08w07:3 Roberston Davies on Canadian Culture in 1949

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Robertson Davies’s Fortune my Foe | Phiip Massolin
From Canadian Intellectuals, the Tory Tradition and the Challenge of Modernity, 1939-1970 (2001; Amazon.ca) by Philip Massolin. This excerpt from Chapter 5: ‘Battling the Philistines: The Quest for Culture in Post-War Canada’.

Penned in 1949, Fortune, My Foe was [Robertson] Davies’s most sophisticated treatment to date of the ongoing theme of cultural poverty. The play displayed an ‘overt Canadianism’ in that its characters included new immigrants, long term residents, and native Canadians, all of whom are embroiled in a discussion of the merits of Canadian society. Cultural destitution and artistic deprivation, again, are themes of Fortune, My Foe. The play is set in a university town in the modern, urban Canada. If culture could flourish in any area of the dominion, then surely it would prosper in an urbane setting, presided over by numerous intellectuals. That it does not demonstrates, for Davies, the pervasive indifference of Canadians everywhere to cultural activity.

There are two plots in this full-length piece. The main storyline is set in Chilly Jim Steele’s establishment. The key interplay is between Nicholas Hayward and Idris Rowlands. Hayward is a young and promising English professor, who is contemplating a move to the United States, where his talents would be better appreciated and rewarded. Rowlands is a middle-aged professor from Wales, whose failure to foster in his students the same love he feels for the arts has made him cynical and bitter about Canada. The play centres around Nicholas’s decision to abandon Canada and take a job in the United States. Rowlands chastises his young colleague for thinking about leaving a nation in grave need of scholars and cultural leaders so as to make more money and achieve greater acclaim. While Canada’s ‘raw, frost-bitten people have numbed [his] heart’ and therefore left him a cynical and bitter man, Rowlands nonetheless attempts to persuade Nicholas not to quit his country in search of greater recognition and better remuneration. Canada, Rowlands argues, desperately needs its scholars and artists even if it does not appreciate them. Without such intellectuals to teach other Canadians the value of art and scholarship, there would be no hope for a better Canada. Ultimately, Rowlands hopes to convince Nicholas to make the same sacrifice he made for the greater good of expanding the country’s spiritual and cultural outlooks. While the central conflict in the play is Nicholas’s internal struggle to decide what course of action to take, Rowlands nevertheless is important as a kind of alter ego through whom Davies expresses the plight of the intellectual and Canadian cultural activity more generally.

The secondary plot revolves around Franz Szabo and his story. Szabo, a recent immigrant from Prague, is a puppeteer, who has recently fallen on hard times. Instead of prospering in his chosen field, he works at Chilly Jim’s as a dishwasher. Szabo’s storyline is much like that of the main plot. Common to both characters is the problem of finding in Canada an environment that will nurture artistic effort. Indeed, Szabo’s wonderful marionettes are as unappreciated by the unschooled masses as in Nicholas’s literature. Davies demonstrates the antipathy to Szabo’s art in a scene in which Szabo presents a part of a puppet show to Mattie Philpott and Orville Tapscott. Philpott and Tapscott are a locally influential duo who could gain funds for Szabo’s productions if they were favorably impressed, but they are semi-educated and raise numerous infuriatingly mundane objections to the show. Rowlands, who is also present at the performance, can no longer bear Philpott’s and Tapscott’s insensitivity to Szabo’s art. In a climactic moment, Rowlands, in a drunken rage, destroys the puppet show and drives the pair of ‘donkeys’ out of ‘the temple of art’. While Rowlands, greatly embittered by the incident, warns Szabo that ‘Canada will freeze your heart with folly and ignorance,’ Szabo is less pessimistic than the old professor. Szabo argues that he is an artist and that artists ‘are very tough.’ ‘Canada is my country now,’ he declares, ‘and I am not afraid of it.’ Although there may be ‘bad times’ and ‘misunderstandings,’ he resolves to be ‘tough’ and ‘hopeful too’.

The scene provides considerable insight into Davies’s view of the cultural prospects of Canada. First, it reflects the low regard in which the Canadian middle class, represented by Philpott and Tapscott, held highbrow culture. It also shows the growing impatience and frustrations of the intellectual with the universal masses. Ultimately, however, Davies’s message is one of toleration and restraint. Through Szabo, he reaffirms his most important theme, brought out by Rowlands earlier in the play: Canadian scholars and artists must be committed to their country in spite of the inhospitality its citizens have shown them. Canada, Davies suggests, continues to be a land of cultural philistinism. Yet in Fortune, My Foe, he acknowledges an increasing need to counter philistinism with a determined attempt to foster cultural growth. Through Szabo, Davies teaches that Canadians should be resolved to thwart the Baileys, Ethels, Philpotts, and Tapscotts of the world and instead continue the struggle for spiritual fulfillment. He sums up this sentiment in a final soliloquy by Nicholas, who is heartened by Szabo’s resolve to endure cultural philistinism and help to nurture Canadians’ artistic sensibilities. ‘Everybody says that Canada is a hard country to govern,’ Nicholas pronounces, ‘but nobody mentions that for some people it is also a hard country to live in. Still, if we all run away it will never be any better. So let the geniuses of easy virtue go southward; I know what they feel too well to blame them. But for some of us, there is no choice; let Canada do what she will with us, we must stay.’

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