1952’s Tempest-Tost is the first volume in Robertson Davies’ Salterton Trilogy.
Talented actress Valentine Rich returns home to Salterton, Ontario, there to deal with her late grandfather’s estate. While in Salterton, she is offered an amateur theatre role for which she is seemingly well suited. But experience as a successful actress in far off America may not help her deal with Canadian amateur theatre.
Salterton, Ontario is a respectable city that offers a variety of civilized amenities: a university, two cathedrals (Anglican for the respectable Saltertonians, Catholic for the rest), and a prison. Salterton Little Theatre draws its membership from Salterton’s diverse (by mid-century Canadian standards) population. As one would expect, the leadership is drawn from Salterton’s cultural elite, with more humble roles available to the city’s less exalted citizens. In this way, it reflects the Ontario culture of the time.
This year’s production is Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a safe classic. (The troupe thinks it better to avoid dubious modern works.) They have grand plans: they have secured Rich’s services as director and will stage the production outdoors, on the upper lawn at the Webster mansion.
And so the problems begin.
The ambitious plan alarms the mansion’s gardener, Tom Gwalchmai; it will ruin his lawn. Likewise, young Fredegonde “Freddy” Webster is concerned that the cast and crew might stumble over her home brewing experiments. But they have no power to stop things, so must wait and hope for the best. Complications ensue.
As usual, the group’s cast and crew are a mixture of the confident and the unconfident, the talented and the somewhat less talented. It would be nice if the confident and the talented overlapped 100 percent but alas, they do not. Rich is challenged to slot members into appropriate roles while avoiding bruised feelings.
Theatre breeds romance. This time it breeds an awkward romantic competition. Freddy’s older sister Griselda is being pursued by three men:
- Solomon “Solly” Bridgetower, a pleasant fellow who is under the thumb of his domineering mother;
- Roger Tasset, a charming womanizer of dubious reliability;
- prim mathematics teacher Hector Mackilwraith, who until meeting Griselda had dismissed romance as irrelevant.
How will the romantic situation resolve itself? More importantly, how will the resolution affect Miss Rich’s play?
This review is not quite a reader request. A review of a later book in the Salterton series has been commissioned. I could review just that book, but it seems wrong not to begin at the beginning.
Many of Davies’ novels and collections have overtly fantastic elements. At first glance, Tempest-Tost is an exception. However, towards the end of the novel, during a discussion of an actor’s poor decision, a detail is revealed that should surely classify the novel as a fantasy:
[…] there are eight hundred and thirty-two people out there, of whom seven hundred and ninety have paid admission, […]
Even if we grant that mid-century Ontario offered much less in the way of entertainment than it does today, it seems utterly implausible that so many people would turn out for a little theatre production of Shakespeare. Could director Rich have used dark arts to fill so many seats?
This book would have been a great entry for my series of My Tears are Delicious for You reviews, which cover books I read as an impressionable teen … if only my high school CanLit courses had covered this Davies. But while we studied a variety of melancholy Canadian classics, Tempest-Tostwas not featured. In fact, no Davies books were. I had to discover him on my own in the 1980s.
Why no Davies?
A) Tempest-Tost is set in Ontario — Salterton is pretty clearly Kingston. For some reason none of the CanLit we were offered was set in Ontario. It was always set in one of the outlying provinces or territories.
B) There are occasional references to sex1.
C) However, I suspect that the actual reason this was passed over is that the novel is extremely funny. How can a book be respectable literature and funny at the same time? Perhaps because levity is inherently suspicious, one publisher gave their edition this respectably grim cover.
Davies is clearly quite familiar with the foibles of the class-obsessed Canadian provincial society of almost a century ago . It is also clear that he has experienced Canadian little theatre at first hand. Readers who have survived Canadian am drams will certainly remember people just like the characters in the book. As it was, so it is now: certain aspects of Canadian society may have evolved but the essential nature of little theatre is unchanged. Dabble in such matters at your own risk.
Readers who have known amateur theatre only from mysteries (amateur theatre mysteries could form their own sub-genre) may fear that this book will be boringly benign. Do not fear: while there are no murders, there’s an on-stage death, as well as a near miss. Moreover, the demise of Rich’s beloved grandfather is why she returned Salterton in the first place. Two deaths and a miss surely make this book sub-genre adjacent.
I was, as always, impressed by Davies’ ability to juggle a fairly large cast in a not overlong novel. He’s skilled at displaying their quirks and absurdities without malice. He clearly finds the whole affair amusing, as will his readers.
Tempest-Tost is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo). Be aware that the Chapters-Indigo entry has a huge spoiler.
1: We didn’t study Bear, either, although the school library had a well-thumbed paperback of it.
2: Social foibles included an off-handed antisemitism that gets uncorked whenever a Jew or someone who might be a Jew appears in the narrative. (The author doesn’t appear to share this fault, but his characters certainly do.)
Apropos of books not studied: while I was certainly aware of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the Canadian Broadcasting Company gets the credit, not school.