Also writes as: Zoo
Born: Established: 1868 Gravesend, Kent,
Playwright, author, poet, director.
While much is still to be discovered about Bernard Espinasse's life and career, it has been ascertained that his output of creative works includes some dozen plays and at least two pantomimes (produced under the auspices of J. C. Williamson). A number of his poems and short stories were published during his lifetime.
Prior to taking up employment as J. C. Williamson's literary secretary (ca. 1895/96), Espinasse toured America and the East with the Majeroni Opera Company and is also believed to have spent some time in England honing his craft as a writer (Brisbane Courier 18 Aug. 1900, p.2). The earliest of his plays known to have been produced in Australia was the one-act drama In the Dark, given its premiere at the Richmond Town Hall, Melbourne, on 28 August 1893. He also contributed a farce, Mr Harris, to the evening's entertainment. Three years later, on 16 October 1896, his operetta The Magic Cloak, with music by prominent Sydney organist Ernest P. Truman, was staged at Sydney's Paddington Town Hall. It was around this same period, too, that the Bulletin began publishing a number of Espinasse's poems and short stories. While one of his poems, 'At Large', had appeared in the magazine in 1892, his contributions began to appear more regularly after 'To a Ballet-Dancer', published in the 11 August 1894 issue. One of his earliest short stories, 'His One Virtue', appeared in the 28 September issue of the following year. His last known poem to be published in the Bulletin was 'An Idiom' (9 December 1899).
Espinasse was engaged as Williamson's literary secretary for some two years, with the position then being taken up in 1898 by Arthur H. Adams. Unlike his successor, Espinasse appears to have maintained a reasonably good relationship with the entrepreneur following the termination of his employment. Williamson, in conjunction with George Musgrove, produced Espinasse's one-act drama Her Good Name at Her Majesty's Theatre (Sydney) in 1898. Directed by Frank MacVicars (who also played the role of John Vyce, Professor of Chemistry), this three-hander was presented as a double bill with Nicholls and Lestocq's comedy Jane, beginning 6 August. The Sydney Morning Herald theatre critic records that although cleverly written, Her Good Name 'presents a not very new story of the fall of a fashionable wife who is tied to a husband who is selfishly absorbed in his professional studies and discoveries, and who learns too late that his trusted friend has acted dishonourably towards him. The end is naturally a tragic one' (8 August 1898, p.3).
In 1899, Williamson staged Espinasse's re-working of Wilson Barrett's The Christian, itself an adaptation of Hall Caine's popular novel. Incidental music for the production was scored by Sydney-based conductor and organist Christian Helleman. Directed by Espinasse himself, it actually preceded Caine's own stage version by some two years. Williamson later toured the show throughout Australia. The Brisbane Courier notes of the production that 'Barrett's part in the work... is slight, being confined to a skeleton of the play which he left [in Australia] after his recent visit... so that the chief credit of the masterly drama which had so splendid a run in Sydney, is due to the gentleman who has been engaged for some years by Mr Williamson as house-author for all his productions' (18 Aug. 1900, p.6). The critic further indicates that among his earlier works was a production called Sappho. That same year, Espinasse also collaborated with George Rignold on a three-act adaptation of the Dumas classic The Three Musketeers. It premiered at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, on 18 May. The season lasted a respectable twenty-six performances. His drama Blind Love was also staged in 1899 at Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney, on 7 June. Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest success that year was the Williamson-produced pantomime Little Red Riding Hood, a collaboration between Espinasse and composers Leon Caron and Frederick W. Weierter. It premiered in Sydney at Her Majesty's Theatre on Boxing Day. A Melbourne season followed in late February 1900 (Princess Theatre).
During 1900, Williamson employed Espinasse's skills and experience to help him write the libretto for the Federation pantomime Australis; Or, The City of Zero. Set one hundred years in the future and produced with Williamson's typical touch of extravagance, the narrative directed much of the political and social comments towards the society of the day, with references to issues of importance such as federation and unionism. It premiered on Boxing Day, but failed to garner much critical support and does not appear to have been produced elsewhere. Some four months later, Espinasse's one-act drama The Ivy Leaf was staged at the Palace Theatre, Sydney, beginning 27 April.
Espinasse sailed from Sydney to London on the 'SS Persic' arriving 20 February 1902 (the shipping register records his occupation as "Dramatist"). His play Her Good Name was staged at the Imperial Theatre, London, as a curtain-raiser to a play by the name of The Degenerates early the following year. According to a London correspondent writing for Sydney's Daily Telegraph, the work was 'on the whole well received,' despite being 'too old fashioned in construction'. In the same article, Espinasse is reported as saying that 'his carpet-bag was full of plays, farces, sketches etc' when he left for England. Interestingly, he also argued against the pessimistic utterances of Australian writers who claimed their works were being ignored by the country's theatre managers, saying that for years he had made a good living as a playwright in Australia (ctd. Brisbane Courier 31 May 1902, p.9). Another item published in the Brisbane Courier later that same year reported that Espinasse had collaborated with another playwright, Harry Leader, to write Ned Kelly, The Bushranger (22 Nov. 1902, p.9). Although Espinasse hoped the play would be staged in the near future, no production has yet been identified.
In 1905, the Theatre magazine included a brief article based on a review of Espinasse's A Silent Witness, which had originally been published in England's Era newspaper. This four-act drama, co-written by Espinasse and James Bell, was staged at the Crown Theatre, Peckham (London). The Era's theatre critic wrote that the plot resembled The Corsican Brothers (qtd. Theatre 1 October 1905, p.11). While little is known of Espinasse's movements during the next few years, the Theatre's November 1907 issue records that he had recently been forced to enter a London hospital suffering from a heart complaint (p.12).
Bernard Espinasse's last-known play to be produced was the four-act drama England's Hope, staged for twenty-four nights at Melbourne's King's Theatre beginning 23 December 1911. Another of his known works is The Master of Angestroom. Production details have not yet been located for this play, however.