Thursday, November 2, 2023

The Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words adapted from the original novel by Pip Wlliams.  Co-presented by State Theatre Company of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, October 26 – December 16, 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 1, 1pm matinee performance

Playwright: Verity Laughton; Author: Pip Williams
Director: Jessica Arthur; Designer: Jonathon Oxlade
Costume Designer: Ailsa Paterson; Lighting Designer: Trent Suidgeest
Composer and Sound Designer: Max Lyandvert; Assistant Director: Shannon Rush
Accent Coach: Jennifer Innes; Intimacy and Fight Coordinator: Ruth Fallon

Esme Nicoll: Tilda Cobham-Hervey
Harry Nicoll: Brett Archer
Lizzie Lester/Mrs Smythe/Maria: Rachel Burke
Sir James Murray: Chris Pitman
Ditte/Mabel/Megan/Alice: Ksenja Logos
Gareth/Mr Crane: Raj Labade
Tilda Taylor/Sarah/Frederick Sweatman: Angela Mahlatjie
Bill Taylor/Arthur Maling: Anthony Yangoyan

For this matinee performance November 1, 2023
Guy O'Grady, with script in hand, replaced Chris Pitman. However for the evening performance Chris Pitman returned and Guy took over the roles of Bill Taylor and Arthur Maling, replacing Anthony Yangoyan.


The Dictionary of Lost Words is an extraordinary historical fiction about the Oxford English Dictionary project: “Work began on the dictionary in 1857, but it was only in 1884 that it began to be published in unbound fascicles as work continued on the project, under the name of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society.
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The novel, and the play, begin in 1886 when Esme Nicoll is four years old, playing under the tables in the scriptorium, discovering slips of paper with words on them, with meanings, and sentences in which they have been used – often centuries ago for their first known use.  As Erich Mayer wrote in his Arts Hub review

The Dictionary of Lost Words is an unforgettable novel that has a lot to say, and says it exceptionally well. You will laugh, you will cry and you will emerge with a deeper understanding not only of words but of the subtle biases of language.”

This is certainly my experience of the novel, which is why I was determined to see the play.  Verity Laughton, in her Playwright’s Note explains:

…the great events of Esme’s own life are often internal. This is part of the tender and thoughtful intelligence of the narrative voice in the novel. She is a wonderful – and highly original – creation. In terms of an adaptation, however, she does not drive the action, as the protagonist in a stage play usually would. So to allow her to do so was probably Task #1.

It’s true that watching, as a member of an audience, an adult actor playing a four-year-old interacting with her lexicographer father, who she calls ‘Da’, is a quite different experience from reading in the first person the adult Esme remembering:

“I turned back to the word and tried to understand.  Without his hand to guide me, I traced each letter.
‘What does it say?’ I asked.
‘Lily,’ he said.
‘Like Mamma?’
‘Like Mamma.’
‘Does that mean she’ll be in the Dictionary?’
‘In a way, yes.’
‘Will we all be in the Dictionary?’
I felt myself rise and fall on the movement of his breath.
‘A name must mean something to be in the Dictionary.’
I looked at the word again.  ‘Was Mamma like a flower?’ I asked.
Da nodded.  ‘The most beautiful flower.’”

When reading, in our imagination we are Esme speaking, thinking and feeling as she does.  We do this for 400 pages.  On stage for three hours (with a 20 minute interval half-way through) we watch as Laughton notes “a long arc from its heroine Esme’s 1880s childhood in Oxford, England, to her lexicographer daughter’s opening address at the 1989 Convention of the Australian Lexicography Society in Adelaide, Australia.”  

Between and within those events Esme grows up, word-obsessed, with a bright intellect for which there is no outlet. She accepts each blow of fate, working to find resilience and meaning in her modest, circumscribed, but intellectually busy life. She is radicalised through the suffrage movement but even her activist forays are polite, contained, and wary. She maintains an aura of innocence and a commitment to moral principles to the end.

Though I haven’t checked all 400 pages against the story I saw on stage, the scenes seem to have used the dialogue from the novel, while Esme’s words like, for example, “Lizzie rolled her eyes but kept her smile” or, about herself, like “”Tilda was right; I was a coward” seem to have become stage directions for the actors which would have been used by Jessica Arthur as Director and Ruth Fallon as Intimacy Coordinator in rehearsals to help actors establish each character they played in each scene.

The result for me was a fascinating story to watch, rather like a well-made documentary put together in a slightly stylised way, just as a film-maker would carefully edit the raw takes.  What gives the story depth, of course, is the words chosen for focus – the words of women’s experience that men miss out; the words of sexual matters that people prefer to hide; the words and attached actions described in social protest – the suffragettes’ physical experiences and treatment compared with those who are merely intellectual suffragists; and in the very central thread throughout of the meaning of the word ‘Love’.

At the very end the emotion that I felt while reading the novel came through as Esme’s daughter, chosen by her mother, who was determined not be conventionally married without love, to be given to others, to be brought up in Australia.  

And now, Professor Megan Brookes, having been sent her mother’s effects in 1928, in her own research as a lexicographer (or lexicographa as Esme had said aged four) follows the connection back to Esme’s slip with the word 'Lily', and so back to Esme who also had not had her mother to bring her up.  Meg gives her lecture at the tenth Annual Convention of the Australian Lexicography Society in 1989 as “the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary has been published, sixty-one years after the completion of the first.”

Yes, it helps to read the novel, I must admit; but the play stands up very well in its own right.  If you haven’t read The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (Affirm Press, 2020) before you see the play, you will surely want to afterwards.  And you’ll also want to read A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen and Mrs Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw which get a mention on certain key words in the story.