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Interview with Robertson Davies

9 JUNE 1992

   Every time I passed through Toronto, I seemed fated to miss Robertson Davies whose commitments continue to keep him busy, even in so-called retirement. Finally, I gave up trying to fit him into my travel plans and asked for a time of his choosing. Thus came about our meeting on a fine June morning. I was shown to his office in Massey College of the University of Toronto, where he is a Professor Emeritus as well as one of Canada's foremost novelists, and he talked most genially about his Cornish trilogy.
   There are no signs of Arthurian influence in the first novel, but references start to appear in What's Bred in the Bone (Toronto: Macmillan; New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), and the characters of The Lyre of Orpheus (Toronto: Macmillan; New York: Viking Penguin; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988) find themselves engaged, not only in mounting a performance of a long-lost Arthurian opera, but also in personally reenacting the Arthurian triangle in their own lives. The situation offers ample opportunity for the irony that Davies so richly relishes, and he was amused to hear that some scholars were even speculating whether the long-lost Arthurian opera (by E. T. A. Hoffmann) actually exists. It does not as far as he knows, but he would be the first to appreciate the irony were it ever to turn up!

RT: What attracted you to Arthurian legend as an ingredient in both The Lyre of Orpheus and What's Bred in the Bone?

RD: The Arthurian legend has been a part of my life since childhood. My father, of course, was Welsh, and the story of Arthur is very dear to the Welsh people. Britain, both during and after the Roman occupation, has always been important in my mind because I visited Wales a good many times with my father. I knew it well and visited many places with Arthurian associations. Glastonbury I've known for a very long time also.
   As a boy I had a book of Arthurian legends, and about the age of sixteen or seventeen I became very interested in the work of that now rather neglected writer, Arthur Machen. He draws a good deal on Arthurian legend, often without writing about it directly although the feeling is there. Not very long afterwards, I fell under the influence of an author I consider a neglected master of the English novel, and that is John Cowper Powys. I read A Glastonbury Romance which is soaked in Arthurian feeling; then later Porius, which is about a young man who encounters Arthur and Merlin. Both figures are seen with great imaginative splendor. Powys has a marvelous feeling both for the ambience of the legend, and for what we can guess about the historical figure of the "dux bellorum" who took control after the Romans left Britain. His vision seized my imagination very strongly, and I became interested not only in what Arthur had meant one way or another to a wide variety of people, but also what he had not meant to some of them.
   The Arthurian legend, thus, was part of the fabric of my life. It is well named the Matter of Britain for it is the great British legend, and I am sometimes astonished that it is so neglected by a great many British people. I suspect it is because they can't stand the fact that their great hero is not an Englishman! Mind you, this is sheer low Celtic prejudice, and can be dismissed as such. The feeling for Arthur in Wales is, half jokingly and yet half seriously, still one of enormous affection. Everybody has his own vision of an Arthur who exists in the past as a kind of great god. The Welsh are essentially a people whose best time was during the Middle Ages. Since then they have been very much in decline.

RT: You mentioned that you visited Arthurian sites. Were you interested in the archaeology and history of the Arthurian period?

RD: Both my father and I were, in a romantic way. We visited ancient sites because we felt they were centers of noble life of an earlier time, and I read some books about them.

RT: I presume that your interest in Welsh tradition extended to The Mabinogion as well?

RD: Yes indeed. I was soaked in The Mabinogion ever since I was a boy, and in Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicles. I also took great delight in romances like Malory's Le Morte Darthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, some of which I read at university. They are wonderful stuff!

RT: Did you read any post-medieval works by writers like Tennyson and Mark Twain?

RD: Yes. I liked Tennyson though I found him horribly solemn and onerous. His Arthur wasn't a bit like my idea of Arthur; he was a sort of Englishman's Arthur. Mark Twain was a great genius and sometimes he could write better than anybody else. At other times, however, he was just awful and that is the case with A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court which I despised as an impudent, stupid novel. I didn't pay much attention to that sort of thing. I thought that Thomas Love Peacock's Misfortunes of Elphin was marvelous, however. I love Peacock, and I used to make an awful hullabaloo when I was on the English faculty of the University of Toronto because there was not a word of Peacock on the reading list. They did not consider him central to the study of English literature, as if there was a kind of big core and that was all you needed: ten novels by Henry James and nothing by Peacock!

RT: What about drama and opera?

RD: Yes, I'm very interested in this area. There have been a number of plays about Arthur, all of them bad. The most famous, I suppose, was J. Comyns Carr's King Arthur, with Henry Irving in the title role, but it was a bad melodrama that was concocted and hung upon the figure of Arthur. From what one reads about it, Irving created a character, then brought it on the stage and imposed that trumpery play upon it. That must have been intensely interesting.
   There is no true opera about the figure of King Arthur. Henry Purcell's King Arthur, which has a libretto by Dryden, is a broken-backed work, unfortunately, because the play and the music are not very closely matched. A couple of years ago I saw a production in St. Louis. It was very effective, but you couldn't pretend it was a true opera. It was, rather, a magnificent assemblage of music, with some poetry which went very nicely with it. That was why I thought it would be fun to introduce a work composed as a true opera about Arthur in The Lyre of Orpheus.

RT: It's ironic that the St. Louis company should have produced the Purcell, since you mention at the end of your novel that they are interested in doing Hoffmann's opera!

RD: I did that to tease them, yes.

RT: Yet you wrote the novel before they put on the Purcell. It looks like a case of art anticipating life, doesn't it?
RD: Indeed. Since I've always been fascinated by Arthurian legend, I thought that in The Lyre of Orpheus I would investigate what might happen when one of those simpletons who put together bad operas in the nineteenth century set to work at it. Planche was a popular composer of opera libretti, and I believe that at one time Weber was thinking of doing an opera about Arthur, though I can't be certain of it. Weber wrote the opera Oberon for which Planche did the libretto, and that's how the connection arose. I thought it would be interesting to rediscover a Planche libretto and have a little fun with it.

RT: What suggested Hoffmann as your composer of the music?

RD: Hoffmann is a figure who attracts my attention and enthusiasm, largely because so many people either know nothing about him or neglect him. They think of him as someone who wrote a few macabre stories, which indeed he did, but Hoffmann was also a fine composer. I heard a tape of one of his operas which was done by the BBC a few years ago, and it indicates that he was by no means unaccomplished; he was close to Weber in ability. Since he was also a fascinating character, I decided to incorporate him into a story.

RT: Did Hoffmann actually plan to compose an Arthurian opera?

RD: Not as far as I know. It just struck me as the kind of thing he might do. I read a good deal about Hoffmann's musical work, and nothing of that kind is ever mentioned. The Canadian composer Murray Schaeffer wrote a book about Hoffmann's music, and he makes no mention of anything of that sort. No, it was just an imaginative idea.

RT: Did you do any additional research into Arthurian legend for The Lyre of Orpheus?

RD: No. I knew that it would just weigh me down since I wouldn't be able to use it. Nor is that the way you write the libretto of an opera. You write the libretto; you don't try to write an historical play. You've got to remember that it's going to be music, music, music all the time.

RT: How conscious were you, when you were writing The Lyre of Orpheus, that you were working within Arthurian tradition?

RD: The Arthurian story spreads out in various directions throughout my novel. The principal male character is named Arthur Cornish, and his wife gets involved with his very close friend. There is even a suggestion of enchantment about how that happened. The opera is another way of looking at the story that is unfolding in the novel. Arthur is trying to bring about a sort of splendor with the money that he's been left, which is rather like King Arthur in the legend establishing the Age of Chivalry with the traditions he inherited from the Romans. So there is linkage in that way, but I didn't want to hammer it out flat because that gets awfully tedious. Let those who see it, see it; those who don't needn't bother.

RT: Were you concerned about whether or not your audience would recognize all the Arthurian references?

RD: I write novels that I hope will be interesting just as stories, but they also have implications and byways which I think would interest people who have more information. That may conceivably lead them to form conclusions about the persistence of myth in what we are pleased to call real life. I get awfully tired of people who talk about real life as though it had no relation to the life of the imagination and the life of legends and myth. They would do better to look again, though the trouble is they don't know enough in order to know where to look.

RT: Since your story of the love triangle ends happily, it is clear that you felt free to adapt traditional material to your needs. As you say in the book itself, you have recast the story in the comic mode rather than the tragic. How did you feel about doing that?

RD: I enjoyed it enormously. I particularly enjoyed writing that passage where the director of the opera feels that he has betrayed his best friend, gets drunk, climbs in his red car, speeds around the Stratford parks, and bashes into a building. I thought that was amusing to do. Moreover, the libretto of the opera maintains the tragic form. There Arthur is carried off at the end and his sword is cast back into the mere. Thus you have it both ways. That ties in with a long-held theory of mine that comedy and tragedy are not nearly so sharply divided as people think. It would take very, very little to turn many a tragedy into a comedy, and vice-versa. Comedy is a way of looking at a set of circumstances; it's not necessarily inherent in the story itself.

RT: Had your Arthur been less magnanimous, then the story could easily have had a tragic outcome, couldn't it?

RD: Yes. There is an underlying sadness in my book because in the end Arthur Cornish becomes the magnanimous cuckold alluded to in the opera. This strengthens the bond between him and his wife rather than weakens it, however. That, I think, is something which some readers miss.

RT: Did you have in mind a link here between Arthur as a magnanimous cuckold and also as a magnanimous donor to the arts and culture? Is he being cuckolded by the artistic community too?

RD: To some extent, because I've often observed how very difficult it is to give anything to the public. It's certainly very difficult to give things to a university. I had experience of that when the Massey Foundation gave Massey College to the University of Toronto. The university almost had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to accept a handsome gift. There are always conditions imposed, and they give the impression of some hidden motive. People are extremely suspicious of generosity. It's not a very pretty characteristic of humanity, but there it is.

RT: Did any of your characters take over, developing in directions that you hadn't anticipated when you started writing the novel?

RD: I wouldn't have said so, except perhaps Arthur Cornish himself, whose understanding of life is deepened and saddened by his experience. It makes him a more mature person. I hadn't particularly foreseen that.

RT: Did you plan to write a series from the outset?

RD: No. The trilogy deals with what happens to the Cornish fortune. The young man's life in What's Bred in the Bone, for example, is entirely conditioned by the very large fortune which he has, and which he has to cope with. The Lyre of Orpheus shows what the next generation intends to do with it: they want to be patrons. Then they find how uncommonly difficult that is. I never planned a series, however. It just grew from curiosity about what happens to the large fortune.

RT: Did you find any difficulty integrating the Arthurian elements into your ongoing story of what happens to this fortune?

RD: None that aren't normal in writing a novel. From the start, the Cornishes had difficulties with women. In What's Bred in the Bone, the protagonist has great difficulty with his cousin. He hopes he's resolved it but he hasn't. The Arthurian love triangle just continues this pattern.

RT: Since events in The Lyre of Orpheus are current, I suppose you can't continue the story?

RD: No, enough's enough.

RT: Did you ever write yourself into a situation you regretted later in the series?

RD: No, not really. What might have created a bit of difficulty was reconciling Maria with her gypsy mother and her uncle Yerko. But the gypsies vanish into the basement and become a nuisance down there. A character that I was pleased to create was Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot, the musicologist; she was great fun to work with.

RT: I was intrigued by your use of female characters. Despite the fact that few women have been composers, you choose two women to complete Hoffmann's opera. Why was that?

RD: There are many clever female composers coming along now, and a lot of fine musicologists are women. Also, I wanted to introduce that lesbian situation so that Schnak could develop from being under the lesbian spell of Dahl-Soot to falling crazily in love with Geraint.

RT: Did you plan all the Arthurian elements from the outset, or did some develop as opportunity arose? I'm thinking particularly of Schnak and her Elaine of Astolat scene. Was this planned from the outset?

RD: Yes. Schnak is the Lily Maid of Astolat, but she's seen through the bottom of a dirty glass. She's such a repulsive little creature, but in her there are the spirit of an artist and the romance of a girl. Somehow they make their way up through all the stuff that's in the way.

RT: Were you thinking of Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance when you made use of the Tarot?

RD: Yes, indeed. I think that's still a very good book, although people rather try and brush it aside. But then they're always trying to push aside good things from the past.
RT: Although the Arthur/Maria/Geraint triangle parallels that of Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot, the seduction recalls in some ways that of Igrayne by Uther, perhaps even the conception of Galahad by Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic. Did you have either of these episodes in mind when you wrote?

RD: This is a recurring theme that I've used in more than one book. The appearance of the demon lover marks an extraordinary development in the life of the woman. In The Lyre of Orpheus he turns out not to be Maria's supposed lover, Arthur. In What's Bred in the Bone similar circumstances surround the conception of the first Frances, for example.

RT: So what happened was that these Arthurian stories are themselves variations of the demon lover motif that you use? The similarities are coincidental?

RD: That is true, but I think that this kind of mythic pattern is bound to crop up in life.

RT: If you could rewrite the novel, would you make any changes?

RD: I never think about that. It's done and that's that.

RT: You talk in the novel about everybody having a personal myth, and you say that it can be dangerous because you can get it wrong. Did you feel that the Arthurian myth is in some ways a dangerous myth?

RD: Yes, it is a dangerous myth because it is, essentially, a tragic story of noble aspiration and defeat. And yet, is it defeat? It is a kind of Christian concept: it is victory plucked from defeat. I think that this is one of the reasons why Arthurian legend has not had more universal acceptance. It is essentially a Christian legend.

RT: What particular element of the legend did you feel was most important to include in your story?

RD: The high aspiration and chivalry. There is the chivalry of Arthur Cornish in the situation in which he finds himself. Also there is the genuine torture of the friend who finds himself to be a betrayer and who had never meant it. Lancelot also was devoted to Arthur, but he couldn't resist passion. Since I've cast the story in the comic mode, his suffering takes place in the hospital when he's trying to explain to the parson what happened. It's sad, really, but it's also in the comic vein. I did think that condensing Lancelot's madness from nine years to a few hours was good fun.

RT: Are there any final comments that you'd like to make?

RD: I greatly enjoyed writing that book because I like the complexity of one story within another. I liked working with the idea of Hoffmann in Limbo watching what happens to his rediscovered work and making comments about qualities which had been lost in modern theatrical art because of the high technology and speed. The old rather messy, but immensely creative, theatre has rather been pushed under. I've always been interested in theatre history which has been one of my great hobbies all my life.

RT: Thank you.