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Louis Esson: Resource Material


ESSON PROSE (Journalism & Short Fiction)


Sample edited script (draft) : AUSTRALIA FELIX

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Dates: 01/01/2019 - 31/12/2020


Louis Esson: The Last of the Imperialists

PhD - Flinders University

Louis Esson, pioneer dramatist, died in a small Kings Cross flat, with his second wife Hilda by his side, in the early morning of 27 November, 1943. An obituary in the Melbourne Age declared that ‘with the passing of Louis Esson Australia has lost one of its finest minor poets and its first successful playwright.’ It went on to eulogise, inaccurately, that ‘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.’
The opinion echoed published comments by friends and colleagues — such as T Inglis Moore, Vance and Nettie Palmer, ‘M Barnard Eldershaw’ — and formalised by theatre historian Leslie Rees (whose chapter in his A History of Australian Drama is titled ‘The Legend of Louis Esson’). Later, after the so-called ‘new wave’ revolutionary playwrights of the 1970s, both Dennis Carroll and Esson’s biographer Peter Fitzpatrick refer back to Rees’ assessment to consolidated Esson’s reputation as 'the father of Australian drama’ responsible for ‘the birth of modern Australian drama’. Both appear to ignore the post-war ideology of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, the subsequent concerns of ‘postcolonial’ discourse, and Esson’s relatively scant production history, preferring to support the previous and troublesome ideological of ‘Commonwealth literature’, at least as far as Esson is concerned.
A singular alternative view comes from theatre critic HG Kippax who perceived ‘a romantic, imperialist sensibility.’ 'Esson,' he argued, attempted ‘to establish an indigenous drama in the wake of the Bulletin nationalists.’
Born in Scotland, in 1879, Esson was named after the Swiss landscape artist Louis Buvelot (one of the founders of the Heidleburg School and a friend of his uncle John Ford Paterson). The family emigrated to Australia to join Paterson when Esson was four years old. Throughout his boyhood he heard constant talk about the problems of putting the Australian landscape on canvas; it was his other uncle, Hugh Paterson (a stage designer and Melbourne Bohemian) who made him aware of the more difficult task of putting it on the stage.
Esson became a journalist after leaving the University of Melbourne (without a degree) and took the ‘grand tour’ with Spencer Brodney in 1904, where a serendipitous meeting with WB Yeats, JM Synge and Lady Gregory in London provided an invitation to attend the opening performance of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. His discussions with these members of the Irish Literary Revival - where Lady Gregory envisioned a society promoting ‘ancient idealism’ dedicated ‘to crafting works of Irish theatre pairing Irish culture with European theatrical methods’ - gaslighted Esson’s theatrical ambitions for Australia, resulting in the plays and his ultimate failure to establish a national theatre movement through the amateur Pioneer Players.
My thesis argues that the 18 extant plays by Louis Esson, more than half of which remain without production, represents a fin de siècle; that his dramaturgical ‘quest’ was at best an experimental transition based on a European cultural appropriation. The prestige for inaugurating an Australian idiom and form, otherwise, should be shared by the more dramaturgically adventurous, modernist drama of female writers such as Katharine Susannah Prichard, E Coulson Davidson, Oriel Gray, Millicent Armstrong, Dymphna Cusack, Mona Brand, amongst others. A new, more reliable and consistent narrative of the development of our drama can then be established.

Two issue arose preparing my dissertation that require technical negotiation in terms of the structural inclusions in the writing and submission of the thesis.
Firstly, the collection of a substantial body of primary source material: Esson’s personal correspondence; his journalism (including literary commentary and reviews); and, his verse and prose fiction. All of which requires an editorial approach.
Secondly, crucially, the various versions and poor condition of the extant play-texts — in multiple publications and multiple revisions — required an appropriate ‘copy text’ for each to be determined.
Esson wrote to Palmer, (15 November, 1926) ‘I am never anxious to get plays published. A play is meant to be acted, not read. I regard the text only as a musical score.’ It was clear, that in order to establish a reliable dramaturgical analysis of his canon, it was necessary to prepare a scholarly edition. The issue, technically, is that the bulk of the material comprises of Esson’s words, so how is this ‘work’ to be included for consideration?
Little discussion on the editing of Australian drama in manuscript exists. While editors like Clive Probyn, Bruce Steele and Elizabeth Webby provide some guidance in terms of an editorial approach to heritage novel manuscripts, there is a need to reconsider the basic concepts of ‘authorial intention’, ‘critical’ and ‘literary’ editing, the determination of ‘copy text’, and the evolution of an appropriate editorial apparatus. This work will also provide a model to enable reliable access to the large volume of heritage drama still inaccessibly stored in a range of repositories.
I needed to return to a cohort of significant early theorists (Fredson Bowers, WW Greg, G Thomas Tanselle, Jerome McGann who referenced Renaissance drama) and subsequent commentators (such as Jack Stillinger and Philip Cohen) in order to determine an appropriate methodology and find solutions to a number of peculiar and parochial editorial problems.