In Fifth Business, how does Davies use the term "fifth business" to develop the character of Dunstan?

Davies, author of Fifth Business, uses his definition of "fifth business" as the touchstone for the character of Dunstan Ramsay throughout the book. As narrator of the book, Dunstan is always "fifth business," and, as such, he's essential to the recognition and development of his own character, no matter if at any time in his life he's the hero, villain, or confidante.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Fifth Business Definition:

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement , were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Fifth Business Definition:

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.

—Tho. Overskou, Den Daaske Skueplads

It's important to know that this epigraph to Robertson Davies's 1970 novel, Fifth Business, is itself a fiction.

There was a Tho. [Thomas] Overskou (1798–1873)—a Danish actor, playwright and theater historian—and he did write (with Edgar Collins) a six-volume treatise entitled Den Danske Skueplads, I Dens Historie, Fra De Første Spor Af Danske Skuespil Indtil Vor Tid (The Danish Stage, From the First Traces of Danish Plays to Our Time), but no such definition of "fifth business" exists anywhere in the six volumes of the work. Davies made it up.

It's also important to know that William Robertson Davies (1913–1995) was a playwright as well as a novelist, and, early in his career, he was an actor who played bit parts and served as a stage manager at London's Old Vic theatre.

When Davies makes references to the theatre in Fifth Business, he knows what he's talking about, which is why his definition of "fifth business" has such a ring of truth to it. Davies played "fifth business" roles himself.

Davies draws attention to his faux definition of "fifth business," and to the way he presents Dunstan Ramsay throughout the book, when he has Dunstan Ramsay write about Mr. Dempster, the parson, after Mr. Dempster's wife, Mary, undergoes a particularly difficult childbirth.

He [Mr. Dempster] was one of those people who seem fated to be hurt and thrown aside in life, but doubtless as he knelt by Mary’s bed he thought himself as important an actor in the drama as any of the others. This is one of the cruelties of the theatre of life; we all think of ourselves as stars and rarely recognize it when we are indeed mere supporting characters or even supernumeraries.

Dunstan Ramsay can be seen to portray a range of roles throughout the novel—Hero, Villain, Confidante, and "Fifth Business" (never heroine, however)—and he serves not only as the "fifth business," facilitating his own character development, but also as the director and stage manager of the theatrical presentation of his own life, which is the central narrative of the book.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Since you understand what "fifth business" is, think of how it applies to Dunstan.  In what ways was he "someone who is neither a hero nor a villain", and how is he on the "sidelines" of life?

There is more than one way to think about Dunstan as "fifth business", I believe, but let's try this one.  If the other "four" actors in the plot are Boy Staunton, Leola Cruikshank, Leisl, and Paul Dempster (Eisengrim), how is he neither a hero nor villain to them?  How is he on the sidelines, neither an actor as the sweetheart, hero, villain, or confidante character (as those roles are filled by the other four)?  I don't believe that these four characters fit pat into these roles, but it could be argued that Boy is the hero (although in the drama of Paul's mother, Boy is the villain), Leola is the sweetheart, Paul Dempster (as Eisengrim, much later) is the villain, and Leisl is the confidante (of the villain this time, not the sweetheart).    To this quad of characters, it can be argued that Dunstan is very much the "fifth", in that he is present and necessary for much of the story of these actors, but he is not really an actor for himself in any of their stories.

As far as the development of Dunstan, I think that it could be argued that he develops after his encounter with Leisl in Mexico, when she tells him to stop being the "fifth business" character in the over-the-top opera plots of other people's lives.  This is while Dunstan is in his fifties, living his strange celibate scholar/teacher lifestyle.  After this conversation, which happens after his first sexual encounter with Leisl, Dunstan seems to live his life somewhat differently.  Especially, he seems to allow himself more latitude to do what he pleases, especially when he retires and goes and lives in Switzerland with Leisl and Eisengrim.  He seems to have fewer worries about "paying" for his saved life by self-denial and writing hagiography.

I also think that it could be argued that this identification with "fifth" business has a direct bearing on what Dunstan does in later books.  It's hard to show the full arc of development without including the other two books of the trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders, but you could show that Dunstan becomes more reconciled with life after he finally has a name for what he has lived most of his life as.

There are other interpretations of the "fifth business" arrangement -- the ones including himself as the hero, Boy as the villain, Mary Dempster as the sweetheart, and the young Paul Dempster as the confidante (when Dunstan takes pity on the boy and teaches him conjuring tricks.)  This can be flipped, and Dunstan can even be cast as the villain, for it is he who is the target for the snowball with the rock in it thrown by Boy, which hits Mary Dempster and causes Paul's premature birth and his mother's madness.  Also, Dunstan teaches Paul the tricks which get him into the World of Wonders, and leads him into a life of virtual slavery and sexual exploitation, and separates mother from son forever.  The operatic roles only fit under certain circumstances, and from certain points of view.  Dunstan can be seen as both the "fifth" and, at various times, one of the main actors in his own story, and in others'.  That is part of the point of the book -- that at any one time we can be any one of the four roles or, as is most often, the "inevitable fifth".

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team