Happy Alchemy: On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre

Overview

A posthumous treasury of brilliant essays that shines with Davies's unmistakable wit, erudition, and magic.

One of Canada's--and the world's--most beloved authors, Robertson Davies was also a devoted fan of opera and the theater. In this follow-up to his first posthumous collection, A Merry Heart, Davies ruminates on these lifelong passions, offering a diverse sampling of personal reflections on everything from the ancient Greeks to Lewis ...
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Overview

A posthumous treasury of brilliant essays that shines with Davies's unmistakable wit, erudition, and magic.

One of Canada's--and the world's--most beloved authors, Robertson Davies was also a devoted fan of opera and the theater. In this follow-up to his first posthumous collection, A Merry Heart, Davies ruminates on these lifelong passions, offering a diverse sampling of personal reflections on everything from the ancient Greeks to Lewis Carroll, Scottish folklore to Laurence Olivier, the sins of Verdi to the virtues of melodrama. The combined effect of these thirty-three essays, lectures, plays, and librettos-- edited by his widow and daughter--is true alchemy, as "readers . . . come away with a renewed appreciation of the ease with which Davies routinely transformed his sometimes erudite passions into delightful entertainments" (The New York Times Book Review).

The book in thoroughly entertaining fashion acquaints us with Davies' expansive erudition and gift for rendering literary and historical complexities in simple, human terms." --The New York Times

"Lovingly collected. . . . A welcome addition to a corpus like no other in contemporary literature." --Kirkus Reviews
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Last year, Davies's widow, Brenda, and their daughter, Jennifer Surridge, worked to compile The Merry Heart, a collection of Davies's speeches and writings on reading, writing and books. Davies had consented to the plans for that book in the last months of his life. This, however, seems to be purely a production of his estate and is, truth to tell, uneven. There are some wonderful pieces: His speech on "The Noble Greeks" wanders convincingly from Greek religion and culture to Jim Jones and David Koresh to troubles with translation; while "Lewis Carroll in the Theatre" is a fine work on Carroll generally, but one that puts him into the context of 19th-century theater. But for someone who was an actor and playwright married to a former stage manager, many of the theatrical pieces are slight--introductions to his plays; an encomium on the event of Stratford's 40th; a perfectly nice, but not notable book review of Michael Holroyd's third volume on Shaw. Two well-executed pastiches stand in distinction to Davis's libretto for an "Operetta for Young People" ("O love, you hang on Fillpail's horns/And swell her splendid udder!/Triumph, O Fillpail, win today,/The alternative makes me shudder!"). Midway, a piece in defense of the emotional immediacy of melodrama leads neatly into several very good works: on how weak or badly bowdlerized literature gives way to great opera; on the operatic juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy; and on the possible uses (exploited and un-) of Celtic folklore in opera. In these pieces Davies warms to themes of myth and archetype and wonder. In these pieces one hears the voice of the old mage. (July)
Library Journal
Prolific and popular Canadian novelist Davies (The Cunning Man, LJ 10/1/94) was also a playwright and a devoted student of the theater. Following his death in 1995, his wife and daughter collected 26 short pieces, mostly on literary themes, in The Merry Heart (LJ 6/15/97); now they have brought together 33 more speeches, lectures, and essays dealing with the performing arts. Several deal with opera, a special love of his, but there are also republished introductions to his own plays, appreciations of Laurence Olivier and set designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, and even the unpublished libretto of an "operetta for young people." One of the most delightful aspects of this book is the inclusion of quotations from Davies's 40 years of theater notebooks in the introductions to each piece. In his heart, Davies was too generous to be a critic, and these works totally lack in polemic or aesthetic agenda--aside from delight in a good production of a well-told tale. The result will not advance anyone's serious study of the drama, but it will entertain, and occasionally inform, anyone who enjoys an evening in the theater. For most collections.--Eric Bryant, "Library Journal"
Diane Cole
...even the slightest of these highly diverse essays, speeches, parodies and playlets display such wit, charm and insight that readers will come away with renewed appreciation of the ease with which Davies routinely transformed his sometimes erudite passions into delightful entertainments. -- The New York Times Book Review
Peter Marks
. . .the book in thoroughly entertaining fashion acquaints us with Davies's expansive erudition and gift for rendering literary and historical complexities in simple, human terms. . . .The longing of a sensitive, reflective spirit for a more soulful age is detectable again and again in these essays. . .Canada's own literary reputation got an immeasurable boost with the addition of Davies to the library. -- The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
On the evidence of his immense legacy in print, the late novelist Davies was a man of profound artistic appetite; this, the second posthumous collection of his criticism, shares the exuberant and casual erudition of the first (The Merry Heart, 1997). The material here, most of it previously unpublished, was culled by the author's wife and daughter from his vast archive of speeches, interviews, articles, and errata, including excerpts from the copious diaries he kept throughout his life. Though the majority of pieces deal with the theater, Davies, like George Bernard Shaw, with whom he enjoyed much fruitful contact over the years, cultivated a dynamic relationship to music, and the ruminations on offer here attest to the depth of his engagement. Of Verdi's 'Rigoletto' and distaste for fine verse that would distract from his music, he provocatively notes that "the inferiority of what he made his librettists produce from the bleeding ruins of 'Macbeth' and 'Othello' is proof of his musical genius, but certainly not of his literary taste," praising the crudity of its melodrama as essential to the composer's intent. Elsewhere we encounter subtle observations on the psychology of folk music, the performance style of renowned pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch, for whose daughter the author held a deep affection, even a musical ghost story that Davies wrote for the Young People's Theatre in Toronto. His remarkably droll humor is on display here, most notably in a letter, from fictional 'necromantic suppliers' friars Bacon and Bungay, to Tanya Moiseiwitsch, director of the Stratford Festival Theatre in Davies's native Canada, offering to sell the eclectic ingredients necessary to perform thefamous witches' scene in 'Macbeth,' part of which was omitted during the festival's 1962 production of that play. Lovingly collected, these scatterings of Davies's singular talent are typically abundant and a welcome addition to a corpus like no other in contemporary literature.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670880195
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 7/1/1998
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.29 (d)

Meet the Author

Robertson Davies was born and raised in Ontario and was educated at a variety of schools, Upper Canada College, Queen’s University, and Balliol College, Oxford. He had three successive careers: first as an actor with the Old Vic Company in England; then as publisher of the Peterborough Examiner; and most recently as a university professor and first Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, from which he retired in 1981.

He was without doubt one of Canada’s most distinguished men of letters, with over thirty books to his credit, among them several volumes of plays, as well as collections of essays, speeches, and belles lettres. As a novelist he gained fame far beyond Canada’s borders, especially for his Deptford trilogy, Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders, and for his last five novels, The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone, The Lyre of Orpheus, Murther & Walking Spirit, and The Cunning Man.

His career was marked by many honours: he was, for example, the first Canadian to become an honorary Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was a Companion of the Order of Canada, and Honorary Fellow of Balliol, and received an honorary D.Litt. from Oxford.

Robertson Davies passed away in 1995.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
1 Alchemy in the Theatre 1
2 The Noble Greeks 7
3 Look at the Clock! 28
4 On Seeing Plays 47
5 Laurence Olivier 72
6 Prologue to The Good Natur'd Man 77
7 Lewis Carroll in the Theatre 80
8 An Allegory of the Physician 104
9 The Lure of Fantasy 115
10 Tanya Moiseiwitsch 121
11 A Letter from Friar Bacon & Friar Bungay 127
12 Stratford Forty Years Ago 132
13 Introduction to an Anthology of Canadian Plays 139
14 Introduction to At My Heart's Core and Overlaid 144
15 Introduction to Fortune, My Foe and Eros at Breakfast 150
16 Introduction to Hunting Stuart and The Voice of the People 155
17 A Prologue to The Critic 161
18 Melodrama: The Silver King 165
19 Some Reflections on Rigoletto 186
20 Opera for the Man Who Reads Hamlet 191
21 Opera and Humour 207
22 A Conversation about Dr. Canon's Cure 227
23 Children of the Moon 234
24 When Is Opera Really Grand? 264
25 Scottish Folklore and Opera 269
26 My Musical Career 289
27 Dickens and Music 294
28 Folk-song: A Lost World of Archetypes 299
29 Harper of the Stones 322
30 Jung and the Writer 331
31 The Value of a Coherent Notion of Culture 352
32 How I Write a Book 365
33 How to Be a Collector 370
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