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The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Page 29

Robertson Davies


  THE LADY ON MY LEFT was telling me a few minutes ago two “cures” which were highly esteemed in the time of her grandmother (who was born in 1800). The first was a cure for “gathered face” (what we now call an abscessed tooth) and it consisted of digging up the skull of a dead horse and carrying it under the arm for a few days, or until the gathered face ungathered itself. The second was a sure cure for goitre, which was brought about by stroking the goitre six times with the hand of a dead Negro. In spite of occasional evidence to the contrary it seems to me that medicine has advanced a good deal in Ontario during the past 150 years. Hand a horse’s skull to a modern doctor, and he probably wouldn’t recognize it as a valuable medicament at all; very likely he would make an ash-tray out of it…. You wish I wouldn’t speak of such things? Very well, eat your sautéed brains in silence, madam.


  I WENT TO SEE John Gielgud’s production of Love For Love last evening, and was carried away by the brilliance and artistic completeness with which it was presented. The drama, in its finest flights, gives me a satisfaction, an elation and a recreation which makes the pleasures of the greatest music seem thin and chilly in comparison. Music is an intellectual extract of life; drama is life itself, raised to the highest pitch. I reflected also that great acting (and there were some rare examples of it in this play) makes heavy physical demands on the actor. To move with grace and vigour, to speak complex prose so as to be heard and understood everywhere in a large theatre, and to look exactly right at every moment of a long part requires no mean athletic equipment and physical stamina.9 How hard these actors worked, and yet how easy and inevitable seemed everything that they did! How strong an actor has to be, in every muscle, in order to be graceful without seeming affected! It is in this physical aspect of acting, as well as in imaginative grasp that our amateurs are disappointing…. It is not often that we see a play perfectly done in Canada, but when we do we chew the cud on it for months and sometimes for years.


  HOW OFTEN and how bitterly I regret the fact that my work makes me read so many books. Reading is one of my great delights, but I like to read books by men of letters; I loathe reading books by soldiers, sailors, airmen, engineers, explorers, politicians, economists and other imperfectly literate persons who write like amateurs. The world was better off when there was a recognized clerkly caste, by whom all reading and writing was done.


  I READ AN UNUSUALLY good novel this afternoon, called Herself Surprised, by Joyce Cary; I was particularly struck by the skill with which the principal character was given life; I shall remember her for years. When I laid the book down I reflected for a time on the rarity of such novels; how few of the books which are pushed at us by modern authors contain any really interesting or memorable people. Yet there are books, not of the first quality, which give us such experiences. Consider Lorna Doone, the darling of our grandfathers; how real Lorna seems, and how potent her charm is, compared with the heroines of most modern novels, about whom we are told so much more! We do not know how Lorna looked in bed, or the state of her digestion, or what parts of her tingled when John Ridd kissed her, but we love her still. Magic, not psychology, is the stuff of which great stories are made.


  I RARELY play cards, but I was taken to the cleaners this evening by a couple of young women in a spirited game of “Authors.” I reflected as I played upon the appearance of authors, as a class. They are a mangy lot. Shakespeare appears to have been a dapper fellow, but look at James Fenimore Cooper, who kept turning up again and again in the hands I was dealt. And look at Ralph Connor and Sir Gilbert Parker, the two Canadians included in the game. Scarecrows, all of them. Authors should be read, but not seen. Their work unfits them for human society.


  BEFORE DINNER that gentleman over there with the cubical head was expressing disappointment that so little attention was paid to the centenary of the birth of August Strindberg, the Swedish dramatist, which occurred on January 22. I have the centenary habit rather badly, but this one escaped my attention. The fact is, I have never been able to admire Strindberg since I made the acquaintance some years ago of a Swedish girl whose grandfather had been his near neighbour. She said that the neighbourhood was made intolerable by the noise of his quarrels with his three wives, and that his hatred of Ibsen bordered on the demoniacal. He invariably referred to Ibsen as “Gammal Snorlje,” meaning “Old Grouchy,” whereas Ibsen spoke of Strindberg, even in his public speeches, as “Gammal Nutsje,” meaning “Old Nutsy,” which was a sly reference to Strindberg’s frequent spells of violent insanity. Coldness between dramatists is not unknown, even in our day, but it seems to me that the affair between Strindberg and Ibsen had got out of hand, and as the younger man, it was Strindberg’s job to patch it up. The girl also told me that Strindberg’s genius defied translation, and I can well believe this.

  1 Princess Elizabeth (b.1926 and christened Elizabeth Alexandra Mary) is now H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. Barbara Ann Scott (b. 1928) was in the public eye when this was written, as a champion skater who brought much renown to Canada, and also famous as the only girl known to have been kissed in public by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.

  2 Czerny (1791–1857) came by his piano-bashing habits in the greatest style, for he was a pupil of Beethoven and his most celebrated pupil was Franz Liszt, of whom it was written—

  The Abbé Liszt

  Hit the piano with his fist;

  That is the way

  He used to play.

  Music is identified by its composers in large hunks, called opuses. Many composers are content with a few hundred of these things, but Czerny wrote a full thousand of them.

  3 This is unfair, but Marchbanks was often unfair. The film, starring George Sanders (1906–72) a notable player of cads, had as its most erotic moment a scene in which a woman, tormented by unrequited love, knelt at the feet of Bel Ami, and embraced his knees; he maliciously wound a tendril of her hair around one of the buttons of his coat, so that when she rose she was caught, hurt and humiliated; truly an erotic moment, if a nasty one, for the discerning. Canadian men seeking to reproduce any such effects as these must first of all reduce a woman to a beseeching posture, a virtually impossible feat in these liberated days. And of course they must wear coats, not windbreakers; there is nothing erotically stirring about hair caught in a zipper.

  4 Written at a time when standing for the National Anthem was a custom with mythic sinew. Nowadays Marchbanks comments that at the movies, when the new national anthem is played—O, Canada!—many people remain seated. He does not despise them, though he always rises himself. They may be protesting against the Income Tax. Anyhow it is easier to revere a living monarch than a land-mass of 3,845,774 square miles with less than twenty-five million people on it, while listening to a tune which, to a sensitive ear, is commonplace when it is not downright plagiaristic.

  5 Marchbanks has lived to see the Motherland brought low; remembering the glories of Empire he is sad, but as a Celt he is not surprised. It is not that the pound has become an object of derision; it is not that the French regard the whole Common Market scheme as their revenge for Waterloo. It is that the English have taken to making movies and TV shows in which they depict their stupidity and snobbery in India. When the English admit that they have ever been wrong, Marchbanks, Welshman and Scot that he is, knows that Chaos Has Come Again.

  6 Times have changed. Toronto is now the soignée enchantress of Canadian cities, wearing her necklace of murders and crimes of violence with an air of international chic. Montreal still holds her head high, but has bags under her eyes and wears mended stockings.

  7 Astonishment! Who would ever have supposed that Marchbanks, the Recluse of Skunk’s Misery, had ever appeared upon the boards! But there he was, on
the stage which had once known Edmund Kean, not to speak of Gielgud, Olivier and Richardson, appearing before royalty! Queen Mary (Princess Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes of Teck, 1867-1953) was a keen playgoer and frequently brought her grandchildren to the Old Vic at the time when Marchbanks was falling from great heights, turning somersaults, and throwing and receiving custard pies in the lively versions of Shakespeare devised by the late Tyrone Guthrie (1900-70).

  8 It may be thought that Sir Laurence’s career took a backward step in 1970, when he was raised to a baronetcy; to be a knight may be a guarantee of respectability, but lords have always been a dubious lot, just as were all actors before 1895 when Henry Irving was knighted and made them respectable. Who ever says “Drunk as a knight”?

  9 This was in the days when actors thought it part of their job to be audible and comprehensible. Many modern mummers, working on the principle that much conversation is inaudible, have altered stage speech to a point where only some of a play is heard, and varying amounts of the remainder are overheard.

  The Remove


  I SEE THAT Professor Kinsey has published the first volume of his study of sexual behaviour in the human male.1 This emboldens me to publish a study of a somewhat similar subject on which I have long been engaged, to wit: how many men wear only the tops or bottoms of their pyjamas? Of course, speaking to you on a social occasion like this I cannot be completely frank; children, or young girls tottering upon the threshold of womanhood might accidentally overhear me and be brutally awakened to an aspect of life hitherto undreamed of by them. Therefore I shall only say that my investigations reveal that 47.3 per cent of adult males wear only the t-ps of their p-j-m-s, and 32.9 per cent (usually thin, muscular men) wear only the b-tt-ms thereof. And in summer 83 per cent of adult males (excluding only university professors, clergymen, chartered accountants and people who habitually sleep in their underwear) wear no p-j-m-s at all; they describe this custom by a revolting expression, to wit, “Sl–ping r-w.” I hesitate to tell you this, but science knows no bounds, and the spotlessness of my own private life is well attested.

  The lady on my left, to whom I whispered my comment on the Kinsey Report, and on my own researches regarding the wearing of the t-ps and b-tt-ms of p-j-m-s replied to me thus: “A curious use of the p-j-m- is illustrated by a married couple of my acquaintance; Mrs. A. wears the p-j-m- t-p and Mr. A. wears the b-tt-m and thus they make one pair do. Do you think that this sort of thing is widely prevalent in Ontario?” Frankly, my investigations lead me to believe that anything can happen behind the pressed brick, lace curtains, and phoney leaded glass of an Ontario home.


  EVERY NOW AND THEN I am seized with the notion that my life would be transformed if I had a new hobby, and I passed an hour this morning considering the possible consequences of my learning to play the guitar. Nobody plays it much nowadays except the radio cowboys, and they use it only to accompany themselves while they sing miserable songs about their mothers’ graves or their own imminent (but too long deferred) deaths. The guitar has slipped sadly in the social scale. During the nineteenth century it was a favourite instrument of the nobility and gentry, and no picnic was complete without at least one girl who could play the thing. Of course, that was the Spanish guitar, an instrument of some artistic respectability. The present guitar is likely to be the Hawaiian model. The Spanish plunks, the Hawaiian yowls. Tunes can be played on the Spanish guitar if you have long, strong fingers and immense concentration; the Hawaiian guitar will yield nothing but shuddering wails. The mandolin (which did not so much plunk as plink) has also fallen into disrepute, though Mozart and Schubert thought well of it.


  I WENT TO THE movies last night and saw a short about wild life which made me angry, for it made fools of a lot of handsome wild creatures. A moose appeared, whom the commentator felt impelled to call “Elmer the Moose”; the moose’s mate was called “his mooing momma.” A fawn was referred to throughout this tiresome piece as “Junior,” and when the fawn was being suckled by its dam there was a lot of facetiousness about cafeterias. A fine owl was seen blinking in the sun, and the commentator shouted wittily: “Hey, I gotta get my sleep!” The whole thing was on the lowest level of taste and vulgarity, and the commentator had a voice which would have seemed needlessly uncultivated in a baseball umpire. God knows I have little interest in animals, but I do not like to see them insulted. I used to feel the same thing in the days when I was a frequent visitor at the London Zoo; in the lion house there were always ninnies who mocked the captive lions. I often wished that the bars would turn to butter, and that the great, noble beasts would practise their particular form of wit upon the little, ignoble men.


  I TALKED THIS AFTERNOON to a university professor who told me that he recently had the job of overseeing a large group of students who were writing an examination in psychology; at least half of these young sophisticates, he said, had lucky pennies, or rabbits’ feet, or ju-ju dolls, or other good luck charms on their desks as they wrote. This strengthens my belief that education does not really alter character, but merely intensifies it, making foolish people more foolish, superstitious people more superstitious, and of course wise people wiser. But the wise are few and lonely.


  IT IS A CURIOUS fact that some people can create a great deal more stench, fog, dirt and annoyance with a single cigarette than most people can make with a bonfire. The common cigarette smoker is not much of a nuisance; he keeps most of his smoke to himself, and what he spreads about is not too offensive. But there are fellows who blow out cubic feet of rank gas after a single inhalation, infecting the air around them for several yards. They also cough, rackingly and nauseatingly, until you wonder if they are getting ready to throw up. They blow ashes over everything, and when they have done with a cigarette they allow the butt to smoulder. What is more, their smoke has not the ordinary smoky smell; it is sour and bitter, and their clothes smell like ash-heaps. I had to do some work today in a room with one of these people, and for a time I watched him fascinated: he sucked in a third of his fag at one gasp, gulped, looked sick, and then blew out a great greenish cloud; when this had dispersed he was racked with coughing; then the whole dirty, noisy business was repeated. What could such a man not do with a big pipe? He would be a secret weapon in himself.


  I MET A MAN TODAY who exhibited such unusual social grace and savoir faire that I was immediately curious about him; I learned that he was the chief Inspector of Income Tax for a large district. This explained everything. Such a man would be forced to develop a winning manner in order to overcome the social handicap imposed by his position. In the same way an habitual strangler of children, or a man who was known to have his pockets full of rattlesnakes, would have to develop remarkable ease and brilliance if he hoped to have any social life whatever. In his office, too, he would constantly have to meet trying situations, such as enraged taxpayers armed with fire-axes, hysterical taxpayers who wanted to tear off their clothes in the Doukhobor manner, or ice-cold taxpayers with soft voices and a mad light in the eyes, who obviously had revolvers in their overcoat pockets. To charm and soothe such visitors, while at the same time dipping deep into their jeans, would demand an unusually polished address.

  • OF SONG •

  I MET A FELLOW TODAY who is very fussy about the spoken word, and he was groaning that the radio provides little for persons of his kidney, although it serves those of musical taste very well. He was particularly critical of the people who speak on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, and became quite wild because Milton Cross2 pronounces “Mignon” as though it were “minion” and pronounces “Wilhelm” with an English instead of a German “W.” He moaned also about the poor speech of the Opera singers who speak in the int
ervals, and who call a tune a “toon” and in other ways assault the sensitive ear. As a matter of fact I myself have often marvelled at the ability of many singers to divorce speech from song, though it seems plain enough that song is a kind of glorified speech. But then, my views on singing are unusual and unpopular, for I am always amazed by people who announce that they cannot sing at all; it seems to me that anybody who can speak can sing, though he may not sing very well. There are even children who say that they cannot sing, though for a child it should be as easy to sing as to spit. How did this cleavage between speech and song arise, I wonder? … You are going to sing after dinner? And what sort of singer are you, madam? A real singer, or a musical gargler?


  I WATCHED A LARGE GROUP of children skating this afternoon, and was impressed once again by the shameless boastfulness of the young. One little girl kept falling down on her behind, and each time she did so she would shout, “I did that on purpose!” to the spectators; I reflected that if her thinking becomes fixed in this channel the only career open to her will be politics, for her technique is precisely that of some of our most eminent statesmen, who never execute a pratfall without declaring that they had some subtle design in doing so.


  SOME OF THE MEN here were discussing the late Victor Emmanuel of Italy before dinner, and they all agreed that he was a weakling and a peewee, and should have “stood up” to Mussolini and told him “where he got off.” I would not dream of contradicting these experts, deeply versed in statecraft and familiar with court procedure, but I wondered what would happen to H.M. George VI if he were to say: “No, I refuse to appoint Sir Stafford Cripps3 as one of my ministers; he has repeatedly advocated the abolition of the Throne upon which I sit, and I detect seeds of tyranny and oppressiveness in him which I refuse to encourage.” The King would, I am sure, be invited to abdicate, just as his brother was when he revealed a mind of his own. Not kings, but politicians, are the rulers in our day, and no king dares thwart a politician. Indeed, I can imagine no worse fate today than to be a king, and also a man of independent, humane and agile intellect. When he encouraged Mussolini poor Victor Emmanuel was encouraging The People’s Choice, and the voice of the people, as we all know, is the voice of God. The Aristocratic Principle is a puny babe; the Demagogic Principle rages unchecked.