This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981
Thomas Louis Buvelot Esson (1878-1943), dramatist, was born on 10 August 1878 at Leith, Edinburgh, only child of Thomas Clarence Esson, marine engineer, and his wife Mary Jane, née Paterson. When he was 3 his recently widowed mother joined her two sisters and a brother in Melbourne; the artist John Ford Paterson was another brother. Louis Esson was raised by his aunts in Carlton, and attended Carlton Grammar School.
In 1896 Esson began an arts course at the University of Melbourne but left without completing a degree. At university he had chatted with fellow students about socialism and literature and was soon to begin his own experiments as an Australian dramatist. In 1905 he visited Paris with Leon Brodzky (Spencer Brodney) and in Dublin he met the Irish dramatist, J. M. Synge, who urged him to create a national theatre in Australia.
From 1904 Esson had published verse and topical paragraphs in the Bulletin; his first contributions included vicarious evocations of Melbourne's low life and the conventional warnings about Australia's vulnerability to Japan, a country he visited in 1908 on a trip through south and east Asia. By 1906 Esson had grown dissatisfied with the Bulletin and increasingly sceptical of claims that the journal continued to be a positive influence on Australian literature. He felt that it had degenerated into a formula and that the insistence on brevity was a sterile obsession. After 1910 his Bulletin contributions were infrequent. In 1906 Esson joined the Victorian Socialist Party as a foundation member and soon contributed articles to the Socialist. Bernard O'Dowd was a regular contributor and a revered example of literary dedication and high-mindedness to a rising generation of writers, including Esson. The Socialist gave him scope to air his views and in 1911, under the sympathetic co-editorship of Frederick Sinclaire and Marie Pitt, he contributed a jauntily Bohemian series of articles on Australian institutions. His first full-length play, The Time is Not Yet Ripe, a Shavian comedy in four acts, was completed and staged in Melbourne in 1912 before a large and appreciative audience. Esson had also published Three Short Plays (including The Woman Tamer, Dead Timber, and The Sacred Place) and two slim volumes of verse, Bells and Bees and Red Gums and Other Verses, enough to secure a reputation as a promising young writer.
Esson's personal life had been less successful. He had no memory of his father and was unflattering about his mother whom he considered flighty and economically irresponsible. She married twice in Australia to Victorian graziers before her death in 1932 at Shepparton. The only child of these marriages and her favourite son, Francis (Frank) Paterson Brown (d.1928), became a sporting journalist and an aspiring dramatist. On 22 January 1906 at Queen Street Melbourne Esson married with Presbyterian forms Madeleine Stephanie Tracy. According to family tradition, she had talked the unworldly young writer into the marriage. The union appeared shaky from the outset and ended in divorce in November 1911. The only child of the marriage, James Paterson Esson (d.1971), was raised by the Paterson aunts and eventually became editor of newspapers at Shepparton.
Esson's second marriage, on 15 December 1913, to Hilda Wager Bull proved to be a better match. The marriage was celebrated by Dr Charles Strong of the Australian Church. Their only child, Hugh, was born in 1918. Hilda Bull was born in the Sydney suburb of Waverley on 2 July 1886. The family moved to Melbourne where her father left his vocation as a gentleman to become a herbalist. She was educated at Presbyterian Ladies' College, matriculated in March 1906 and completed a medical degree with distinction at the University of Melbourne in 1913. She was a foundation member of the Melbourne University Dramatic Society. After interrupted work as a medical practitioner, in 1927 Hilda Bull became assistant to Dr John Dale, health officer to the City of Melbourne; she married him in March 1951 after his divorce. She died in Melbourne on 29 June 1953.
Hilda was a gifted, strong-minded woman with broad interests. Her economic, intellectual and emotional support enabled Louis to pursue his career as a dramatist and freelance writer at a time when writing was a poorly rewarded and disheartening pursuit. Indeed, the outbreak of war in August 1914 appeared to make a literary career in Australia even more remote. After Louis had been rejected for military service on medical grounds, the Essons left Australia in 1916 for New York. The city overwhelmed them, while American civilization struck them as vulgar, commercial and pushy. Their attitude softened a little, but not before they had left America. London was more congenial; there were old friends, familiar cultural associations, new contacts with Irish dramatists, but Louis found writing difficult. W. B. Yeats, however, encouraged him again to attempt to create a national theatre. In July 1921 the Essons returned to Melbourne, where they renewed their friendship with Vance and Nettie Palmer and laid the basis for the Pioneer Players, an organization dedicated to performing Australian plays; Hilda acted in these productions.
The Pioneer Players' first performances were in 1922: Esson's The Drovers, a spare, atmospheric bush play in one act, was staged in 1923. Their last production, after a two-year gap, was Esson's The Bride of Gospel Place, performed in June 1926. The movement was not the success for which Louis and Hilda Esson had hoped, but their expectations had been high. They had exposed Melbourne audiences to local drama and given local dramatists a chance to have their work staged. While press response was favourable and the audiences, though small, were appreciative, Esson was angered at Melbourne's stuffiness and sought consolation at Mallacoota inlet. Rural simplicity proved to be an inspiring literary ideal, but a tedious and uncomfortable reality. The Essons soon found themselves back in Melbourne, where Louis became Melbourne drama critic for the New Triad from 1924 to 1927.
Esson's last collection, Dead Timber and Other Plays, had appeared in 1920. He was already slowing down and by the late 1920s his career as a dramatist had ended. He tinkered with some of his old plays and toyed with some new themes, but without believing that his efforts would come to anything. Ever suspicious of Melbourne's deadening atmosphere, he moved to Sydney late in his life, but there was to be no literary rejuvenation.
Louis Esson's instincts were essentially urban. He loved theatre, night-life, cafés and talk. The Time is Not Yet Ripe gave his talents some scope, for the play was set in Melbourne and his characters ran the gamut from socialist idealism to a constipated liberalism, with several shades of topical political nincompoopery in between. There was snappy dialogue, playful humour and some neat satire. Esson's bush plays too often relied upon evocative scenes and a handful of sombrely inarticulate bush folk caught in the toils of a great life experience. There were plays to be written about the bush, but it is a pity that Louis Esson, a small, verbal, unworldly urbanite should have attempted them.
Esson died in Sydney on 27 November 1943. Hilda arranged the publication of The Southern Cross and Other Plays in 1946, which included The Bride of Gospel Place and Mother and Son, along with memories of Esson and the Pioneer Players; in 1948 Vance Palmer published a selection of his letters in Louis Esson and the Australian Theatre.
D. R. Walker, 'Esson, Thomas Louis Buvelot (1878–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/esson-thomas-louis-buvelot-6115/text10483, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 10 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981