The Fifth Business and Rating Employees

by Matthew Stollak on Thursday, April 11, 2013

One of my favorite books is the first installment in the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies called "The Fifth Business."

Davies tells the story of Dunstan Ramsay, a headmaster of a Canadian School for 45 years who has decided to retire.  A testimonial dinner is held in his honor, but he takes umbrage at the "tribute," arguing that it has trivialized his life.  He is determined to set the story straight.

What, pray tell, is the Fifth Business?

In the preface, Davies defines it as "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."

Toward the end of the novel, he further expounds on the concept when one of the characters says to Dunstan:

‘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 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! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices…’

When we are involved in rating and recognizing employees, we spend a significant amount of time on the prima donna, the tenor, the contralto or the basso. However, the crucial employee is the baritone.

Can you identify the Fifth Business in your organization?

Leave your comment