Thursday, 28 October 2004

Robertson Davies: Tempest-Tost (1951)

Edition: Penguin, 1980 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1270

In some ways, the staging of an amateur theatrical event must seem to be an ideal focus for a satirist. The inflated egos, naked ambition displayed over so small an achievement is an obvious tool to dissect the vanities of the world. Its very obviousness is the problem: how do you use this subject without coming across as trite? Here, then, we see that to choose this as the background for his debut novel Robertson Davies was actually showing a high level of self-confidence. (This was perhaps to be expected in a writer who was already an experienced journalist and playwright.)

So what does Davies do to make Tempest-Tost an interesting variation on the amateur dramatics as satire theme? It's sharper than most, for a start - full of acid yet subtle jokes at the small mindedness of the Canadian provincial. (It would be just about possible to read Robertson Davies without realising that it is meant to be funny.) The majority of the jokes are character based; each member of the cast is exposed in some shortcoming, which usually arises because they are not as good at something as they think they are; in the Aristotelian manner, their downfall comes from hubris and yet this is not made tragic. (This is something which changes somewhat in Davies' later novels. In A Mixture of Frailties, the third novel of the Salterton trilogy of which this is the first, Solly Bridgetower, whose problem is his devotion to a demanding, suffocating and ungrateful mother, has his life made miserable after her death by the malicious provisions of her will.) Bringing in the director of the production - The Tempest, by the way, hence the title (even if it is quoted from Macbeth), from outside also makes this different. Valentine Rich is a native Saltertonian, who has gone to New York and become a success there as a theatre director. She returns as a favour to an old schoolfriend, and causes a great deal of tension because of her outlook, her refusal to admit that things cannot be arranged in Salterton's amateur theatre as they could be in professional New York productions. She has no truck with the idea that some people must be asked to do things for political reasons rather than because of their suitability. The clash between her values and the cosy traditional ideas of the amateur group enhance the satire enormously.

The third way that Davies moves Tempest-Tost out of the common is by the power of his characterisation. Though the various Saltertonians in the novel initially seem to be rather clich├ęd stereotypes - the popular, pretty young girl, the stuffy schoolmaster, the pedantic university lecturer, the tomboy, the taciturn gardener, and so on - they are almost all gradually revealed to be more complex than that with complicated interactions. Then there is the time and place - the sexual hangups of the mid twentieth century play a big part (especially the innocence of young men and women compared to their successors only a few years later), as do the special insecurities of a backwater town in Ontario (fiction Salterton's greatest claim to fame is that it was at one point considered as a possible capital for the Dominion of Canada). Like the inhabitants of Sinclair Lewis' even more bitter Main Street, the small mindedness of Salterton's inhabitants is quite amazing, and is (paradoxically) greatest amongst those who consider themselves the town's sophisticated elite.

Tempest-Tost is a wonderfully witty satire, full of barbed humour and, more than that, it is a novel full of memorable characters.

No comments: