Page 1: Biography
Lusty, Wilfrid Mervyn
Journalist, drama critic, theatre administrator, adult educationalist
This biography, written by David Verran, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Wilfrid Mervyn Lusty was born in Auckland on 25 March 1907, the second of three children of Mary Walsh and her husband, William David Lusty. His mother was a keen writer, his father a journalist who later became a sub-editor at the New Zealand Herald ; both belonged to the Auckland Dickens Club. Mervyn (as he was known) shared his father’s love of the theatre from an early age. However, when approaching puberty he began to suffer from a painful illness, later diagnosed as ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease of the spine manifested in muscle spasms, stiffness and limitation of motion. His school life suffered and he was not able to start secondary school until he was almost 15.
However, at Auckland Grammar School, which he attended from 1922 to 1925, he overcame his handicaps, passing matriculation, excelling in English and participating in amateur theatre. In 1926 he became a reporter and drama critic at the Auckland Star , and also attended Auckland University College part time. These activities were cut short in 1928 by a further onset of spondylitis, which required hospitalisation.
Around 1931 Lusty joined the Auckland WEA Dramatic Club. Living with his parents, he became a free-lance writer and drama critic and had some minor amateur acting roles. In the late 1930s he began to move into theatre administration, becoming secretary of the WEA Dramatic Club in 1937. From 1939 he was also secretary of the Auckland Drama Council, to which the WEA club and most other local amateur dramatic organisations were affiliated. He remained secretary of the club and the council until 1949, and also chaired both organisations for several years.
In 1943 Lusty was appointed a temporary office assistant for the Adult Education Centre at Auckland University College. In 1946 he became the centre’s registrar and from 1949 was its secretary. He had previously been involved with the Army Education and Welfare Service, and continued after the war to tutor and judge drama. He was also producer for the Orakei Drama Club from 1952 to 1956.
From 1946 Lusty was deeply involved with the Community Arts Service, especially the drama section. With missionary fervour the service toured drama, opera, ballet, art exhibits and puppet shows to 60 towns in the upper North Island. In all, 27 plays were toured between 1948 and 1962, including works by Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, and, more controversially, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Allen Curnow’s Moon section. The latter was the only New Zealand play to be performed. Although there was a high staff turnover at the Adult Education Centre, and many strong personalities were involved in the Community Arts Service, Lusty provided continuity.
He also strongly supported the creation of a government-sponsored national theatre, both to raise the community standing of drama and to train competent producers. He was an executive member of the New Zealand Drama Council from 1950 to 1955, and of the New Zealand Players Foundation in the mid 1950s. Retiring from the University of Auckland in 1971, Lusty enthusiastically devoted himself to the new Mercury Theatre. He was a member of the Auckland Theatre Trust Board from 1972 to 1977, and from 1973 to 1980 was also honorary librarian and archivist at the Mercury. He had ambitious plans for building a comprehensive library of books, periodicals, programmes and other materials documenting the development of New Zealand theatre.
A modest man, noted for habitually wearing a dark blue suit and a hat, he required two walking sticks and often a steel-and-leather brace to walk. He also suffered from poor eyesight. He died sometime between 28 and 31 May 1987, unmarried, and still living in his late parents’ house in Herne Bay. He was cremated at Purewa cemetery. His collection of almost 3,000 books went to the University of Auckland Library. Mervyn Lusty’s work for the Mercury Theatre was his last role in a lifetime of involvement in the theatre. For over 60 years he had been an enthusiastic attender of performances, critic, actor, tutor, judge, administrator and recorder of the history of New Zealand theatre.