Ronald Harwood Essay - Critical Essays

Harwood, Ronald


Ronald Harwood 1934–

South African-born English dramatist, novelist, biographer, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

Harwood is best known for The Dresser (1980), a play that focuses on the complex relationship between Sir, an aging, egocentric actor, and Norman, his dresser. This play is loosely based on Harwood's experiences with the touring company of actor-manager Donald Wolfit. Harwood began with Wolfit's company in 1953, having come to London two years earlier to study acting. The five years which Harwood spent with Wolfit's company came at the end of the era during which professional touring repertory companies flourished. Harwood has memorialized the era both in The Dresser and in the biography which Wolfit asked him to write, Sir Donald Wolfit, C.B.E.: His Life and Work in the Unfashionable Theatre (1971). These are considered Harwood's most important works.

Harwood's first novel was inspired by an incident of racial violence which occurred in his native South Africa in 1960. All the Same Shadows (1961) is the story of a Cape Town Zulu houseboy who is exploited by the whites he encounters. A later novel, Articles of Faith (1973), traces racial prejudice through five generations of a prominent white family in South Africa. Among Harwood's other novels are The Girl in Melanie Klein (1969), a humorous work set in a luxury mental hospital, and Genoa Ferry (1976), a mystery-thriller. He has also written many plays for television and several for the stage, as well as adaptations of novels by J. B. Priestley, Evelyn Waugh, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)

THE TIMES, london

On the battlefield at night, a man cries out. Why? Because, he replies simply, "I had this vision; I saw God".

This is the difficult situation that confronts the characters in Private Potter [a television play by Mr. Ronald Harwood and Mr. Casper Wrede]…. Difficult obviously, but in what sense? Not, surely, in the way that the authors suppose. Whether or not there is any truth in what Potter says, whether he did have (or thought he had) a vision, his offence against Queen's Regulations is clear enough. The only question is whether or not he is fit to stand trial.

But in this play the superiors are almost as neurotic as Private Potter (always supposing he is neurotic, of course); in scene after scene voices are raised, wills clash, and everybody gets very worked up trying to decide if Potter is a lunatic or a saint—as though that made any difference from the Army's point of view. Only the intervention of … a down-to-earth Army surgeon with a thoroughly practical view of the situation prevented us from believing the whole world had gone mad.

"Battlefield Visionary," in The Times, London, April 7, 1961, p. 18.

Robert Pick

When Alan Paton published "Cry, the Beloved Country" thirteen years ago, he called it a "story of comfort in desolation." There is small comfort in [George Washington September, Sir!], the present novel about apartheid. The desolation of the urbanized South African natives appears to have grown with their growing loss of naïveté; lasting degradation has only served to sharpen sensitivity. Nor has the wretchedness of their status blunted the urgency of their human needs. This, at least, is the picture that emerges from Ronald Harwood's book, his first novel….

Mr. Harwood, who shows himself a very skillful writer, does justice to the complexity, as well as the honesty, of his engaging hero. If one considers the limitations of George's idiom, the powerful pertinence of his account is nothing short of amazing. And so is its sustained suspense. Not until well along in the narrative does one realize that Jannie, a colored brothel keeper who approaches the boy after his first brush with the police, plies him with drink and money and offers him Nancy, a beautiful Zulu girl, has more in mind than using the two young people as models for the pornographic photos he sells to "Europeans." The sordid frame-up that follows, and the tragedy that engulfs George—a tragedy born in the fear that rules his land—are fully convincing.

The way the author finally leads his much-tried protagonist out of his inner conflict is too adroit to be persuasive. It is a false note; but it comes at the very end, too late to spoil a poignant and, at the very least, most readable novel.

Robert Pick, "Tragedy Born of Fear," in The New York Times Book Review, September 10, 1961, p. 52.

Brigid Brophy

[The Guilt Merchants] takes a theme which might have appalled Dostoievsky: the guilt of the Nazis who administered the concentration camps, and the guilt of Jews who still pursue justice or vengeance. He begins with an admirably imagined South America … where an ex-Nazi is rumoured to be hiding and where an Israeli agent arrives incognito to hunt him down. But when it comes to working it out Mr Harwood seems to take fright at his theme and ignobly settles for a well-made commercial novel. By the dénouement he is letting his characters utter the melodramatics ('And when I admitted it to myself I died quietly inside') of one of those 'problem plays' which comfortingly raise no problem at all. (pp. 717-18)

Brigid Brophy, "Antoniona," in New Statesman, Vol. LXV, No. 1678, May 10, 1963, pp. 717-18.∗

Haskel Frankel

The girl in Melanie Klein is Niobe Grynne brought to The Nest bald and mute; and with her arrival Mr. Harwood is off on one of those off-beat tempests in teapots that seem to be a British specialty.

For until Niobe's arrival life at The Nest was as peaceful as life can be in an asylum, even one that looks like a country estate. Prior to Niobe, The Nest seems to have had only three patients….

Hugo, Wassler, and Nora are a relatively contented threesome, who busily clean a swimming pool that will never be filled and play Nest Tennis, a game of their own invention…. (Nest Tennis is Ronald Harwood's happiest invention and provides a lovely Alice in Wonderland touch, a touch this novel could use more of.)

How the seemingly mad unravel what happened to Niobe Grynne (christened Naomi Green) and the aftermath comprise the bulk of the novel. Mr. Harwood's style is light, humorous, and suspenseful enough to keep the reader interested if not passionately involved. However, the question of sanity is what intrigues one with The Girl in Melanie Klein. Who is sane and who is insane? Is one to believe Niobe's story? If so, she is sane. But then again, should we believe Hugo's retelling of the story? Remember, he is our narrator. Niobe could be sane; we know that Hugo is mad. Or do we? After all, Dr. Lipschitz is in charge of Hugo's case, and there are some nagging doubts as to the doctor's mental stability. But that takes us back again to Hugo's reportage on Dr. Lipschitz.

It is this sort of puzzle-box approach that makes The Girl in Melanie Klein quietly tantalizing and something more than a suitable vehicle for a Peter Sellers screen romp. If you can imagine one novel as being both sunny and Pinteresque, The Girl in Melanie Klein is it. Or perhaps I too am mad.

Haskel Frankel, "Madness in the Nest," in Saturday Review, Vol. LII, No. 17, April 26, 1969, p. 58.

Haskel Frankel

[The Guilt Merchants is set in El Pueblo], a South American town of no size or importance…. But if El Pueblo is uninteresting, some of its citizenry are most interesting, particularly Carlos Anido. He is a Jewish survivor of Weisering, one of the worst of the Nazi concentration camps. Anido seems almost a Job-like figure. His present is not much happier than his past….

The mystery about Anido is the locked room he rents near the center of town, which no one else has ever been inside, but from which voices have been heard speaking German.

To El Pueblo comes Sidnitz, an Israeli agent who for sixteen years has been searching for Wilhelm Brullach, the murderous commandant of Weisering, though he does not know what the man looks like or even if he is still alive. The action of this novel … begins with the arrival of Sidnitz. The Guilt Merchants moves in swiftly on the reader like some dark storm cloud heavy with the threat of violence. Unfortunately, the mood does not sustain or build. Extraneous characters creep in to drain away power. What purpose is served by Anna, Cordonez's wife? That she is unfaithful to her husband with Sidnitz serves no purpose in the novel other than to lengthen it and to inject a sexual scene. And why is she a Jewish convert when her husband is not anxious to have people in town know of his Jewishness?…

But what hurts The Guilt Merchants most is its...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Shane Stevens

[Many] questions are raised and solved in Ronald Harwood's The Guilt Merchants. Unfortunately, not all of them are solved satisfactorily, at least for this reader. This is partially so because the characters do not come sufficiently alive.

Guilt is, of course, a fascinating subject and much can be said about its universality. But in fiction this must be handled deftly and when characterization is rendered incomplete for purposes of structure, the novel suffers. In The Guilt Merchants, everyone has his say but after a while we are no longer listening. Perhaps because the story is over long before the ending, and all that is left is the working out of a psychic puzzle of dubious value or...

(The entire section is 131 words.)

Eric Shorter

[Sir Donald Wolfit] is a good book. It deserves to thrive. It is not a great book and considering that it describes the life of a great actor perhaps it ought to be. But great books about great actors are much rarer than great acting. Let us therefore be grateful that Mr. Harwood, who was himself once in Wolfit's company, has done such a good and sensitive job on an actor whose legendary egoism and megalomania obscured for many playgoers the true value of his art….

He was born, somewhat humbly in Nottinghamshire, after his time; and though the early part of Mr. Harwood's story is not any more engaging than the early parts of most biographies it illuminates occasionally the man to come, as in...

(The entire section is 329 words.)

Leonard Buckley

Is the lady a dipsomaniac? Is she just eccentric? Or is she a tramp? Our curiosity is gripped at once [in The Guests] as she lurches carefully from her bedroom, stops to consider what is missing in her appearance and then goes back to put on her skirt.

But whatever the explanation is of her oddness she is clearly about to give a dinner party. There are spurts of annoyance and satisfaction as one light in the dining room will not come on but another does. She lays out the name-cards round the table. She pats her hair. She dithers as a waiting hostess will. Then she opens the door to her first guests and in a moment she has plunged into those overbright exchanges that make up a social occasion....

(The entire section is 254 words.)

Peter Prince

Ronald Harwood is a South African and his new novel [Articles of Faith] is concerned with the tragic clash of races in his homeland. I almost wrote 'inevitably concerned' for it's difficult to imagine any serious South African author who wouldn't feel moved to comment in more or less depth on his country's racial tragedy. There is a danger here, however, as in any literary tradition—the québécois writers of French Canada offer another example—where authors feel duty-bound to reflect their society's overwhelming interest in a particular political or cultural concern. Conscious that he is in the service of crucially significant ideals, it's only too easy for a writer to slacken in his attention to...

(The entire section is 291 words.)

Ronald Blythe

[Ronald Harwood] sprawls, but it is an ever-inquisitive, restless and striking motivation which forces [Articles of Faith] into its heroic size and shape. No lag, nothing redundant. Its indictment is that Cape colonists have for generations, furtively, mixed their blood with that of the Xhosa and Khoikhoi nations, on a scale which makes the current miscegenation laws a humbug….

Harwood displays a society lacerated by sexual guilt. His account of the reduction of the Xhosa and Khoikhoi, dubbed respectively Kaffir and Hottentot by the crude Dutch, is dramatic and deeply moving. The conflict in the book is created by the use of faith as vision and love versus the use of faith as political...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Terrance Edwards

From 1794 right down to 1972 ["Articles of Faith"] sweeps across the South African scene, distilling something of its history, much of its prejudices and fears—and perhaps a few of its hopes.

It is through the lives of successive generations of the white family Henning that this anguished nation's growth is traced….

Always the family is in trouble. And nearly always the thread of trouble, of tragedy, stems from the propensity of the family's male members to miscegenate with slaves, servants and acquaintances of the colored races.

The house of Henning, it is clear, will continue on its course and to continue to come to grief. For "Henning" read "South Africa."...

(The entire section is 264 words.)

Myrna Blumberg

Ronald Harwood is a bold writer with an inquisitive conscience. In his new novel, César and Augusta, he explores a struggle that many people have ridiculed: goodness attempting to accomodate eroticism honourably. He has also chosen to reinterpret two complex musicians who had the highest aspirations, who were adored, revered, neglected, laughed at in France, taken up in Britain as the precursors of modern music, then often set aside again with exasperation and evasion. His hero César Franck, it has been said, made even Liszt blush.

Mr Harwood relives a few years in Franck's life with great imaginative sympathy. His writing is outstandingly readable and intelligent, and he is unusually open...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

THE TIMES, london

The Genoa Ferry is devious and exotic. It is a stylish, beautifully written and often very exciting story, set (presumably) in Gadaffi's Libya. Martin Fisher is summoned to North Africa, supposedly by his sinister, domineering brother, and finds himself lost in a labyrinth of sexual and political intrigue; his own bewilderment may well be shared by the reader. With its atmosphere of menacing, death-haunted carnival, The Genoa Ferry kept reminding me of the film Black Orpheus: I enjoyed it enormously, but I would be hard pushed to say exactly what it is all about.

A review of "The Genoa Ferry," in The Times, London, October 21, 1976, p. 17.∗...

(The entire section is 106 words.)

David Mayer

That [The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold] ultimately fails as a play is in no way a fault of any performance nor of … [the] direction. Nor can all the blame be laid at the door of Ronald Harwood who adapted Waugh's penultimate novel, though Harwood is open to criticism both in the manner of his adapting and for failing to recognise the sharply confining limitations of his source. Waugh himself is the culprit, both as a novelist and a scenarist, for although he had lost none of his adeptness as a prose stylist and story-teller, Waugh as usual projected himself in lightly disguised form to the centre of his novel…. But unlike his previous novels, where the Waugh personae are a part of a variegated bustle, Waugh as...

(The entire section is 366 words.)

Newgate Callendar

["The Genoa Ferry"] falls into no easy category. It is part murder mystery, in which a man tries to ascertain the facts about the death of his stepbrother. It is part travelogue, in which the smells and rottenness of a North African city are vividly described. It is partly a novel of ideas, with much attention paid to a grubby set of characters and their motivations. The ending is sheer Grand Guignol. And the whole book is full of alienation symbols. Whether or not Harwood was inspired by some of the North African stories of Paul Bowles, "The Genoa Ferry" is an unusually gripping piece of writing that can rank with the Bowles books. (p. 36)

Newgate Callendar, in a review of "The...

(The entire section is 133 words.)

Nigel Williams

In Ronald Harwood's new novel, César and Augusta, it is gentleness that proves a strength. The book is set in the France of the 1870s, and concerns César Franck's sudden, late flowering as a composer. Alone with a shrewish wife …, Franck seems the archetypal teacher until a passionate young woman called Augusta Holmes cons her way into his composition class, posing as a man. Harwood charts the relationship between the dry, nervous old man, and his tempestuous, awkward pupil in a well-structured narrative, and shows how the girl inspired Franck to compose the first of his major works, the Piano Quintet….

The book is never less than readable and often something more. Franck, with his...

(The entire section is 263 words.)

Rosalind Wade

It was a bold and imaginative decision on the part of Ronald Harwood's publishers to issue simultaneously two such widely different examples of his work as César and Augusta and One. Interior. Day. (p. 45)

One of the main points of interest about One. Interior. Day. is that the two books could be so different. No matter how closely an author may identify with historical characters, the fact that he is interpreting rather than creating obliges him to be reticent to some extent about his own reactions and experiences. In these nine stories about the film industry, Ronald Harwood is even more involved than is customary, for the outline of life as lived by the chief character,...

(The entire section is 257 words.)

David Mayer

What mars … Ronald Harwood's A Family is its tired structure and laboured profundities couched in the sort of dialogue where each time a character says anything at all, It Means Something Significant. The structure of A Family is cast from the late 19th-century mould, wrought by Ibsen and his contemporaries and seized by such 20th-century authors as O'Neill and Miller, where the arms of the past reach in to snatch at the present, a stalled Newtonian machine years later kicked suddenly into life so that every past action is reciprocated by its long-delayed reaction.

And as the play's main spring is a war-time memory, repressed and unacknowledged for 33 years, of a father's … heroic...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Anthony Curtis

Mr. Harwood is a serious writer with a number of novels to his credit and a biography of Donald Wolfit,… but he is also a writer who has made a good living out of films and television and has learnt how to discipline himself to the requirements of those media. A Family seems to have been written by two Mr. Harwoods in a not altogether harmonious collaboration. Harwood I, the serious artist, is fascinated as many British playwrights have been before him, by the love-hatred which a closely-knit family group inspires in its members. He has something to say about what happens when someone in his generation, and someone in his children's generation, tries to break away from the crippling embrace of the family to...

(The entire section is 281 words.)

Frank Rich

The dark and jagged set of Ronald Harwood's play "The Dresser" is the ratty backstage area—moldy dressing rooms, cramped corridors and wings—of a crumbling theater somewhere in the British provinces. The time is 1942, and the stink of death is in the air. Outside, there are howling sirens, signaling another Luftwaffe bombing raid. Inside, skulking about the gloom, are Mr. Harwood's central characters—two men who seem to have scant reason to live.

Sir … is an aged Shakespearean actor-manager, now reduced to touring third-rate towns with a war-depleted troupe of "old men, cripples and nancy-boys." His mind and body are failing fast, yet tonight he is to give his 427th performance as King Lear....

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Robert Brustein

Ronald Harwood, who once looked after Donald Wolfit's doublet and hose, has fashioned a theatrical patchwork about this legendary British actor-manager and his times. It is called The Dresser … and, as a work of drama, it is agreeable, contrived, predictable, and sentimental, which is to say, much like those rickety vehicles (The Bells, The Count of Monte Cristo) such vagrant actors used to chauffeur when they didn't have Shakespeare sitting in the garage. The most amiable thing about The Dresser is its affection for the seedy backstage mores of circuiting rep companies, expressed in an alternately fustian and bitchy style. I can see the play being performed annually at the Garrick Club in...

(The entire section is 658 words.)