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Louis Esson (1878 – 1943)

Thomas Louis Buvelot Esson was born at Leith, near Edinburgh, Scotland, on 10 August 1878, the only child of a marine engineer, Thomas Clarence Esson, and his wife Mary Jane (née Paterson). In 1880 Mary Jane and her infant child emigrated to Melbourne, where several members of her family had already relocated; she described herself as a widow, though whether Louis’s father did in fact die at this time is not clear. After his mother remarried in 1887, Esson was raised primarily by aunts living in Carlton, and attended Carlton Grammar School. He studied Arts at the University of Melbourne between 1896 and 1901, but appears not to have been awarded a degree.

In 1904, Esson travelled to Europe, visiting Paris and Dublin, where he met Irish literary figures J. M. Synge and W. B. Yeats, and was influenced by their ideas on national literature and theatre. Returning to Melbourne in 1905, he dedicated himself energetically towards pursuing a literary career. He contributed journalism to the periodical press, including Lone Hand and Melbourne Punch, and began publishing poetry in the Bulletin. His first collection of poems, Bells and Bees, was published in 1910. Both this and his subsequent collection Red Gums and Other Verses (1912) clearly showed the influence of the bush ballad school of verse, though there were also poems suggested by his travels, reflecting more cosmopolitan and literary interests. Although he published no further poetry collections, Esson continued to write and publish verse intermittently in the Bulletin until the late 1920s.

Esson’s main literary legacy was as a playwright. His first plays were published in 1911, with his best-known work, the satire The Time is Not Yet Ripe, first staged in Melbourne in 1912. The difficulties of pursuing a literary career in Australia were exacerbated by the outbreak of the First World War, and Esson and his wife Hilda (née Bull) left Melbourne for New York in 1916. Returning in 1921, the Essons joined with Vance Palmer and others to form the alternative theatre company Pioneer Players, which presented Australian ‘folk’ theatre in emulation of Yeats’s idea of a national theatre. His later years blighted by ill health, Louis Esson died in Sydney on 27 November 1943.

Poetry Collections
  • Bells and Bees (Melbourne: Lothian, 1910).
  • Red Gums and other verses (Melbourne: Fraser and Jenkinson, 1912).
Suggested Further Reading
  • ---. [untitled review], The Bulletin 8 December 1910, p. 2.
  • ---. [untitled review], The Bulletin 28 November 1912, p. 2.
  • Hugh Anderson, ed. Ballades of Old Bohemia: An Anthology of Louis Esson (Ascot Vale, Vic: Red Rooster Press, 1980).
  • Peter Fitzpatrick, Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson (Oakleigh, Vic: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  • Leslie Rees, ‘Louis Esson,’ Australian Quarterly 15.4 (1943), p. 126.
  • David Robert Walker, ‘A Bohemian’s Progress: Louis Esson in Melbourne, 1904-1914,’ Meanjin Quarterly 31.4 (1972): pp. 417–26.