Essington Lewis: I am Work – About

 A Documentary Theatre Work based on the life of Essington Lewis, and the establishment and development of BHP in Australia. The play begins on Essington Lewis’ death day as he prepares for a gallop on his favourite horse and through flash back tells the story of his life working for the mining and steel producing giant. The time frame straddles the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II and parallels the growth and development of Australia from a primary producing nation to a secondary one. The play is a boisterous and moving piece of epic proportions, combining the finest elements of tragedy and comedy. The music highlights characters, emotions and pinpoints the various periods within the piece.

The play covers Essington Lewis’s lifespan 1881 – 1961

 Essington Lewis: I Am Work won the Sydney Critics Circle Award in 1985 and has been produced in most Australian Capital Cities. The script is published by Currency Press.

Director’s Notes by Aarne Neeme

(taken from the program of the Western Australian Theatre Company Production)

 The play spans the age of the horse to the age of steel, in terms of warfare, transport and personal mobility. It spans the larger-than-life individual figure on horseback to the larger-than-life faceless man riding a giant corporation boardroom table.

The central character, Essington Lewis, is caught between the influences of his father figures and the manifestations of the mad “hatter”. the former repress him with authority and achievements, which he struggles to measure up to: the latter undermine him with revelations of the frailty of human nature. He is further caught in resolving the proprieties of an ambivalence between his attraction to Madge Elliott, and the male bonding with his friend Harold Darling.

The major theme is that of work, the great ethic; the rights and wrongs of those who provide it and those who labour under them. In the end it is Taffy, broken by two wars

and industry, who gladly shrugs off the yoke; while Lewis, in full possession, rails against the waning of position and power.

We now live in a time when we are more defined by our job (or lack of it) than by our lineage.


From: The Steel Master: Essington Lewis by Geoffrey Blaney (MacMillon 1971)

When they came to empty Lewis’s possessions from his room in BHP’s new building in Melbourne, the Essington Lewis House, they found a revealing slip of paper pasted inside his spectacles case: “Oh Lord, help me to keep my big mouth shut till I know what I am talking about”. And among his papers was another text which for many years had been framed on the wall – a simple, confident text which had ruled this restless Titan of a man. It was composed of three words: I AM WORK.

Outside Essington's childhood home - The Burra, South Australia

Outside Essington’s childhood home – The Burra, South Australia

A favourite photograph, full of great memories. Standing outside the house Essington Lewis grew up in. The Burra, South Australia, 1986.

L to R: Allan McFadden, Brian Nickless, Jonathan Biggins, John Doyle.

(Photograph taken by Julie Hudspeth)

John O'Donoghue

John O’Donoghue

John O’Donoghue

Born in Mayfield, within sight, sound and smell of the BHP, where the industrial ambience permeated his early years. John began school teaching in 1950, all over NSW including 3 years in Broken Hill. He also taught in London. In 1972 he became a lecturer in English at NCAE. He has written A Happy and Holy Occasion; Essington Lewis: I am Work; In the Field Where They Buried Peter Pan; Abbie and Lou, Norman and Rose.



A History of the Play’s Development

In the foreword of the program (Revived Production 25 Jan. 1997, Newcastle), I wrote:

In 1980 playwright John O’Donoghue approached the newly appointed Hunter Valley Theatre Company Artistic Director, Aarne Neeme with the idea for a play about BHP identity Essington Lewis. The season for that year and already been decided upon and so Aarne suggested that the following year might be a possibility. The first reading of the script was held mid year 1981 and is now clouded in mythology.

Members of the cast were only presented with the first 25 pages, up to about Essington leaving the desert. The actors believe to this day that the first 15 pages were all that John O’Donoghue had written, though the playwright refutes this, simply saying that the script was completed and the breakdown of the HVTC photocopier was to blame.

The first production opened to mixed reviews. The houses for the first week at the Playhouse were reasonable, it seemed as if it was going to do average box office. Enter David Williamson. In Newcastle to promote the film Gallipoli, he was interviewed by the Newcastle Morning Herald and towards the end of the interview he mentioned that he had seen the play the previous evening, how good it was and that Newcastle audiences should be horse whipped for not supporting it.

Next day the phones ran hot. Performances were sold out, audiences were wildly enthusiastic and an extension to the season was arranged. The production, to cater for disappointed patrons who’d missed out, was repeated at the beginning of 1982 with the first of the script changes in place. The honing and development of the work had begun in earnest.

Sydney theatre companies remained quiet, expressing no interest in importing the production or mounting their own – trivial reasons such as “it’s too Newcastle” being offered along with their rejections. The play lay dormant, though Felicity Biggins staged a production of it at Leeds University in 1983. No Australian theatre company was interested.

During 1985 a company of actors, Aarne Neeme and the original designer Brian Nickless (who’ve all remained friends) found themselves living in Sydney. Over party talk one evening the possibility of remounting “Essington” was suggested, and so the production at the Stables Theatre in Darlinghurst came about. The Tallarook scene was added to the play, the confrontation between Essington and old Delprat giving depth of soul to the second act. An unknown play, with an awkward title and peopled by unknown actors did not set the pre opening ticket sales alight. However, on the following Tuesday after the weekend opening, Harry Kippax’s review came out in the Sydney Morning Herald – its final line being: “I repeat, this play must be seen.”

Again the phones rang hot, just as they had in Newcastle four years earlier. The role of Essington was played by Steve Jacobs, Vic Rooney being unavailable. That year the production won the coveted Sydney Critic’s Circle Award. The play from Newcastle could hold its head up high.

ABC TV’s Four Corners filmed the boxing ring sequence for inclusion in a program on Australia’s Arbitration System. Michael Carmen played Essington.

In 1986 the production was taken to Adelaide by the South Australian Theatre Company where it was hugely successful and where we all learnt that the play was not intrinsically Newcastle after all, but rather intrinsically Australian. Steve Jacobs was unavailable to the play the title role and so Geoff Gibbs took over.

The following year it again was successfully produced by the Western Australian Theatre Company in Perth, directed by Aarne Neeme with cast originals David Wood and Julie Hudspeth reprising their roles. Here Robert Faggetter was associated with the play for the first time playing John Lewis and Delprat. Geoff Gibbs reprised the title role. ABC National recorded a version of the play, based on this production.

Around this time, Currency Press published the script. The development of the play had reached its natural conclusion.

The Church Theatre in Melbourne produced their critically acclaimed season of the play in 1989. This was directed by John Ellis and Dennis Moore played Essington. Only Allan Mcfadden from the original company was involved in this production and only in the role of Music Director. Again people’s response was wildly enthusiastic, the play standing squarely on its own feet.

Brisbane in 1991 saw Aarne Neeme back in the director’s chair and Anthony Phelan as Essington. Again a new group of actors successfully brought to life the John O’Donoghue script. This production was dedicated to the memory of ex Newcastle Sun critic, John Harris, who had championed the play from the time of its first production.

And so the play seemed over.

But no, the urge to work together again prompted the original acting company to meet and reconsider another production, this time for Belvoir Street Theatre, during July 1997. And at another party someone suggested “What about going home to Newcastle with it? They have never seen the completed version of the play and 1997 is the Bicentenary of Newcastle.”

So here it is. All of us involved with this play throughout the fifteen years since we first premiered it here next door in the Playhouse have a great affection for it and great memories of it. We are excited and thrilled to be back in town with it and loving the opportunity to be all working together again. Unfortunately, John Doyle was unavailable for this production but we are delighted to welcome back to the title role our original Essington – Vic Rooney.

Some recollections:

I remember telling my father in 1981 that I was writing songs for a musical play on Essington Lewis, ex-general manager of the BHP.  My father who’d spent the Depression on the road in a horse and cart looking for work said: “What do you want to write a musical about that bastard for?”

When I began composing there were no script indications as to where the original songs might occur. The director Aarne Neeme suggested that the opening should be about “work”, and that perhaps the various characters could sing about their attitude to work.

I remember playing the opening song for Aarne and the fellow actors on an old piano in the foyer of the Civic Playhouse. The song went on forever, the anthem ending with its climactic counterpoint. How was the play supposed to begin after that? Aarne immediately solved the dilemma, suggesting it be cut up and distributed throughout the script. That’s how the Anthem came to be in 3 parts, Taffy’s song in 2.  That was a most valuable lesson to me – one of many Aarne taught me over the years.

In Perth, as part of the promotion for the production, media representatives, the actors and production staff were bused to BHP at Kwinana where among the mills and rubble the actors sang the songs. I can’t begin to tell you how effective it was.

Perth was the first production I wasn’t performing in. I went over as Music Director and sat in the audience on opening night. People had always told me how wonderfully stirring the final anthem was. I’d always enjoyed singing it from the stage, but that night in Perth I understood what they’d meant.  I trembled.  (And then caught the red-eye special back to Sydney)

In Melbourne at the Church Theatre in Hawthorne. which was an old church with raised wooden seating, the production was performed on a long diagonal, the audience looking at each other through the actors before them – rather reminiscent of the Stables in Sydney. On opening night, after the final anthem, the audience stamped their feet in appreciation!