HAPPY ALCHEMY by Robertson Davies


On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre
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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 The material here, most of it previously unpublished, was culled by the author’s wife and daughter from his vast archive of speeches, interviews, articles, and errata, including excerpts from the copious diaries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 the famous 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.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-670-88019-1
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1998


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