Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560
Ewbank, the title character, a self-made owner of a tent-erecting business. He is a hardworking, bustling Northerner, very much the boss, with a sharp tongue and a fondness for his tipple. He is affectionate with his wife and daughter (who is marrying “above” the family) but rather lost with his son. Ewbank is more at home with his sleeves rolled up among his all-male “family” of workmen, whose language he speaks. The high point of the wedding celebrations (the wedding itself takes place offstage) comes when he shares cake and a toast with the men. He treats Glendenning like a son, buying him chocolate when he cries. He provides the marquee, the erection and the dismantling of which constitute the action of the play, for his daughter’s wedding reception, which is held at his house. His separate worlds of home and work thus come into collision, bringing him to reflect briefly on the ephemeral, or “nomadic,” quality of his life as an erector of tents.
Paul, Ewbank’s university-educated son, well-intentioned and kindly but restless and overly thoughtful, with little sense of self-worth and less of direction, which gives him the appearance of an ineffectual lounger. Paul is the playwright’s surrogate in the play: a young man out of tune with his family because he has been educated out of his class. In this play, in which work is the focus of dramatic attention and the index of value, it is inevitable that he should find a brief sense of belonging by joining in the erecting of the tent. He refuses his father’s offer to hand the business over to him and decides to leave, destination unknown, at the end of the play.
Kay, Ewbank’s foreman, a taciturn, efficient former convict. Kay can be needled for a long time before he finally loses his temper, which he does with Fitzpatrick. The play as a whole focuses not on individual characters (though they are sharply individualized) but on the work and on the dynamics of the group relationships it brings about. Kay quietly orchestrates this work.
Fitzpatrick, an Irish workman. An inveterate scrounger, work-shy, and the most loudmouthed of Ewbank’s five-man gang of misfits, Fitzpatrick forms a “double act” with another Irish workman, Marshall, playing games with words in the working-class music hall tradition of nonstop patter and the “turn.” His humor is aggressive, provoking one confrontation with Bennett (rapidly defused) and another with Kay, who sacks him. Ewbank reinstates him.
Bennett, a rather colorless workman. Bennett harbors a grudge against Kay, who he thinks picks on him, and so reveals to the others the fact that Kay has done a “stretch” in prison. In act 3, when the tent is dismantled, it is revealed that his wife has left him.
Glendenning, a mentally retarded workman. Glendenning is shy and affectionate, stammers when he speaks, and is quick to come to tears. He works honestly and hard while enduring needling from his crude fellow workers.
Old Ewbank, Ewbank’s long-retired and senile father, once a ropemaker. Old Ewbank wanders on and off clutching a short and useless piece of rope, with old Mrs. Ewbank in tow, like his keeper. As a decrepit spokesman for the Northern work ethic and the value of craftsmanship, he unintentionally parodies what he preaches.
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