Study Guide

Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies Essay - Davies, (William) Robertson (Vol. 7)

Davies, (William) Robertson (Vol. 7)

Davies, (William) Robertson 1913–

Davies is a Canadian novelist, playwright, publisher, editor, and critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

[The] plays of Robertson Davies are a substantial contribution to drama in Canada. The comic spirit which pervades them, expressing itself through language, situation and character, in a variety of modes, is unexcelled in Canadian writing. Davies has also given evidence of considerable originality and skill in creating and projecting character. Such characters as Phelim, Mrs. Stewart and Benoni not only substantiate this claim but indicate something of the breadth of his range. It is unfortunate that in no case in his plays does he explore characters in depth—for the most part they are used as a means to present or develop ideas. It is, of course, not unusual in comedies to find the dramatist subordinating character to situation or to his interest in themes dealing with social conventions or institutions. Many of Davies' themes involve satiric thrusts at the rigid and doctrinaire forces in society, the pompous, and the unrealistically sentimental, whether in personal relations or in social values. But, underlying his satire, Davies offers directly or by implication, through such characters as Pop, Szabo, the Stewarts and Benoni, a positive vision of life. In addition, he has given evidence of superb craftsmanship; his plays move quickly, the scenes following one another quite naturally. At his best his plays achieve a considerable degree of unity of structure and theme. When he falls short, in this respect, as he does at times, it is because he is undone by the delight in ideas and zest for fun that constitute his most attractive qualities. Because his fancy is alert and comprehensive he attempts to crowd too much into his plays, without due regard for the discipline of his form. As a result, while the constant play of wit on a wide variety of themes may amuse and impress, this breadth diminishes the dramatic force that comes from concentration on a given theme. Another weakness, one to which writers of comedy, particularly of satire, are prone, lies in the dialogue. While for the most part the language is adequate—trite when triteness is called for, vulgar or genteel as these qualities are expected—the dialogue at times reveals startling incongruities and often fails to distinguish adequately the characters. These flaws, however, in the context of the entire work, are minor. The plays are eminently stageworthy and are a valuable contribution to a genre that Canadian talent has unfortunately neglected. (p. 61)

M. W. Steinberg, "Don Quixote and the Puppets: Theme and Structure in Robertson Davies' Drama" (originally published in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1961), in Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays, edited by William H. New (copyright © 1972 by The University of British Columbia), The University of British Columbia Press, 1972, pp. 53-61.

I said it in 1958, and say it again now: Robertson Davies stands curiously apart from the main stream of contemporary fiction. This precludes his receiving much serious critical attention. But it needn't, and shouldn't, keep serious readers away from a lively, quirky, original, intelligent novel [Fifth Business]. Just don't count on attaining that crystalline insight, though. (p. 36)

I. M. Owen, "Guilt and Sainthood," in Saturday Night, December, 1970, pp. 35-6.

Davies is Canadian, old-fashioned, a craftsman, a good storyteller…. Davies is a Jungian Ross Macdonald, a writer who wants to describe contemporary experiences in which people discover the meaning of their lives by discovering the ways those lives conform to ancient patterns. Ross Macdonald's patterns are Freudian—in the hidden traumas of childhood a murderer or a murderee was made. The fearful treasures of the past are opened by a private detective, the setting is the hotbed of hidden things called California. In The Manticore Davies is avowedly Jungian; the central action of the novel is an analysis at the institute in Zurich. But this novel is the second in what looks to be a series, and the first, the deservedly popular Fifth Business, is as controlled by mythic patterns as The Manticore even though it uses none of the explicit Jungian jargon. (p. 21)

Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), February 8, 1973.

A manticore is a strange and fabulous creature with the body of a lion, the face of a man, and a sting in its tail. It is therefore a noble, if somewhat confused and dangerous, creature. This is the symbol Robertson Davies employs in his latest novel [The Manticore] to convey his considered opinions about the condition of man.

Readers of Fifth Business, Davies' fourth and highly successful novel which appeared in 1970, will find that, in his latest book, he sheds new light on the drama surrounding Boy Staunton, the romantic playboy-millionaire (to some; others saw him as an egotistical bully) who met his death under remarkable and peculiar circumstances. The narrator of Fifth Business, hagiographer and bachelor eccentric Dunstan Ramsay, makes a brief and climactic appearance in The Manticore, but this time the story is continued by David Staunton, Boy's brilliant, unhappy son.

Davies' singular talents as a writer make reading these two novels (and one must read them both, to appreciate them properly) and experience which I can only describe as like reading an Alexandria Quartet (Duet, in this case) as conceived by T. E. White, the scholarly humorist-historian author of The Once And Future King. The blend of masterly characterization, cunning plot, shifting point of view, and uncommon detail, all fixed in the clearest, most literate prose, is superbly achieved. (p. 113)

[This] is the novel of a journalist-philosopher-scholar-professor who was once an actor with the Old Vic. If ever a man were qualified to entertain and enlighten his readers with a study of what "maketh the whole man", it is Robertson Davies. (p. 114)

Pat Barclay, "Noble and Confused," in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1973, pp. 113-14.

There is something perennially appealing about Europe to Robertson Davies' Ontario-bred imagination; its histories supply the ghosts for his characters' minds, and its ghosts animate the lives that his plays unfold. Hunting Stuart, about a Canadian civil servant's blood tie with Bonnie Prince Charlie; King Phoenix, about the last days of (old, merry) King Cole of Albion; and General Confession, about Casanova's unconscious, provide three examples of his dramatic response to that appeal. Written respectively in 1955, 1948, and 1956…, they also provide a retrospective view of the developing experimentation with Jungian archetypes which led Davies more recently into Fifth Business and The Manticore. (p. 104)

The European settings … serve not as escapes from the present into a romantic, ordered, noble past—"imagination," he writes, "is a good horse to carry you over the ground, not a flying carpet to set you free from probability"—but as frameworks in which to explore the interpenetration between a world bounded by time and a world fed by vision.

Hunting Stuart gives the wittiest form to that tension. King Phoenix allows itself some barbed one-liners about "business ethics", but if anything they detract from the play's tonal integrity. And General Confession jokes about liaisons between men and women, but the women characters are made so preoccupied with being Anima that they seem too abstract to give substance to the wit or real psychological tension to the play. (p. 105)

W. H. New, "Lives of Ghosts & Lovers," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1974, pp. 104-06.

If we are to give Robertson Davies his due we must dust off an old conceit: the novelist as cousin to the magician. Artificers, illusionists both, they mean us to believe in what never happened and to this end use many conjuror's tricks. Novelists today, faced with what they perceive to be a universe lurching crazily out of control, yield increasingly to irony, nervous giggles, a kind of cosmic desperation. This will not do for Davies, a Canadian who takes seriously his magician's role.

Davies means to recharge the world with a wonder it has lost, to re-create through the intervention of saints and miracles, psychoanalysts and sleight-of-hand a proper sense of awe at life's mystery and a recognition of the price that must be paid for initiation into that mystery. He is a psychological optimist: the distinctive character of the trilogy that is completed with ["World of Wonders"] derives from Davies's belief that a man may at some cost gain understanding of his destiny. Not a common idea among novelists nowadays, but then these are uncommon novels; Davies's trilogy is one of the splendid literary enterprises of this decade….

"World of Wonders" is Magnus Eisengrim's story. Eisengrim is in Switzerland making a movie about a nineteenth-century French magician; in the evenings he talks about his own history to the Swedish director and to Ramsay and their friend Liesl. As a boy of 10, when his name was still Paul Dempster, he had been abducted from his small Canadian town by a homosexual magician working with a traveling carnival. For ten years Paul lived in despair, literally a prisoner of magic…. His carnival and theater experiences educated him in humanity as well, but his career as a master magician began only when he had learned a final lesson: how to repair the broken artifacts of illusion, and a broken human being as well.

But there is far more to this—the most richly textured of the three novels—than a glance at the plot can reveal…. Eisengrim knows he has become what he is because he consented to his own corruption. (p. 80)

Toward the end of the story Eisengrim, Ramsay and Liesl talk of the meaning of life. Liesl mentions Spengler's "Magian World View": "It was a sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible world that existed side by side with a hard recognition of the roughness and cruelty and day-to-day demands of the tangible world." We have educated ourselves out of this sense of wonder, she says, out of "the fear and dread and splendour and freedom of wonder." And perhaps we have, but if so, here is Robertson Davies educating us right back into it again. We must be grateful. (pp. 80-1)

Peter S. Prescott, "White Magic," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 22, 1976, pp. 80-1.

There are novelists—such as John Fowles and Lawrence Durrell—with visions so Gothic that judgments of them are matters less of criticism than of taste. They are fiction's escargots à la Provençale—elegantly delicious, but not for everybody. Robertson Davies fits into this group. The first two parts of his now-completed trilogy (Fifth Business, 1970, and The Manticore, 1972) earned him deserved places on best-seller lists and praise from critics as Canada's greatest living writer of fiction. Yet with all his virtues—a seemingly effortless style, a sometimes breakneck narrative pace, an inside-out knowledge of his backgrounds—his World of Wonders again shows his inordinate fondness for quirky illusions. Actually, his basic tale has a trim, Dickensian simplicity: Paul Dempster, one of the trilogy's main characters, is whisked away as a child from his Ontario home by a depraved magician, grows up in the seedy atmospheres of carnivals and traveling theater groups, and by fortune and pluck becomes Magnus Eisengrim, the world's greatest prestidigitator. Seen thus, Oliver Twist and Paul Dempster are almost contemporaries. However, reading World of Wonders is like watching some escape-proof cage imprison its Houdini, so much is Davies at the mercy of his own complexities. Admirers will gobble up his twists—characters distorted to gargoyle-like proportions, narrative strategies complicated beyond summary. Others will wish for less deliberate stress on what one Davies character calls "a weight of implication," and for more emphasis on the plain stew of good storytelling. (p. 28)

Robert Maurer, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1976 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 3, 1976.

The key to ["World of Wonders"], to the entire trilogy ["Fifth Business" and "The Manticore" are the earlier novels], is an almost Newtonian concept of morality—no action is without consequences….

[Essentially] "World of Wonders" is a monologue which seldom wanders or seems long-winded…. Magnus … brings each scene alive as easily as he pulls rabbits out of a hat.

After the awfulness of his Christ-haunted home where he was blamed for his mother's madness, the traveling carnival seems a world of wonders to Magnus, and even as he describes the sleazy deprivations of his childhood, he cannot help but take joy in remembering carny life….

"World of Wonders" is a novel of stunning verbal energy and intelligence, so much so that one begins to notice discrepancies between Magnus's character and his voice. For instance, he brags about his lack of formal education, but frequently hammers home his ideas with academic earnestness: "Romance is a mode of feeling that puts enormous emphasis—but not quite a tragic emphasis—on individual experience. Tragedy puts something above humanity; so does Comedy; Romance puts humanity first."

Yet since one of the novel's themes is the inevitability of artifice, perhaps this is a minor cavil. Far more important is the remarkable range of Robertson Davies's tour de force. Never a mere conjurer, he acts as creator, moving easily from the bawdiest humor to the loftiest abstraction, charging every character and idea with power and fascination.

Michael Mewshaw, "Never Kill a Monkey in a Carnival," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 25, 1976, p. 20.

Davies is not only Canada's finest active novelist but also one of the most gifted and accomplished literary entertainers now writing in English. He tells his apparently outrageous story [World of Wonders] wryly and wisely, by seedily leading his central characters from a Canadian carnival to the London stage, and then to a tumultuous mating with a monstrously ugly Swiss sphinx named Leisl Vitzipützli. The people are brilliant talkers, but when they natter on too long, the highly theatrical author causes a grotesque face to appear at a window, drops someone through a trap door or stages a preposterous recognition scene. A master illusionist himself, Davies well deserves a packed house when—on a bare stage, out of nowhere, in a puff of smoke—he materializes with his next book. (p. K10)

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), May 17, 1976.

In the old days novelists told stories, right? And now they write neuresthenic case histories from their psychic files, fragments told their analysts, full of angst, Kraft-Ebbing and the latest trendy malaise, obscured more than revealed in prose so convoluted and cinematic you can hardly find the content for the style. Which explains why masses of readers have given up on the "serious" novel. Well, don't. Somewhere in Ontario there is a true novelist writing imagined stories, wonderful stories full of magic and incandescence, thought and literary art. His name is Robertson Davies, and he has just published World of Wonders, the final volume of the trilogy that began with two boys and a snowball in Fifth Business…, and continued through a Jungian analysis (we are, after all, deep into the 20th century) in The Manticore…. The question in the first novel—"Who killed Boy Staunton?"—is resolved in the third, the story of magician Magnus Eisengrim who was born when the snowball thrown in Fifth Business struck his mother. Boy Staunton threw the ball which started this literary avalanche, a novel of ideas told with the art of the sorcerer. (p. F7)

Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 30, 1976.