Saturday, May 7, 2016

Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies

In the production of every play there comes a low point of rehearsal, after which the piece climbs to whatever climax it is destined to reach.  There could be no doubt about it, the day Geordie killed the horse marked that point for The Tempest, as produced by the Salterton Little Theatre.

I brought two books with me on my Canadian trip: Anne of Green Gables, and The Fifth Business, by Thamesville, Ontario's favorite son, Robertson Davies.  Davies, like the Tragically Hip, seems to be one of those Canadian cultural icons that never quite made it across the border into the United States, so I was eager to find out what I had been missing.  But before I left, a coworker told me that her favorite Davies book was actually Tempest-Tost, about an amateur production of Shakespeare's The Tempest in a rural Ontario town, which is exactly the kind of thing I'm into, so when I found a copy of it in a used bookstore in Charlottetown, P.E.I., I figured I'd go ahead and read it instead.

Amateur theater is always marked by a measure of pretension.  Shakespeare is for all people, as Harold Bloom loves to say, but the puffed-up cultural cache surrounding him is at odds with the very idea of the amateur, and the image of small-town people taking themselves seriously as actors is ripe for satire.  In this Davies doesn't disappoint, but he also has a great sympathy for the people of Salterton--the fictitious Ontario town where Tempest-Tost, and two sequel novels, take place--who engage in petty vanities and squabbles against the backdrop of the production.

Davies reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald in his ability to create a large cast of characters with highly individuated, and interesting personalities, though perhaps he doesn't have quite her subtlety or inventiveness.  There's Professor Vambrace, whose overinflated ego makes him perfect for the role of Prospero; Nellie Forrester, the head of the Little Theatre who takes herself, and the organization, far too seriously; Geordie Shortreed, the practical-joke lover playing Caliban who accidentally kills a beloved old horse by driving him over an exposed electrical cable; Humphrey Cobbler, the eccentric but canny musician who provides music for the play; the vain and idle, but oddly perceptive, Griselda Webster, playing Ariel, with whom half the rest of the cast falls in love.  One of my favorite minor characters is a busty young woman who most people just call "The Torso."

The main character, to the extent that the novel has one, is Hector Mackilwraith, a mathematics teacher who has little in the way of culture or artistic skill, but who chases a wild impulse to act, and takes the role of Gonzalo.  Hector has credited his success as a teacher, though his sphere is small, to "planning and common sense," which he applies to every situation.  Hector's the kind of guy who makes a pro and con list before he does anything, and the "con" column for his decision to take up acting includes entries like, "Couldn't take part of lover, clown or immoral person -- plays full of these -- Shakes often vulgar."  Davies makes it clear that Hector has no feeling or understanding for The Tempest, or art in general:

He found The Tempest somewhat baffling.  He had supported the suggestion that the Little Theatre present a Shakespearean play, for he was strongly in favour of plays which were "worth while"; it was widely admitted that Shakespeare was worth while.  But in what precise union of qualities this worthwhileness lay was unknown to him.  His first encounter with The Tempest was like that of the man who bites a peach and breaks a tooth upon the stone.

In the very first scene, for instance, there was a coarse reference to the Female Functions.  He read it again and again; he consulted the notes, but they were unhelpful; in spite of a conviction held over from school days that poets were people who hid their meaning, such as it was, in word puzzles it seemed clear enough that in this case Shakespeare meant to be Smutty.  Obviously this was a play to be approached with the utmost caution.  He might even have to change his mind about acting.

Hector doesn't change his mind, but when he, like many others, falls in love with the 19-year old Griselda, he discovers that even planning and common sense are little help in seducing a woman, or even understanding the profound suffering of love.  There are certain thematic overlaps there with The Tempest, but mercifully, that's it.  Davies declines to force parallels between the plot; there is no elderly statesman with a grievance against his brother, no cloistered young Miranda who is introduced to a "brave new world, with such people in it."  Instead, Davies mines the contrast between the grand drama of the play and the small-town players for humor and pathos.  Hector isn't a wizard, or a shipwrecked sailor, but his petty griefs are stirring enough in their own way.

Anyway, I'll end this review with a great paragraph, spoken to Hector by the musician Humphrey Cobbler, which I think is good advice and doesn't fit elsewhere in this post:

Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge.  You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts.  I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps and of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt.  Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.

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