In a 1993 lecture at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival, Robertson Davies provided a lively introduction to the nineteenth century dramaThe Silver King, then in production at the Festival. Describing the personalities that first brought The Silver King to the stage, Davies regaled his audience with stories about the play’s original star, the strikingly handsome actor William Barrett; about the playwright, Henry Jones, and the manner in which Jones’s political and religious views were brought to bear on his plays; and about Henry Herman, Jones’s probable collaborator and a man given to practical jokes involving the unexpected removal of his glass eye.
Davies explained that he was telling these stories “to counteract a tendency in modern theater historians to make the nineteenth century too solemn, too loaded with deep artistic significance.” He continued, “Of course it was artistic—splendidly so—but artistry is not a solemn, dead thing . . . art is alive, or it is nothing, and the people who create it are highly coloured.” This lecture is one of many collected in Happy Alchemyto illustrate Davies’s ability to bring to life the “highly colored” people, times, and circumstances that combine to produce that “happy alchemy” that makes theatrical and musical performances more than simply displays of talent.
At his death in 1995 at the age of eighty-two, Davies left a number of such speeches, articles, book reviews, and other matter, largely unpublished and uncollected, from which Brenda Davies and Jennifer Surridge (respectively, Davies’s widow and daughter) selected material for two posthumous volumes. The first, The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books (1996) offered a selection of Davies’s writings on literature; Happy Alchemy focuses on his passion for the worlds of theater and music.
An inveterate playgoer, Davies began keeping a “Theatre Diary” in the late 1950’s, writing a mini-critique of every musical and theatrical performance he saw. Excerpts from this diary and from his personal diaries are used to introduce each chapter. Many offer insight into Davies’s views of himself as a performer; Davies often noted concerns about his delivery and how successful he felt he had been with a lecture, as well as noting any compliments he might have received afterwards. These brief introductions provide context and may hearten the weary playgoer: “Have I ever seen a really good Macbeth? Not in my eighty years. . . .” Davies’s dry humor is frequently in evidence: “The star of the [Gothenburg Book] Fair, I gather, is to be a writer called Jackie Collins, of whom I have never heard. . . . Several children present me with scraps of paper for autographs: obviously don’t know who I am and don’t care. I sign Jackie Collins’ and they go away quite content.”
The pieces collected in Happy Alchemy encompass several of Davies’s recurring interests and favorite themes, among them language in dramatic performance, Jungian archetypes in the theater, Canadian literature and culture, and sketches of personalities important to nineteenth and twentieth century theater.
Several pieces in Happy Alchemy touch on the playwright’s necessary artistry with language, using as examples lesser-known writers such as Henry Jones as well as larger lights such as George Bernard Shaw and, of course, William Shakespeare. Davies’s remarks on language and speaking touch not only on the written word but also on the musical qualities of the lines when spoken, and on the physical condition of the actor who successfully conveys the meaning of the finest poetry and prose.
As often as Davies reminded audiences that the language they heard spoken on the stage was not really everyday speech, he also frequently pointed out that successful drama is not necessarily that which comes closest to showing people and events as they really are. “Realism” in Davies’s view was a misnomer for dramatic prose and speech that was truly theatrical and that only seemed natural on the stage: “painting, as opposed to photography.” Davies often argued that drama should not simply re-create events but should remind the audience of some deeply felt truth. Davies referred to sex scenes in modern movies and theater as examples of writers’ failure to give the audience a collective “memory, or ideal vision, of love.” As Davies explained in a 1990 lecture, “Opera makes us feel and believe in passion through music. Great theater makes us feel and believe in passion through poetry, or great prose, which is much the same thing. . . . We want something that awakens deep and powerful feeling in ourselves. We want art,...
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