It is often only after the death of a great author that the scope of his unpublished writings is appreciated. In the case of Robertson Davies, two new collections underscore his remarkable literary and artistic range. The Merry Heart illustrates Davies's fascination with the writing and reading of literature, while Happy Alchemy brings to light his diverse musings on theater, opera, and music. Included in Happy Alchemy are speeches, diary entries, critical essays, interviews, and dramatic scenes. The collection's title is a reference to a couplet by English poet Matthew Green and is best explained by Davies himself in the book's opening essay on theater. "What alchemy really means is something which has attained to such excellence, such nearness to perfection, that it offers a glory, an expansion of life andunderstanding, to those who have been brought into contact with it." The pieces in this collection are about that pursuit of artistic excellence not only in the theater and the opera house, but in the imagination of the dramatist and the workshop of the librettist. In 33 chapters, the writing included here covers a lot of ground. Whether discussing the virtues of a playwright, the strength of a particular production, or the skill of an actor, Davies writes with energy and enthusiasm.
As a commentator on the performing arts, Davies concerns himself with the creative process as well as the finished product. His love of opera is demonstrated in his thoughtful analysis of Hamlet. In one of the finer sections of Happy Alchemy, he explains why operatic composers repeatedly fail to render it successfully. "It is too complex; its mingling of political and dynastic arguments with the spiritual agonies of the deeply introverted, philosophical hero cannot be accommodated to the chief necessity of an opera libretto, which is simplicity."In informal, light prose, the critical writing included here is generally appreciative and inquisitory, rarely caustic. In his theater notebook, excerpted here, Davies writes, "I sincerely believe that I have been a good playgoer, and that is something better, perhaps, than having been a well-known critic. Critics often do not like the theater; I have never liked anything better." Reviewed by Jeremy Caplan.