Ronald Harwood

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Robert Brustein

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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 London or the Player's in New York, for it is soaked in the same kind of boozy anecdotes that retired actors like to pour out while waving shotglasses of Old Grand Dad over their soiled cravats and egg-spattered velvet smoking jackets.

Set in 1942 during the Blitz, The Dresser is nostalgic for a period when the show went on despite the fatal illness of the principal performer, the loss to National Service of the younger male company members, or the bombs being dropped on stage by what the Wolfit figure irately calls "squadrons of Fascist Bolsheviks." As in most nostalgia trips, however, the landscape seems vague, if not somewhat fuzzy—particularly in its image of human relationships. The Dresser works best as an isolated character sketch; it needs more tailoring as a play. The exposition is lumpy, the plot stitching is visible, the supporting characters are threadbare. The most potentially interesting dramatic issue—the resentment felt by a self-sacrificing underling toward his self-regarding employer—is raised without being resolved, because Norman, the dresser, is simply not conceived with sufficient depth or truthfulness.

Harwood has a better handle on "Sir"—as his histrionic hero is called, perhaps in ironic recognition that, unlike his real-life model, he will never win a knighthood. Sir is treated as a temperamental, self-dramatizing, plummy old thesp, who seduces his apprentices and manipulates his company and crew. What redeems the old ham is his flamboyant spirit and his lovehate relationship with the stage. (pp. 21, 24)

When Sir expires quietly on his dressing room couch, Norman explodes in rage against "the old sod," but lest this moment of truth betray the obligatory reconciliations, he is also given the chance to pour out his grief ("You think you loved him? What about me?") before cradling his head under the dead man's arm, and singing "The Wind and the Rain," to a counterpoint of sobs from the audience.

There are hints of Fool-Lear parallels throughout the evening, but one hopes against hope the author will have sense enough not to make them explicit. To suggest a correspondence between the most remorseless tragedy ever written and this treacle-drenched artifact is not just presumptuous, it is a serious tactical error, reminding us how little the author has invented apart from backstage color. The Dresser is a drama of failed opportunities, not least of them Mr. Harwood's, who had the knowledge and the experience to tell a true story of the stage, but didn't have the courage. One has only to remember the rages of the actor-hero in the Osborne-Creighton Epitaph for George Dillon … to see how this play invokes a condition without ever really investigating it. For all the theatrical chat and internecine rivalries in The Dresser, we never discover (as we do so poignantly in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey) the true qualities of a "third-rate actor-manager on a tour of the provinces," aside from his rodomontade and self-pity. We don't even learn how a routine actor like Wolfit could sometimes rise to be a great one….

In our culture, the actor's life is indeed tragic (so is the dresser's). Here it is merely an occasion for green-room jokes and bathetic scenes. (p. 24)

Robert Brustein, "The Naked and the Dressed," in The New Republic, Vol. 185, No. 23, December 9, 1981, pp. 21, 24-5.∗

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