An Australian Playwright.
WITH the passing of Louis Esson Australia has lost one of its finest minor poets and a successful playwright — one who showed the world that this country had intellectual background enough to produce a great dramatist.
Strangely enough, little is heard or seen of his plays, though his poems appear in most Australian anthologies. Comparatively few people know that it was mainly his works, that successfully launched our first National Theatre movement.
Thomas Louis Bouvelot Esson, to give him his full name, from childhood had an excellent cultural' environment. Through an uncle, John Ford Paterson, he was linked with art, and was named after Louis Bouvelot, founder of the Heidelberg school. Fred McCubbin and Tom Roberts, members of that distinguished coterie, were two of his friends. Attending lectures at the Melbourne University, he worked at the Melbourne Public Library, one of the many young officers who later made literature their life work. Marcus Clarke had initiated the tradition, one which E. Morris Miller and E. C.H. Oliphant, both. later to be professors of literature, were to follow. He travelled abroad and met the most famous of his craft, men such as Masefield, Synge and Yeats.
A Scot, born in Edinburgh, he found himself vaguely in time with the Irish, with their songs of - Celtic mysticism and underlying sadness, and he formed a strong affinity with the Abbey Theatre group. Yeats advised him to return to Australia to write of the people and the land he so loved.
In 1910 appeared his first book of verse, "Bells and Bees." In that year also William Moore, had gathered around, him a group of enthusiasts to roduce the works of local playwrights, at what were called Australian drama nights, ; His own; works and those of Esson appeared there, and Katharine Susannah Prichard . made her debut as a dramatist. But ; it was the success of. Esson's plays which justified' the- enterprise.; Some years earlier he had tried his hand for the Australian Theatre Society, a venture to launch local talent.
Esson gained his greatest public and acclaim with the foundation of the Melbourne Repertory - Society in 1911. Gregan McMahoiir father of the movement in Australia, had in association with him such citizens as R. R. Garran and A.T, Strong, G. H.. Knibbs, Theodore Fink and Blamlre Young.
Esson's Dead .Timber proved to be not only a good reading play, but it was, produced with conspicuous success. In setting and characterisation truly Australian, it is one of the, best known plays, having appeared in several anthologies. It is a stark tragedy, set in Gippsland, with the selector struggling to hew a block from the bush, the road bogged, creeks flooded, .the farmer arid his family working for longer than daylight hours. With one son half witted, the crop washed away, a cow dying and his daughter driven from home with a young drover, the father shoots himself. In one ...short act all this is vividly drawn, with next to no complexity of plot. Melodrama.
; admittedly, but with vigor,: arid passionate reality in every line. '
In the Drama Nights he had triumphed' with The -Woman Tamer, a one-act comedy of the larrikins and gaol-birds in. the unsavory quarters of Melbourne. He depicted the humor and tragedy of their lives in the ribald, colorful vernacular. In this play and several poems, notably Brogan's Lane and Jugger, he is a Francois Villon limning the picturesque rogues and outcasts. In The Splitter, The Shearer's Wife, Whalin' Up' the Lachlan, Esson also caught the Australian scene with the lyric truth of fine poetry.
Another striking little play of this period also proved a stage success. This was The Sacred Place. Again the plot was simple, the dialogue poetic and yet real and the action smooth. He drew an enduring picture of. the Indian hawkers, nomads In an Infidel country, inspired by religion and hopes of the pilgrimage to Mecca. The last war greatly curtailed repertory activities, and it was not until about 1922 that Vance Palmer and Dr. Stewart Macky formed the Pioneer Players in Melbourne. Each had a play produced there.
They attracted many of the poets, Furnley Maurice. Ernest O'Farrell, the New Zealander Allan Mulgan and Frank P. Brown, Katharine Susannah Prichard again had plays produced, but Esson's The Drovers shone out.
Briglow Bill, a stockman, is mortally injured in a stampede. To remain with him would endanger the lives of others, not to mention the safe delivery of the herd,- a factor which exercises - the "Boss's" mind. He must be left to die, in the care of a native boy. That is all there Is of plot. But the dialogue is true, with no breath of false sentimentality. The author had achieved in the difficult and narrow, field of the one-act play what Henry Lawson has done In his best tales. Full-length plays produced were The Battlers. Mother and Son and The Bride of Gospel Place. In the first long play of the early repertory days, The Time Is Not Yet Ripe, the poet laughs at politicians. One meets the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, Sir Joseph Quiverton, whose daughter complicates the political and domestic scene by an entanglement with the leader of the Socialists. One of the most effective plays for the stage Is Andeganora, produced In later years. It is a dramatisation of the -all- too-common: clash between white and black over, a black woman. The rhythmic chanting, of the natives works, disturbingly on: the mind, and presages the ultimate dissolution of the native in his stand against the sapping alien ways of the- invader.
Esson was shy and the most modest of men. His friends hoped for more from his pen, but he was satisfied only with what was perfect in his own eyes. He brought the drama from a low place in our letters into world literature. He earned recognition in international anthologies. Esson made enduring literature of the bullockies, selectors, shearers, splitters, camel drivers, drovers, and their wives, and like those pioneers, he should receive praise and respect.