Joseph Esselin

If you're visiting my collection of writings for the first time, I'd like to provide you with a bit of background about myself.

September 10, 1927

I'd like you to know that my dad, the poet Alter Esselin, would, when I was a child, often remind me that "du shtamst fun yichus"-a Yiddish phrase that when he used it, roughly meant that he thought I should remember that I came from a rich tradition.

In his eyes, the "yichus" came from the fact that he had devoted his life to writing poetry, and that his mother before him had been an inspired teller of tales, and that her father had been forced to earn his living as a writer of fables for women after losing his post as a teacher because he was a drunkard…this family history that he would tell me just at bedtime, was designed to make me believe, as he did, that the best ambition in life was to be a writer, of whatever kind-- but be a writer.

His devotion to the composition of poetry was so complete that I thought as a child that all father's spent most of their time at a desk writing…and that all other fathers would have tried to do that too, and only sought other occupations after they discovered that they didn't have the talent to be one..

And so it was that when I got older, that was my only ambition--to write. While I earned my living as a hack writer of ads, pr releases, corporate histories, and the like in my own time I tried my hand at a variety of forms…poetry and fiction. But none of my scribblings came up to my own standards of quality or worth. And this failure caused me to feel very unhappy with myself.

Then, one day I looked through a short story I had been trying unsuccessfully to bring to life,and on an impulse tried re-telling the narrative entirely in dialogue--no omniscient and intrusive story teller.just the characters speaking to each other. The up till then lifeless story instantly had come alive before my surprised eyes. And after a moment or two,

I realized that what I should have been doing was to write a play, , and furthermore that it was the kind of writing I suddenly wanted most passionately to do.

It was a belated but lucky discovery…and a little un-nerving because I hadn't done much theater going, and really hadn't read much about the world of drama. But I was in luck, there, too. Just at that time there had arisen in my city, Chicago, a lot of amateur theaters…amateur in the original sense of something done out of love and dedication. So I had the pleasant task of learning how to write plays, by writing them…the only way to learn how to do it.

Thus, with a bunch of other would be playwrights there arose under the kind auspices of Hull House in Chicago, The Playwright's Center,which like the mythical Phoenix would fly for a while, seem to die, and return to life, through an astonishing number of decades. And there were numerous other groups of a similar flavor…enough to provide places for a surprising number of writers to have the delightful experience of seeing their work come to full life, enacted before responsive audiences…the necessary but not completely sufficient for plays to exist. Talent and tenacity are the other ingredients.
As to the kind of plays I have written, looking at them with an effort to be objective, they all share a penchant for symbolic representation that I confess I can't get rid of…it just comes out that way. They also stem from my effort to find an answer to my own puzzlement about what makes human beings-human. Thus I know that many people find my plays as puzzling as I do…it is, I think, fortunate for me that there are some people who enjoy sharing that puzzlement.

Trying to revise the plays--I hope to have all the scripts available here by the end of Spring--has forced me to see that they have in common a special focus. Paradox appears to underlie all of them, and that may stem from a temperamental disposition--I know that I am always on the lookout for ironies of life, collecting them the way another man might go after butterflies with a net. It's fun to do and doesn't hurt anyone. In any case I have the feeling that the plots and charatacters in my plays come to me unbidden, forcing themselves on me. No wonder that Pirandello's "Six Characters" evoke such a feeling of familiarity in me.

My plays, it goes without saying, reflect my own life experience. An experience that was enriched through many years by having the multi-faceted help of a born healer, my psychoanalyst, Ernst Rappaport, who came to this country from Vienna, just barely escaping from death at the hands of Nazis. "Child of Destiny" is, as Ernst said, a sublimated but faithful exploration of my own analytic experience. Even more significantly, the play "A Long Way from Eden" was the result of my collaboration with Ernst. The collaboration may be unique…I don't know of any other play that was composed by a patient collaborating with his analyst. It was an experience that was a delight, and ranks in my life only with the joy of having done the translations of my father's poetry with his help.

It won't, I am sure, surprise anyone to learn that "The Bookstore" came from the time when I worked at night in a large used-book bookstore. I wrote the play a good many years ago, and now am having the fun of rewriting it in order to make it deal with the changes in the world of books that have occured in the past decade...its new form will depict a complete reversal of its nature. It was a satire, and now will emerge as a nostalgic tribute to what has disappeared,

"Rare Birds" is a play I've been trying to get written for the last ten years--it's been a kind ruminant process, with drafts getting completed, only to go back into the next creative pouch in the next digestive belly to undergo its further mastication.

All through the years that I was translating my father's poetry, I would occasionally try my hand at poetry, too, But I was never happy with my own efforts--except a couple of times

One of the poems pleased my dad to such a point that he translated into Yiddish, a turnabout that astonished me. I know he was much taken with the fact that it wasI was trying to put into words what we both found almost impossible to express--the truth about our relationship: Alas, the Yiddish translation got lost somehow. That poem, called Once in a Dream, was never published because it was really more like a letter, but because his work and mine now share this web site it seems to me allright to mention it here. Similarly, a second poem, The Child I Was, which my dad never saw, was also an attempt to deal with our relationship. I tried to confront the conflict that there usually exists between the obsessive artist, wanting to close the door so he could go on with his osbsession and the needy child wanting to keep the door open. And in our tiny two-room flat there were no doors.

I'd be interested in hearing any comments on the plays, my bio, and my father's poetry. E-mail me at [email protected]

Los Angeles January 20, 1925




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