Robertson Davies Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3726

In all of his nondramatic writing, Robertson Davies demonstrated a keen sense of the absurdity of social pretension, an awareness of the dark world of the unconscious, and a love of magic. In many of his fictional works, the theater plays an important part, whether it be the amateur production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611), which sets the stage for Tempest-Tost, or the flamboyant actor-manager of the melodramatic school who holds center stage in World of Wonders. Regardless of genre, Davies’ perspective is that of the ironic, detached, urbane, yet sensitive observer, a reporter of the quirks of fortune that act on human existence and that serve to reveal the inner workings of the heart.

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The dramatic writing of Davies stands far removed from the mainstream of mid-twentieth century drama. The majority of modern drama is realistic in language and characterization, if not in form. Davies rejected this trend for older and blatantly theatrical models such as medieval masques and morality play and nineteenth century Romantic comedies and melodramas. In his commentary on his own plays, Davies confirmed his commitment to alternatives to realism. He rejected the naturalistic school of drama, which seeks to reproduce daily life on the stage, for, as Davies noted, it is the paradox of the theater that plays are sometimes most like life when they are least like a photograph of reality.

Davies’ love for some of the older forms of drama sprang from his conviction that these forms were closer in spirit to the original, primal function of all art. He sought theater that would fill audiences with a sense of wonder. The theater, in Davies’ view, should be a place of spiritual refreshment, and this is particularly the case, he suggested, in melodrama and in the earliest forms of drama. Theater began, he reminded his audience, as a temple, a place where people expected to experience the full range of human emotion—the glorification of the godlike in man as well as his invigorating wickedness.

Davies readily admitted to being an old-fashioned playwright longing for a theater that had perhaps entirely disappeared. He wrote plays that call for acting in the classic Romantic style he remembered so fondly from visits to the theater during his youth. His plays necessitate this larger-than-life manner because they deal with fundamental conflicts between archetypal forces.

Davies was equally unfashionable in the strongly didactic tone of his plays. He defined himself as a moralist, one who perceives several insidious diseases of the spirit and seeks to cure them with the powerful antidote of laughter. So strong were Davies’ opinions that he eschewed subtlety in favor of direct statement, as well as a decidedly oracular tone thinly disguised with a sugary coating of wit.

Davies recognized that his attitudes ran against the Zeitgeist, but he remained true to his original commitment to the magical rather than the ordinary. As a result, his dramatic writing is remarkably unified in style.

The predominant identifying feature of Davies’ plays is their language. Modern fashion leans toward dramatic dialogue that is colloquial, filled with slang and expletives, and minimal. Davies chose the opposite extreme, and his plays are linguistic feasts of wit, flights of fancy, and lucidity. Davies defended his style by pointing out that, for those with intelligence, style, sensitivity, and the wit to give form to random human discourse, conversation is an art. Davies’ attitude toward conversation is expressed in Fortune, My Foe by Professor Rowlands, who describes himself as having a gift for something that is undervalued: good talk. Rowlands claims to be an artist, a master of poetry that is verbal and extempore but that is still poetry. Indeed, in general, the characters in the plays of Robertson Davies speak in a manner remarkably reminiscent of that of the playwright himself.

Davies’ carefully constructed sentences are the perfect vehicle for another dominant attribute of his writing, his satire and parody of Canadian institutions and attitudes. There is nothing oblique about this element of Davies’ dramas: The incorporation of the satiric element is very much a part of the moral thrust of the plays. Virtually every character in every play is given at least one well-constructed aphorism, and characters have a decided tendency to address one another in short moral lectures. At times these digressions threaten to slow the dramatic movement of the plot to a standstill, but the sheer pleasure of Davies’ language retains the goodwill of the audience.

The witty repartee characteristic of a Davies play is generally given plausible motivation, given the setting and the intellectual attributes of the speakers. Chilly Jim and Idris Rowlands, who exchange quips and aphorisms in Fortune, My Foe, are two such plausible moral wits. Rowlands, as noted above, is a university professor who describes himself as a professional talker, a poet of conversation, while Chilly confesses that language is his hobby. Their conversations, which are filled with the most carefully crafted language, are entirely believable. Modern audiences are used to fast-paced and tightly edited forms of entertainment, but Davies crafts his plays for a premodern, slow-moving dramatic form and for audiences who prefer to savor bons mots.

In dramatic structure, Davies’ plays are also strongly influenced by archaic forms. Several of his plays, most notably Question Time, take the form of a morality play, with a central character representing humankind interacting with personifications of the human psyche on a journey toward self-discovery. In Question Time, Peter MacAdam is a representative of humanity (his name means “son of Adam”) and of all Canadians (as Prime Minister of Canada) who is launched on a journey into his unconscious mind after a plane crash in the Arctic. While he lies in a coma, his mind is freed to explore his inner landscape in search of his true identity. He encounters personifications of his own attributes—totem animals—and finally convenes the Parliament of the Irrational, wherein two versions of himself lead the debate as to whether he should live or die.

Debate is another traditional element of the morality play, and Davies’ characters frequently engage in such contests. Many of his plays focus on two essential forces in conflict, with the balance clearly weighted toward one of the two parties. This is the case in Overlaid, where Pop represents life-affirming forces (Eros), and Ethel, life-denying forces (Thanatos).

In drawing on an archaic form such as the morality play, Davies did not stifle audiences with dusty scholarship. Rather, he adapted the model to realize the potential of the modern stage to become a forum for an exploration of those deep concerns humanity shares. Davies replaced the absolute Christian moral doctrines espoused by the medieval morality plays with a standard of judgment that is not external but internal. Davies was concerned with individuals’ judgment of themselves, their perception of their soul in its entirety, and their recognition of the unlived lives that, if unattended, are sure to have their revenge.

In characterization, Davies also rejected the expected naturalistic layering of details or the question-filled outlines of the contemporary theater. Instead, he relied on character-types as symbolic vehicles for his morality lessons. He generally structured a play around a single protagonist whom he presented in the most exciting and positive manner. He surrounds this character with a variety of less fully developed creations, all of whom exist to fulfill a thematic function, to embody a force against which the hero reacts. Minor characters are given single and striking identifying characteristics and then allowed to interact within situations that are crafted to bring essential conflicts to the surface.

Davies’ heroes share the attributes of the artist, and those characters who stand in opposition embody those forces that seek to destroy or limit the artistic function. Davies’ sharp juxtapositions of these forces indicate his condemnation of certain attitudes. Ranged against the positive force of art, which is linked with spiritual enrichment, intuition, sensitivity, perception, and wonder, are narrow materialism, ignorant respectability, cultural philistinism, dogmatic religion, science, modern impatience, insufficient education, and the absence of laughter. Those characters who lack a sense of humor are perhaps the most barren, pretentious, and emotionally undernourished (as well as the least appealing to the audience). Their grim devotion to principle—whether it be religious, social, or scientific—is the most effective force against the joyful spirit of the healthy soul.

In his most successful novels and plays, Davies explored the relationship between human consciousness, trapped as it is in the perceptions of daily reality and blinded by the limitations of sensibility, and the unconscious, that vast, uncharted, terrifying world whence springs all art, all vitality, and all meaning. From Davies’ perspective, the conflicts of the unconscious mind are more real than the trivial, day-to-day concerns of observable reality.

Davies’ fascination with the internal workings of an individual dates, he reported, from the health dialogues in which he acted as a child. These little skits were set in such locales as the stomach and featured naughty foods as well as the angelic Miss Milk and Mr. Apple. In one of his earliest plays, Eros at Breakfast, Davies returns to this idea and shows us a young man’s soul when he first experiences love. With this fantasy, Davies is able to teach a few lessons about the inner workings of the mind: Love comes, we learn, not from the mind, but is initiated by sentiment, enhanced by the liver, and finally affects the soul. In his later plays, Davies took on increasingly complex aspects of human experience, until he came to grips with the nature of identity and strove to define more clearly the soul itself. En route, Davies’ expert knowledge of and defiant admiration for melodrama was transferred to the interior landscape, so that striking character-types merge with psychological allegory.

Jungian Influence

Davies’ psychological allegory approach was greatly influenced by the theories of Carl Jung, in particular the definition of the three attributes of the personality: the persona, the anima, and the shadow. In his scholarly writing, Davies explored the relationship between Jungian archetypes and melodramatic character-types, and scholars have traced a similar correspondence in Davies’ fiction. In melodrama, they appear as the hero, the heroine, and the villain; in Davies’ plays, they emerge in a variety of forms as he experimented with the dramatic presentation of this theory.

An early, unproduced experiment is General Confession, which Davies singled out as his favorite play. An elderly Casanova entertains two young lovers with three conjured figures: the philosopher Voltaire, the evil magician Cagliostro, and an unnamed beautiful woman. The figures act out scenes from Casanova’s past, and in the last act, Casanova is put on trial for his sins, with the philosopher as adviser, the woman as defender, and the magician as accuser. Finally, Davies gives these last three figures allegorical titles: they are, respectively, Casanova’s Wisdom, his Ideal of Womanhood, and his Contrary Destiny. Casanova and his two young friends learn an important lesson in identity: Everyone has within him a wise adviser; an ideal, to provide direction; and an enemy, against which to test himself.

This dramatization of Jung’s theory of the personality injected Davies’ writing with an atmosphere of the mystical, which underlies the surface narrative he presents. In Question Time, he jettisons the external reality within which he tried to work in General Confession, using the patterns of dreams for his dramatic form and the images of Jungian theory for characters and setting. The terra incognita into which Peter MacAdam journeys in Question Time is the world of the unconscious, here made remarkably theatrical by Davies’ image of the Arctic as the last unchartered realm of our world and so the perfect metaphor for the unchartered territory of the mind. His description of the stage presentation indicates the mystical atmosphere he wished to evoke; he asked for music that is not the conventional movie sound track, but something truly mysterious, embracing, alive. The set, he suggested, should create the effect of a landscape that, although unfriendly, is of transporting beauty.

Depictions of Class Divisions

Along with his old-fashioned dramatic form, Davies often alienated audiences by expressing attitudes that are unfashionable to state publicly, though they may be widely held. In two areas, in particular, he incurred the wrath of sectors of the public. Davies had strong feelings about class divisions, as is evident in the characterization in his plays. In Question Time, the representatives of the working classes are Madge and Tim, and the portrait is not at all flattering. Crude language, cruder vision, and the most narrow-minded selfishness characterize these figures. Tim is much given to simplistic, clichéd pronouncements against the rich, and he makes several references to his union. He is particularly irritating in the second half of the play, where he disrupts the formal rituals with obnoxious and ignorant objections. Davies seemed to be implying that the common people are easily led, uneducated, brutish, and totally lacking in any sensitivity to the world of the spirit. Regardless of the veracity of this portrait, it is in sharp contrast to the egalitarian ideals mouthed by most contemporary playwrights.

Davies was openly elitist about the world of art and espoused an aristocracy of the soul: Some people are open to its magic, and some are closed. This capacity is not always tied to class and education, for some of Davies’ most obtuse and closed characters suffer from an excess of money and schooling. More often than not, however, the most appealing, witty, sensitive, and attractive of Davies’ characters are members of the social elite. Davies described repeatedly the natural grace and acquired good taste of the ladies in At My Heart’s Core, qualities that are very much part of their breeding as gentlewomen. Contrast is provided by Sally and Honour, the first an Indian servant whom Davies describes as giggling at the most inopportune moments or brandishing a skillet, and the second an uneducated Irish settler who has just borne a child to her foster father. In a telling scene, Mrs. Frances Stewart, whom Davies portrays as the most beautiful and gracious of the ladies, suggests that, if Honour does not wish to stay in bed to recover from the birth of her child, she might just as well go out into the kitchen and help Sally. Frances means no insult here, nor does Davies. Honour is more comfortable serving Frances, and both women accept the responsibilities and privileges of their different positions. There is no hint of these two having been born equal.

Explorations of Gender

Another issue on which Davies expressed decided and unpopular ideas is gender. In direct statement as well as by implication, Davies communicated his belief that women and men are different and that the world runs most smoothly when both sexes know their strengths and limitations and do not attempt to shatter the natural order. For Davies, women are the more sensitive, the givers, the supporters. This does not mean that they are incapable of intelligence, of spirit, or of strength, but theirs is a distinctly feminine intelligence, spirit, and strength. Frances Stewart in At My Heart’s Core is a woman witty enough to match swords with the devilish tempter Edmund Cantwell, intelligent enough to admit his success and attempt to deal with the dissatisfaction with which he attempts to poison her life, and strong enough to deliver a baby, outface a drunken settler, and remain alone in the forest eight miles from her closest neighbor. When her husband returns, however, she bows to his masculine wit, intelligence, and strength and allows him to solve the social entanglement in which she finds herself. It is Thomas Stewart who hands out justice to the erring settler, who gets to the bottom of the plotting of Edmund Cantwell and who embodies the most vital and theatrical love of life, exemplified by his mimicry of the music-hall clown Grimaldi.

The explanation for Davies’ attitude toward his female characters rests partially in his personal Victorian sensibilities but also in his use of the female gender to embody the values of the spirit. The most striking example of this occurs in Question Time, in the figure of La Sorcière des Montagnes de Glace. In the final moments of the play, Davies explicates her symbolic function: She is the ultimate authority in the world of the soul, the final reality, the life force, a power so old that she “makes all monarchies seem like passing shadows on her face, and all forms of power like games children tire of.” Women cannot complain that Davies disliked their sex, but they are perhaps correct when they say that he did not portray them realistically on the stage.

Perennial Themes

Given Davies’ concern with the interior of the human mind, it is no surprise to discover two perennial themes in his dramatic writing: the quest for personal identity and the magic of art. These are not new themes, and Davies’ treatment of the importance of self-knowledge and the unique properties of art and artists was not new. What is striking is the way in which he united these two themes with a third concern that figured largely in his dramatic writing: the relationship between art, personal identity, and the national identity of Canadians. When asked to describe the theme of Question Time, Davies’ reply was brief and to the point; he stated that the play was about the relationship of the Canadian people to their soil and about the relationship of a man to his soul, both of which we neglect at our peril.

These relationships, and the parallels between the two, form the thematic content of many of Davies’ plays. Canada, he suggested, suffers from a lack of emotional stimulation, from a denigration of the arts that might have been appropriate in a pioneer society but was sadly out of place in the twentieth century. By evoking the magic and power of art, Davies hoped to awaken his audiences to the need for the life-giving spirit of art in their lives.

Fortune, My Foe

Nowhere is the pure magic of the performing arts more powerfully evoked than in Fortune, My Foe. Here the art form is puppetry, and the artist is Franz Szabo, a refugee who has brought to Canada a European artistic discipline and awareness. Franz gives voice to Davies’ view of artistic creation when he describes his profession. It takes sixteen years to acquire the skill of a marionette master, but once acquired, it allows the puppet master to infuse his creation with a part of his own soul, so that the figure is more real, more truly alive, than the puppet master himself. Although his new Canadian friends warn him that Canada is a cold country, inhospitable to artists, Franz is determined to remain and find an audience for his puppets. In the course of the play, he is partially successful in this quest.

The individual most deeply affected by his encounter with the artist Szabo is Nicholas, a young university professor on the brink of leaving Canada for a more lucrative career in the United States. Nicholas has despaired of ever achieving a decent income in Canada, a country where the questions he asks meet only with blank incomprehension and where the yearnings he feels find no understanding. He realizes the importance of art to the health of the soul: Art fills a need in the heart; it provides brilliant color, the warmth and gaiety that people crave. Others who come in contact with Franz Szabo respond less favorably. Vanessa Medway is enchanted and eager to become involved, but her impatience bars her from partaking of an artistic experience that requires a minimum of two years’ training. Vanessa exemplifies a worldview that Davies labels as distinctively modern: detached, unemotional, fast-moving, quickly tiring of things and people, yet capable of perception and honesty. Ursula Simonds wants to alter Szabo’s art to pure didacticism; she claims that art without a message is worthless, while Szabo argues that art is not to be trusted unless it is in the hands of artists, not educators or revolutionaries.

The least appealing response comes from Mrs. E.C. Philpott and Orville Tapscott, representatives from the local recreation board, whom Davies uses to satirize certain educational theories that emphasize the scientific approach. Tapscott and Mrs. Philpott regard puppets as ideal for instruction in oral hygiene and for developing manual dexterity in young girls. Their belief in their power to do good is so powerful that it blinds them to the simple, pure message of Szabo’s little theater. They are, Davies suggests, the half-educated, who are the least likely to appreciate art. They find Szabo’s dramatization of the story of Don Quixote immoral, offensive, and antisocial. Terrified of any art that ventures into the area of deep personal concerns, they are blind to their own need for art to save them from emotional starvation.

Szabo has the strength to survive the condemnation of the emotionally barren and the impatience of the modern. He reminds his friends that a real artist is tough; as long as he keeps the image of his work clear in his heart, he will not fail. Canada is his country now, and though he foresees struggle, he will continue his search for an audience. His optimism tips the balance for Nicholas, and the play ends with the young man’s announcement that he, too, will stay in Canada.

It is the cynical Chilly Jim, however, who voices Davies’ most powerful evocation of the potential of the theater. Chilly has seen three murders, but nothing has moved him like Szabo’s puppets. The theater makes him feel something he has not experienced since he was a boy, a kind of religious wonder:You’ve always suspected that something existed, and you’ve wished and prayed that it did exist, and in your dreams you’ve seen little bits of it, but to save your life you couldn’t describe it or put a name to it. Then, all of a sudden, there it is, and you feel grateful, and humble, and wonder how you ever doubted it. That little stage makes me feel like that—quiet and excited at the same time.

This is the power of the theater that Robertson Davies celebrated in his writing.

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