Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Oliphant, Ernest Henry Clark (1862–1936)

by David Bradley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Ernest Henry Clark Oliphant (1862-1936), journalist, lecturer, playwright and Shakespearean scholar, was born on 14 August 1862 in East Melbourne, son of English-born parents Felix Edwin Oliphant, gentleman, and his wife Mary Bullers, née Frost. He attended Scotch College and the University of Melbourne, but did not graduate and took a post as an assistant-librarian at the Public Library of Victoria (1884-88). Travelling in Europe with his wife Catherine Lavinia, née McWhae, whom he had married on 6 September 1887, he produced a novel, The Mesmerist (1890), and his first essays on the work of Beaumont and Fletcher, published in Englische Studien (1890-92), and gathered the wide knowledge of contemporary European music that was to form the basis of articles for The Musical Quarterly, New York, between 1921 and 1926.

Returning in 1892, Oliphant worked as a journalist, and in 1899 went to Tasmania as editor of the daily Mt Lyell Standard. In 1903 he was again in Melbourne as associate-editor of the Australian Mining Standard (1903-06), in which he campaigned for more adequate statistical surveys of national mineral resources, and became its editor-in-chief (then the Australian Statesman and Mining Standard) from 1911 until 1918. He had spent the intervening years in London as editor of Money Market Review. After 1918 he was a leader-writer for the Melbourne Herald. In the war years, following the publication of his slanted history of Hohenzollern foreign policy, Germany and Good Faith (1914), he was much in vogue on the lecture-platform as an anti-German propagandist.

A long-time member of the Shakespeare Society of Melbourne, and its president in 1919-21, he was a familiar figure in university circles at home, while, through his papers on Elizabethan dramatic authorship in major literary journals, he established and cultivated a correspondence with leading scholars overseas. He was pressed several times to lecture in the United States of America and, finally, after a disastrous investment in a projected monthly magazine, he accepted in 1925 a private and, as it turned out, unconfirmed invitation to a chair at Stanford. Unable to gain permanent residence, he took up visiting professorships in the graduate schools of several universities, meanwhile conducting a six-year battle against deportation. While at Texas he completed his major work, The Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, an Attempt to Determine Their Respective Shares and the Shares of Others (New Haven, 1927). In New York he brought out an edition of forty-five plays, Shakespeare and his Fellow Dramatists (1929), and, while fellow in literature at Sarah Lawrence College, Elizabethan Dramatists Other Than Shakespeare (1931). On his return to Melbourne in 1932 he was appointed Sidney Myer lecturer in drama at the university and became popular with Australian Broadcasting Commission audiences for his regular readings of short stories.

A single volume of verse, Lyrics, Religious and Irreligious (1895), was printed anonymously at Korumburra. Of his several plays remaining in manuscript, two, 'The Taint' (1915) and 'The Superior Race' (1916), heavily moral social-problem melodramas, were produced by Gregan McMahon at the Playhouse. His defence of the latter play against Melbourne prudery in the Bulletin probably missed the point of the critics' reserved reception. Many unpublished short stories remain among his papers.

As a lecturer his cultivated ease of voice and manner won him much admiration. As a scholar he was among the 'disintegrators' of Elizabethan texts, and was held by some practitioners of that largely illusory science to have had a particularly fine ear for distinguishing authorial styles.

Oliphant died at South Yarra on 20 April 1936, survived by his wife and two daughters, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • History of Scotch College, Melbourne, 1851-1925 (Melb, 1926)
  • Bulletin, 7 Sept 1916, 6 May 1936
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Apr 1936
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 Apr 1936
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Apr 1936
  • Oliphant papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

David Bradley, 'Oliphant, Ernest Henry Clark (1862–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oliphant-ernest-henry-clark-7901/text13739, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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