Abandoning Playwriting for Novel Writing: Robertson Davies

March 2015 

Robertson Davies
Robertson Davies

The Mephistophelean eyebrows, like symmetrical question marks on a massive forehead, projected an attitude of fierceness. But the twinkling eyes, grandfatherly disposition and easy laugh told another story. If you had dressed him in a red suit, with his bushy beard and snowy-white mane, Robertson Davies could have passed for a department-store Santa Claus. He knew people put him on a pedestal because of what they saw as his elitist professorial bearing (“very embarrassing, they don’t treat you as a human being”). But he was, in fact, approachable and friendly.

He was on the road giving interviews because his publisher was convinced a promotional tour would be good for the sale of what was then his latest novel, The Rebel Angels. Davies, an old newspaper hand, thought the money would be better spent on a print advertising campaign. But he went along with the tour anyhow because “it’s all part of the hype of modern publishing.” If nothing else, the tour might provide him with another anecdote to add to his collection of memorable stories from the road. One of his favourites was about the Ontario municipal politician who, famed for his malapropisms, described Davies as “a man of many faucets.”

Our interview took place in 1981, when the 68-year-old Davies was well established as one of Canada’s most eminent post-war novelists. He had produced one trio of novels titled The Salterton Trilogy and a second, more critically acclaimed and commercially successful threesome titled The Deptford Trilogy. Was The Rebel Angels, a satire of university life, going to be the first volume of a new trilogy? Not necessarily, said Davies. “But it’s certainly the start of at least one more book, because I’m working on that now.” He had a problem with the term trilogy anyhow because he viewed all of his books as independent novels. “But that’s how they’re put together for the convenience of the reader.”

He said his work-in-progress (which would be published four years later under the title What’s Bred in the Bone) was about money, how it affected people’s lives, and the kinds of complications it brought. “The lives of very rich people are peculiar,” said Davies. “In a way, they’re almost like royalty. They live in a sort of public way, which must be very difficult for them.”

I asked him if the work-in-progress would be informed by the precepts of Jungian analysis, as had been the case with the books in his Deptford Trilogy. “If it is,” he said, “I’m not conscious of that as I write it.” Nor was he conscious of having drawn on Jung’s ideas while he was writing The Rebel Angels. “I don’t know that it really helps to understand the book,” he said. “There’s a very great tendency among academics to explain books according to systems. It does nothing for the books but it gives them something to talk about.”

A former academic himself, who spent 18 happy years as Master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College before he retired in 1981, Davies said he had no plans to pursue further connections with the university life beyond writing about it. He would not, for example, accept a college post as writer-in-residence. “This is something that makes me very unpopular with academics and some writers,” he said. “I just don’t believe you can teach people to write. If they’re going to write, they’ll do it in their own way and teach themselves.”

As far as his own writing was concerned, Davies planned to keep on writing novels as he had been doing for 30 years. He wouldn’t be going back to writing plays, which he had done with some success during the 1940s and 1950s while simultaneously serving as editor of the Peterborough Examiner. He had won the 1948 Dominion Drama Festival Award for best Canadian play with Eros at Breakfast, a fantasy set in a man’s stomach. But his kind of theatre had since gone out of fashion. “I’m very strongly disposed toward comedy, and comedy is not the thing that goes in Canadian theatre any more,” he said. “I really don’t care about writing miserable plays; I’d rather write novels.” He’d had a good run as a playwright but ultimately decided to leave it behind because he saw the theatre turning into “a sort of coterie diversion for serious-minded academics.”

His one Broadway venture, Love and Libel, had been a failure in 1960. But Davies didn’t lose much sleep over that, and he didn’t think other Canadian playwrights should be discouraged by their failure to achieve recognition in New York or elsewhere. “It’s very Canadian,” he said. “We’re always exposing ourselves like a puppy asking to be loved. You do that to some people and they kick the puppy. Why don’t we stay home and make them come to see us, which they will do if our plays are good enough? We’re always craving for approval and a sense of our own worth to be provided by somebody else.” He suggested that Canadians should be looking inward rather than beyond the country’s borders for affirmation. “The voyage of self-discovery – that’s what I’m trying to say in all my books because I very profoundly believe in it. If only we could realize how interesting and provocative we are. But there’s some kind of crippling self-doubt about Canada.”

The Rebel Angels, following the pattern of Davies’s previous fictional explorations, was the first of what came to be known as The Cornish Trilogy. This trilogy brought Davies a Booker Prize shortlisting for What’s Bred in the Bone and a recommendation from Anthony Burgess, who picked The Rebel Angels as one of the best 99 novels in English published since 1939. Then came the first two Davies novels in what was to be called The Toronto Trilogy. Davies was working on the third book in that series at the time of his death, in 1995 from a stroke at age 82. “We are all fortunate that he continued to work hard into his 80s,” said his publisher, Douglas Gibson. “He enriched all of our lives with his imaginative world of wonders.”

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015 

Brian Brennan

Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. 

Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.



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