clouseau, replies: “Wally, you’re a natural. Already you’ve embraced the ethos of the New Zealand police service.” A few seconds later, the farce’s coup de théâtre tableau finale reveals the murderer to be one of the local policemen, who has hanged himself. To criticise the New Zealand Police wasn’t the done thing in those innocent days, and could no longer be passed off as just a piece of comic theatre.

The only play in this volume written and first performed in New York is The Travelling Squirrel. The play had teething problems. It was in “intensive development for at least five years” and “finally premiered in 1990 (directed by Lord) at Primary Stages, a New York Equity-supported theatre where professional actors donate their time to new work.” The plot is best summarised by Hilary Halba, whom Mann quotes: “Lord, the struggling playwright in New York, wrote in The Travelling Squirrel about Bart, the struggling novelist in New York, who writes about Roger the Squirrel, a Sciuridae painter struggling to get a break.”

It’s a tricky play. It has its funny scenes, with larger-than-life portraits of typical New York characters (a gay columnist, a go-getting literary agent), but the travelling Roger (he falls onto the roof of a subway car going to Far Rockaway in Queens) is somehow too heavy-handed a literary device. For me, the play doesn’t feel as if it has been grown in American soil. Mann points out that the play’s problem lies in the clashing of two styles of theatre (farce and realism), “rubbing against one another like tectonic plates”.

The language doesn’t quite gel, the situations, the New York parties and meetings appear as contrived as the scenes in Lord’s 1974 play Heroes and Butterflies, a political fantasy written in New Zealand, but set in what Colin Duckworth called “Lordania”. It was given two prestige productions in Auckland and Wellington, but was not well received. Nevertheless, Duckworth ended his review of Heroes and Butterflies on an encouraging note, suggesting that the playwright should not be depressed by reactions to his play:

he has a fund of creative and inventive ideas all tumbling out together, seeking expression and realisation. With wider international experience (he is about to travel overseas) he will better judge what will work and will not work on stage. And as he becomes more self-critical, he will produce disciplined work of great quality.

 

That disciplined work of great quality was finally produced in Dunedin, where Lord wrote Joyful and Triumphant, a masterly portrait of a typical Pakeha middle-class New Zealand family coping with the waves of social, political and economic changes that have bedevilled and blessed this land from 1949 to 1989. A play most definitely grown and nurtured in New Zealand soil.

 

Laurie Atkinson is the Dominion Post theatre critic.

 

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