Fifth Business.

My wife has been reading Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy, and the things she’s muttered or asked about as she’s read have been so intriguing that I’ve started the first novel in the series, Fifth Business. I’ve known about the book most of my life — seen it in bookstores, heard it mentioned, and so on — and always wondered about the odd title; on opening the book I found it immediately explained in a Definition (on a page by itself, where the Dedication would normally go):

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 dénouement, 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 Danske Skueplads

But was that a real thing, or invented by Davies? There actually is a book Den danske skueplads [The Danish stage] by Thomas Overskou, but there appear to be quite a few volumes (here‘s Volume 6) and I don’t read Danish (nor, presumably, do most of Davies’s intended readers), so he could perfectly well have invented the quote and foisted it on the safely dead Overskou. On the other hand, sometimes the most improbable such epigraphs turn out to be perfectly accurate. And I’m afraid to do too much googling because I don’t want to learn anything about the plot, which my wife says is cleverly constructed. So: does anybody happen to know if it’s a real thing or an invention?

Also, if anyone’s curious about our nighttime reading, we’ve finished Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and begun Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy, which also deals with the WWI period in England but is otherwise utterly different (and sentence by sentence, better written); we’re enjoying it greatly.


  1. I read the trilogy some years ago, in order. I don’t remember much about Fifth Business, but the definition did not really stick in my mind or give me a preview of what the novel was about. I never thought about its possible relevance, I was too busy enjoying reading it!

  2. I mean, I enjoyed reading the book and did not worry about the significance of the title. Sometimes you discover the meaning afterwards.

  3. At least according to Wkipedia

    Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less 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.
    —purportedly Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads

    Davies was pressured by his publisher to provide some clear idea of what exactly “Fifth Business” was, and so Davies affixed this opening quotation, which was taken at face value. Only in 1979, when the book’s Norwegian translator failed to find the citation, did Davies admit it was his invention.”

  4. When his Norwegian publisher wished to reproduce the original Danish, Davies confessed in a reply letter, “I invented it.”

  5. This might be alluding to a locution in Scandinavian, ‘femte hjulet under vagnen’ (the fifth wheel under the wagon), also known in German as ”das fünfte Rad am Wagen sein”, probably from French “La cinquième roue à un chariot” – describing something unnecessary and disturbing.

  6. From WIki: The trilogy takes its name from the fictional small village of Deptford, Ontario, based on Davies’ native Thamesville. The original Deptford is on the banks of the Thames, (about seven miles downstream from central London and a mile or so from where I live).

  7. Jeffry House says

    Better speakers may correct me, but “Fifth Business” never seemed a likely Scandinavian locution to me. That’s because the word I know for business, forretning, seems redolent of the idea of “accounting”, while “handel”, a possible candidate, emphasizes “exchange”.

    Neither of those ideas fits smoothly into artistic description of a play, or an actor’s part. So I always assumed that It was a poor translation of whatever Danish word had been used.

    Davies’ book has been translated as Den Femte Rolle, the Fifth Role, so I presumed that was the word used in the original.

    And now I find this was a tissue of false deductions!

  8. I haven’t read the book in any language, but when I saw the alleged quotation now, I found ‘business’ to sound just about odd enough in the context to be believable. It might translate Danish geskæft or beskæftigelse, which for all I knew both could have had the special theatrical meaning of “a set of actions or a perspective (that might be) personified in a role”.

  9. Thanks, Dave and MMcM; I knew I could count on my readers!

  10. Also, as a proud Norwegian-American (on my mother’s side), I am pleased that it was a Norwegian who revealed the deception.

  11. @Stefan Holm: “Fifth wheel” has the same meaning in English.

  12. Fifth business may be an invention, but business as a theatrical term is not. The OED says “Action on stage (as distinguished from dialogue), especially that intended to forward the progress of the plot, pass time, or aid characterization.” The OED records it first in 1672 (a 1637 cite is in my opinion misplaced), and it is still current. In Sheridan’s 1781 play The Critic, which is about show business (another use; note that the article is omitted in this expression), we have the under-prompter saying “Sir, there is the point: the carpenters say, that unless there is some business put in here before the drop [of the curtain?], they sha’n’t [sic, but very logical] have time to clear away the fort, or sink Gravesend and the river.”

    This technical term must have its equivalents in other languages, even Danish.

  13. “W.B. Kristensen once remarked that the supposition that the origin of a phenomenon is simpler and more easily understood than that which proceeds from it, is untenable. Every origin is in itself already a complex phenomenon, sometimes of an even more mysterious nature than that which it is supposed to explain.”

    Seth, God of Confusion,
    H. Te Velde, Brill, 1977

    Here a Dutch author writing in English credits another probably-Danish author for one of my favorite methodological principles. I know nothing about Kristensen and very little about te Velde.

  14. The ‘drop’ is a thing here , not an action – the flat curtain that comes down to cover most of the stage. Unless there’s a scene that takes place in front of it, they won’t have time to change the scenery (which will then be behind it).

  15. “Fifth wheel” has another meaning in English, not something “unnecessary and disturbing”, but something essential to attaching the two halves of a tractor-trailer. It is the horizontal greasy metal disc-with-a-wedge-cut-out on the back of the tractor, to which the trailer is attached. It’s still called a ‘fifth wheel’, though it’s actually the seventh or eleventh wheel on most tractors today. See here for a nice picture (I mean the one on the left). Does it also mean that in Danish or other non-English languages? You may have to ask a truck-driver. I only knew it from working for Mayflower in college.

  16. No, Michael, the thing you’re describing is vändskiva in Swedish and svingeskive in Norwegian – both meaning ‘turn-around disc’. They come in many varieties (for trucks, tractors, ploughs and even for turning locomotives around.

  17. Stefan, what these pictures show is not a fifth wheel in any sense: it is a turntable (my grandson, who is a big Thomas the Tank Engine fan, told me this word even though he is only six). The fifth wheel of which Michael speaks is much smaller and attached to the truck’s tractor, not to the ground. It serves to allow the trailer to rotate with respect to the tractor, but not too much.

  18. Sure, John, but my point was, that the Sw. term ‘vändskiva’ is used about the whole range of mechanical devices shown on those pictures from the truck’s tractor to the turntable to rotate (steam engine) locomotives. ‘Femte hjulet’, the fifth wheel, is a metaphor and nothing else for a person causing trouble by being superfluous (not to be confused though with femte kolonn, ‘fifth column’).

  19. Ian Malcolm says

    Davies’s invented definition of Fifth Business is a beautiful imaginative creation of Canadian identity on the world stage – neither hero, villain, nor Best Friend , but essential (because of knowledge and commitment, and the morality based on honest self-understanding) to the unfolding of the story, and its denoument. I’m reminded of one of LeCarre’s characters, the cynical partner of a British diplomat in Bonn, saying “They’re about the only ones who still believe in it all, the Canadians.” Living next door to the world capital of self-proclaimed heroes, actual villains, and pseudo-best-friends, we know how to fly under the radar while promoting the truth.

  20. A most interesting take on it — thanks!

  21. John Cowan says

    Well, at least we Yanks don’t claim to be the heroine’s confidante (as a nation, I mean; we have plenty of those as individuals, of course).

  22. Trond Engen says
  23. Ah, but there it’s the Brits who are the confidante (having aged out of the heroine role).

  24. Trond Engen says

    Of course. I didn’t mean it as a contradiction, more a demonstration of the applicability of the concept.

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