“Money, it is often said, does not bring happiness; it must be added, however, that it makes it possible to support unhappiness with exemplary fortitude.” ― Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost (1951)
This past week marked the centennial of the birth of Canadian man of letters Robertson Davies. The drollery in the above quote was a characteristic trait of his more than 30 books, including numerous novels, plays, newspaper columns, longer essays, ghost stories, diaries and letters written before his death in 1995.
In a way, Davies is responsible for the birth of this blog. As I mentioned six years ago in my inaugural post, I read about his theater diary and wondered if I could keep a similar record of the plays (not to mention films and books) that had gained my attention—except that this record would be shared with the blogosphere.
Faithful Reader, you can readily see how this blog has evolved over time, in ways good and bad, from that original conception. But, from first to last, it has reflected what obsesses me, just as Davies’ work, no matter what the genre, did—in his case, magic and the occult, academe, journalism, gypsies, Indians, music (especially opera) and theater.
Theater: that was his first love, as well as, in both literal and metaphorical senses, how I first encountered him. A friend had given me Fifth Business, the first installment of his Deptford Trilogy, so I had a bit of an idea of his ironic narrative voice and phantasmagorical plots. But then I saw him at Fairleigh Dickinson University on a tour to promote what turned out to be his last novel, The Cunning Man.
Davies himself turned out to be a theatrical presence, with a stocky frame and a full white beard that recalled more than a little of Santa Claus, if Santa might be said to be less a jolly fellow than a mocking contrarian, well past the age when he needed to care what the young might think. Certainly appearing well along in years, he was also the type of person who could have looked that way for a long time and, given his mental vigor, might have gone on looking the same way for a fair number of years more. It was with some surprise, then, that I read of his death not long after.
Davies left his imprint on the audience, as well as on my autographed copy of The Cunning Man. On the title page, he had drawn a single line through one of those pedestrian italic typefaces that make up in clarity what they lack in personality. His signature, in contrast, occupied virtually the same amount of space, but in a more fluid, albeit firmly controlled, calligraphic-like manner, with the initial “R” appearing more like a “17” and with first and last name intertwined. “No author had a more attractive signature,” noted a Michael Dirda essay on handwriting for The American Scholar.
Six years later, the Stratford Festival in Canada, a project that Davies was associated with in the early 1950s under Tyrone Guthrie, staged an adaptation of Tempest-Tost. The latter, which marked Davies’ transition from playwriting to fiction, took advantage of his recent involvement with a “Little Theater” group to send up these well-meaning amateur productions. (Evidently, he figured that it was unlikely that any theater group would mount a play that satirized the acting profession. How wrong he was!)