The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A two-act play, The Dresser is set in the principal dressing room, corridor, and wings of an unspecified provincial theater in England, in January, 1942. Present are Norman, Sir’s dresser, and Her Ladyship, Sir’s personal and professional partner. They are discussing the bizarre behavior and state of mind of Sir, who is elderly and becoming feeble: Earlier in the day he was out in the local marketplace, in the rain, undressing and crying, and has been taken to hospital. Her Ladyship and Madge want to cancel the performance, but Norman demurs.

Sir walks in, having discharged himself from the hospital. He wants to get ready for the play, though he cannot remember which play. Norman keeps reminding him that it is William Shakespeare’s King Lear. While Norman attends to his makeup and costume, he also strengthens Sir’s resolve to perform by saying that there will be a full house.

At this point, the problems of a small company of players begin to emerge. One actor, Davenport-Scott, has been kept in police custody for homosexual behavior, so the casting will be altered. Another actor, Oxenby, is unhelpful because Sir will not read the play he has written. Sir assures Her Ladyship and Madge that he is fine and will give a good performance as King Lear. Only to Norman does Sir show his doubts, and his bantering relationship with Norman, by turns respectful, worried, insulting, and witty, is demonstrated. Norman projects a degree of confidence in Sir’s ability to perform this evening, though he clearly is unsure.

Another problem is that World War II rages around them: German aircraft drop bombs before and during the performance, and the air-raid sirens can be heard at intervals. The lines of the play make frequent reference to the war and its effects.

As he helps Sir...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

To show a play within a play was a device used by Shakespeare himself, but to have the play’s action technically occur offstage while a major Shakespearean work occurs onstage (but out of sight to the audience of The Dresser) is a device that might have come from the pen of playwright Tom Stoppard, whose Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (pr. 1966, pb. 1967) made famous use of it. Apart from this device, The Dresser is conventional. It builds up the character of Sir (the most impressive of the cast) before he enters. The same minimal set of Sir’s dressing room, the corridor outside it, and the wings can be used throughout the play, with only a change of lighting for emphasis on different areas at different times. This is economic but never boring: The relative lack of physical action is more than compensated for by frequent entrances and exits, by the drama of revelations, and by the tensions of King Lear being performed just offstage. Sir’s breakdown in the marketplace is only reported, and his death at the end is undramatic, but both work well in context.

Most of the play consists of scenes between two characters. The most successful of these are undoubtedly those between Sir and Norman, due to their love-hate relationship and to Norman’s over-the-top performance. The sparkling wit and frequent allusions, particularly in Norman’s speeches, make these scenes entertaining and add depth to the characters. There is irony in the fact that Norman is meant to be the best actor in the company, even though he lacks the confidence to appear onstage. The other parts seem to have been deliberately underwritten, and to a certain extent the members of the company represent types that used to be found within a small traveling theater company.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brustein, Robert. “The Naked and the Dressed.” The New Republic 185 (December 9, 1981): 21, 24-25.

Harwood, Ronald. Sir Donald Wolfit, CBE: His Life and Work in the Unfashionable Theatre. London: Secker & Warburg, 1971.

Rich, Frank.“’Dresser,’ a Monarch, and His Loyal Vassal: The Show Must Go On.” New York Times, November 10, 1981, p. C7.