Fifth Business

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Dunstan Ramsay as Fifth Business

In Roberston Davies’ novel, Fifth Business, as Dunstan Ramsay narrates his life story, the reader becomes aware of the pivotal role he plays in the lives of the other characters, the role of ‘Fifth Business.’ As Liesl explains the purpose of Fifth Business in classic European opera, it is almost uncanny how accurately it describes his life. It leaves no question that Dunstan Ramsay is the baritone, he is Fifth Business.

Who are you? Where do you fit into poetry and myth? Do you know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business. You don't know what that is? Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep up in Europe you must have a prima donna -- always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something; and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor. So far, so good. But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody's death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! (217-218)

Throughout most of the novel, Dunstan fulfills his role unknowingly. Over the course of his life he has been the outcast, never fully socially accepted, but the confidant of many and always bearing the burdens and guilt of others. However after this encounter with Liesl, he embraces the role and consciously fulfills his duty as Fifth Business. His actions lead the plot directly to the climax and conclusion of the novel. Time and again we see that Dunstan Ramsay’s life satisfies the parameters of the role and definition of Fifth Business, on the stage, in the drama of real life, and in a higher mythical way that Robertson Davies keeps alluding to in his novel, Fifth Business.

Using Liesl’s explanation of the metaphor of the opera and the roles played by the different characters, the novel could be described as the life-drama of Boy Staunton. On a superficial level, the soprano, the “prima donna” would be Boy Staunton. The role of the tenor to his ‘soprano’ would be Leola his first wife. The contralto, “a rival to the soprano,or a sorceress or something” is Mary Dempster, and the basso, “the villain”, would be represented by Magnus Eisengrim. Dunstan Ramsay is the baritone, the Fifth Business, the confidant of the main characters, is the keeper of the secrets and is the one who ultimately cares for the “hermitess”. He appears to be sentenced to a lonely, unglamorous life, with no close attachments, no apparent recognition or infamy, simply a supporter of the lives/roles of the “golden voices.” (218).

But far more importantly, “you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business!” Without the life and decisions of Dunstan Ramsay, the lives of every other character would have turned out differently. From the very first pages, Dunstan Ramsay is responsible for the sequences of events that constitute the life-drama of Davies’ novel: “If I had not been so clever, so sly, so spiteful in hopping in front of the Dempsters just as Percy Boyd Staunton threw the snowball at me from behind, Mrs. Dempster would not have been struck.”(16). How the consequences of this event unfold constitutes the central plot of the novel. Dunstan Ramsay doesn’t just “manage the plot”, he is responsible for it.

In order to make the argument that Dunstan Ramsay plays the role...
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