Early Repertory Days.
By Leslie Rees.
Louis Esson is visiting Sydney, for the first time in twenty years. Esson has been dubbed the father of the Australian repertory drama. His visit will bring to a gradually diminish- ing few a fragrant remembrance of those pre-war days—which now in their perspective seem to have had a special bouquet and charm—when Wil- liam Moore began his Australian Drama Nights in Melbourne, and so heralded the birth of the repertory idea in this
It was a time in Australian letters when the younger Hugh McCrae, Helen Jerome, Walter Murdoch. Arthur Adams, H. M. Green, Mary Gilmore, Leon Brodzky, and others were writing comfortable articles, verse, and stories in "The Lone Hand," illustrated almost too generously with line drawings and initial letters by such as Norman Lindsay, Alec Sass, and W. H. Souter. Writers and illustrators seemed to have better and more regular markets than they have to-day. But the Australian play- wright had no market. True, the commercial theatre was in such vigour that, three or four straight plays were to be seen in each of the principal cities at the one time, and the salaried acting staffs of the main "chains" ran tnto many hundreds. But in all this prosperity there was no place for such Aus- tralian dramatists as wished to communicate their personal vision of the life and people they knew instead of rehashing stock types and conceptions borrowed from abroad.
In 1909 William Moore hired a hall in Mel- bourne and decided to put the dramatist as well as the actor on the stage. The earlier short plays of Louis Esson—plays which have remained fresh over thirty years—were one of the most fruitful results of the experi-
Looked at from this distance, and equally so to both the original participators and to younger minds to-day, that forlorn crusade seems as romantic and adventurous as when Yeats, Martyn, and Lady Gregory placed a dish of freshly-hatched Irish folk-plays before a wondering audience in the Dublin of the nineties. The detailed story of Moore's enter- prise was told in a paper given in Melbourne
some years ago by the late Henry Tate, musician and composer.
There was nothing very remarkable about
the first annual Drama Night in 1909, but
it brought talented enthusiasts together. "Once entangled in the meshes of Moore's tactful bonhomie,'' says Tate, "they were content to stay there." The second of the Drama Nights was held st what was then the Turn Verein Hall. It was a brilliant success. Among the plays presented to a full audience was
Louis Esson's first effort, "The Woman Tamer," that neatly-expressed, cleverly developed
comedy of Melbourne slum types.
On this occasion, black and white draw- ings for the programmes were made by Laurie Taylor end Tom Carter. The other plays were 'The Burglar," by Katharine Susannah Prichard (which had considerable popularity), and Moore's own light comedy, "The Tea- room Girl." Moore had the idea of including the arts of musical composition, poetry, sing- ing, and instrumental music—all Australian. Hence, a song by Marion Alsop to words by Dorothy Prances McCrae, and a recital of verses written by Mary Gilmore and Hugh
The third Drama Night, held in conjunction with the Melbourne Repertory Theatre on the evenings of December 13 and 14, 1911. brought forward Louis Esson's brief tragedy, "Dead Timber." For the fourth night, in 1912, Esson wrote his light piece, "The Sacred Place," dealing with a group of Mohammedans in a low quarter of Melbourne, and the in- fluence of the Koran, the book of his fore- fathers, on an unscrupulous member of the group. The effective, though slight, situations in this playlet and in "The Woman Tamer" were observed at first-hand by Esson during visits made in the company of a friendly policeman to the slum localities of Melbourne.
The Drama Nights came to an end because of Moore's departure for London, and because of the incidence of the war. They were a tiny experiment, as later repertory movements have gone, but they discovered one of Aus- tralia's first and best dramatists. Louis Esson has been writing plays ever since those chrysalis days. Gregan McMahon produced his divert- ing full-length satire on current politics, "The Time Is Not Yet Ripe," in 1912. When the Pioneer Players were formed in Melbourne in the twenties Louis Esson provided what is perhaps his best-known short play, "The Drovers." This tragedy of an injured drover left to die on the track, because the thirsty cattle must at all costs be driven on to a waterhole, was published in. London, together with the three other one-acters mentioned above. One English critic wrote that it was second, in its emotional impact, only to Synge's "Riders of the Sea." "Dead Timber" was also incorporated in an English volume of 50 outstanding short plays. With his several full-length plays, Louis Esson has had less public success. His short "Andeganora" was printed in the recent collection, of "Best Aus- tralian One-act Plays," co-edited by T. Inglis Moore and Esson's early friend, William Moore, who dedicated the volume to Esson as a tribute to the doyen of Australian dramatist. A few months later William Moore was dead.
Esson's plays have sometimes shown a paucity of invention, but they are always strong in atmospheric individuality, and arise out of an essentially Australian experience. One cannot trace any immediate oversea in- fluences, except perhaps in "The Time Is Not Yet Ripe," which may (or may not) have owed to Shaw's "Press Cuttings." The dialogue in Esson's plays always has terseness and eloquence, even when it is being most ver- nacular. In spite of having always used a realistic medium, Esson is a romantic at heart.