The Dresser is essentially a play about the theater. It was written from a deep understanding of a vanished facet of the English theatrical world and is a warm and loving tribute to that lost world. While the play was written when Harwood was in his forties, its detail comes partly out of his theater work during his twenties, including a spell as a dresser for Sir Donald Wolfit. Harwood has always been interested in theater, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London as a young man and working as a stage actor for seven years. Much of his writing has been for or about the stage, including more than one dozen plays and a biography of Wolfit.
The Dresser is in part a historical play, keeping alive the details, topics of conversation, and prejudices of English life during World War II. Its setting is a time when Harwood was alive but still a boy in South Africa, so the details have been researched, yet are true and vivid; the setting is part of the play and is not forced. Its accurate historical depiction of setting, era, and profession is its most significant feature.
The Dresser was critically acclaimed as a play. There have been many productions of it around the world, and it remains Harwood’s best-known play, thanks in large part to its quality and to the success of the 1983 film version with its screenplay by Harwood.