Hector Mackilwraith, logical and driven in his career as a teacher of mathematics, has served the Salterton Little Theatre well as treasurer for six years. On the eve of promotion to the Department of Education, however, his usual rational behaviour goes askew as he decides the theatre owes him a part in its latest play, a pastoral production of The Tempest. The usual politics of community theatre are amplified and complicated by the first stirrings of love within Hector, though the rest of the cast and crew have more than enough problems, even without Hector's foolishness.
The blurb for Tempest-Tost is all about Mr Mackilwraith, but truth be told he's not much of a central character. I don't mean there's anything lacking in him; indeed, he's a fascinating man, led by his family history to a life devoid of passion or feeling but steeped in ambition and drive. But it's misleading to say that Tempest-Tost is about him any more than it is about many of the very colourful characters who are drawn into the Salterton Little Theatre.
Now, I'm an actor and comedian, and though I generally get paid the world of community theatre is no mystery to me. Davies captures the extreme end of that world perfectly: the politics, the characters, the process are all a little larger than life, it's true, but not so far that they're not instantly recognisable. It's telling that I enjoyed it so much, too, because I'm not generally a fan of fiction about my own industry, but here the production of The Tempest - of whose performance we see very little, and whose rehearsals almost less - is really just a backdrop. The focus is on the people, but the theatre is vital in providing a very specific kind of social and political framework, and also in supplying such a cast of disparate characters.
Aside from Hector, the protagonists are uniformly wonderful, and better, they all come with families of yet more wonderful characters, drawn with care and wit and depth. The entire committee of the Salterton Little Theatre is populated with older, set-in-their-ways stage-struck types, some of whom still command a spot in the cast, and others who dream of glory through other means, but all instantly recognisable to anyone who has spent any time in a small community organisation. The cast and crew are no less interesting. There's Hector's love interest - not that she's aware of it for most of the novel - Griselda Webster, a local rich girl who scores a major part in the play since her father's estate will be the performance venue, and whose younger sister Freddy secretly brews champagne from apples in the groundskeeper's shed. The director is Valentine Rich, a professional director and prodigal daughter of Salterton, back in town to take care of her deceased grandfather's estate. Both of these women are pursued with equal lack of success by Solly Bridgetower, a sarcastic, cynical young man enslaved to his domineering mother despite attending school in Cambridge...and on and on. If this were made into a film or play it would require quite the ensemble cast.
(For the record, my personal favourite is definitely Humphrey Cobbler, the local organist recruited to perform the music for the play. He doesn't play a big part, but he spouts wisdom and joy in equal measure in a voice that sounded in my head like a cross between Brian Blessed and Ian McKellan. Imagine that with dialogue such as "I am full of holy joy and free booze", "It is very wrong to resist an impulse to sing; to hold back a natural evacuation of joy is as injurious as to hold back any other natural issue," or "Now there is nothing I enjoy more than talking about music in terms of painting." It doesn't hurt that his whole family are musical and joyous, and thus remind me of my beloved and her clan.)
It would be remiss of me to talk about the characters of the book without mentioning Salterton itself. Tempest-Tost is the first of the "Salterton Trilogy", all set in the town, and it is an invention of Davies; you'd be forgiven for thinking it real, however, since it's drawn with such detail and love. My experience of Canada is sadly limited to the very touristy Niagara Falls, Ontario, but Salterton paints such a vivid picture of life in Canada that I feel as though I have been there.
There are few books I have enjoyed so much as Tempest-Tost; the characters, the wit, the pace are all so finely wrought as to make this a near perfect comic novel. Every scene, from the casting of the play to the "donation" of Valentine's grandfather's books to local clergy to any of the very normal yet politically and socially charged lunches dinners and parties are all equally well drawn. This is all the more extraordinary when you realise that Tempest-Tost was Davies' first novel! If I have any misgivings, it is only that the otherwise timelessness of the story and characters are ruined by the few reminders that the book was written in 1951; the phrase "working like a black" appears in the prose, though I suspect - or hope - it was just a common expression at the time, and his depiction of women, while mostly surprisingly progressive, still sometimes typical of the 1950s.
I'll be reading more Robertson Davies. You can count on it.
Page count: 284
Book's title mentioned on page: 2 (it's a quotation from Macbeth, not part of the novel itself)
Best name encountered: They're all good, though special mentions go to Professor Vambrace - it just has a great ring to it - Griselda and Freddy (Freddy's nickname for Griselda is "Gristle"), and Valentine's dead grandfather: Dr. Adam Savage!
New words: I don't think there were any, but the words I already knew were used in such marvellous ways...
Inner Five-year-old score: 3 (I'd've loved the humour and the theatre stuff, though much of the social and sexual politics would have escaped me)
Fun Wikipedia fact: Davies lifelong companion was Australian stage manager Brenda Matthews, whom he met in London while working as an actor. They were married from 1940 to his death in 1995.