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Book Report: The Dresser

So. This was more than a year ago, now, that my Dear Director (the one who directed Man Who and Liaisons and Pyggie and the reading of Bound, way back when) mentioned that she was considering putting on The Dresser. It hasn’t happened—the rights are evidently not available just now—and if it had, I don’t know that I would have committed to the ridiculous travel time to do it. I might have, though.

Actually, I had never read the thing; I know it from the wonderful film. Tom Courtenay is the titular Norman; Albert Finney plays Sir (and Eileen Atkins who is probably the best film actress ever plays Madge). I haven’t seen the film in fifteen years, I would guess, but I can remember their line deliveries as clear as anything, their faces, bits of business. Ronald Harwood, who wrote the thing, did the screenplay and added a few things (and I think took a few away, but as I say, it has been fifteen years), but I would say three-quarters or more of the playscript is in the screenplay and vice versa. I don’t generally recommend things, you know, but any Gentle Reader who has any interest in the Theeyater at all should definitely watch this thing.

Being in it, though… I can’t imagine being in it. In the main roles, I mean, as I am egotistical and, tho’ I say it my self, successful enough to think that I would have a shot at the main roles, and wouldn’t be Mr. Oxenby or Mr. Thornton, and wouldn’t drive across half the state to play the small roles, I’m afraid. But reading the play and imagining doing Norman or Sir, that is very difficult indeed. Tom Courtenay in the movie is doing the role he created and played in London and New York. I can’t read any of his lines without hearing his voice, his inflections, seeing his gestures and his grimaces. Not a line. Not a pause. If I were forced to play the part, I would do a Tom Courtenay imitation, which would be sad and wrong and bad, and not worth seeing. Oh, in the event, given time and direction, one hopes to come up with something, but I have read through the play twice now, and I am baffled.

On the second time through, though, I did come up with some… well, not ideas, properly, but possibilities of ideas for Sir. Things I might want to emphasize that Albert Finney did not. Even, here and there, a line reading that isn’t an echo of Mr. Finney’s powerful voice. A possibility of delineating the sudden mood changes, or even a physical aspect to the disorientation. Something, anyway. Is it because I know that other people have played the part, and played it well? Freddie Jones was the first Sir, and Paul Rogers took the part in New York (evidently because Mr. Jones didn’t have a Green Card and didn’t want to bother with the paperwork, figuring that his success would give him plenty of opportunities at home, which it did), so there is in the back of my mind the idea that it can be done. Which is not so much true for Norman; I don’t know of any sizable revival of the play at all, and there definitely hasn’t been one in New York or London.

Which, bye-the-bye, makes Samuel French’s restriction very interesting indeed. The most likely reason for it is that somebody has put a hold on whilst putting a New York production together. But who? I mean, who for the actors, not the producers. For Sir: Frank Langella? Michael Gambon? It’s hard to imagine that Mr. Gambon would do the part here and not in London, or not in London first. Is Christopher Plummer too old? I would think so, but wouldn’t he be wonderful? What about Philip Bosco, is he still working? Simon Russell Beale? I think there’s something to be gained by having a Sir that’s not actually elderly, but is old young, as it were. And for Norman, there’s… um… Philip Seymour Hoffman, maybe? Seriously, I can’t think of anybody at all that I want to see in this part. Of course, I haven’t seen very many people. For all my interest in the theater, I have seen very few professional productions, and know the great stage actors of this era through recordings, films, television and YouTube clips. Still.

As a side note, just because I think it’s interesting, in the latest Queen’s Birthday Honours List Ronald Harwood, C.B.E., was added to the list of Knights Bachelor, and will be a Sir, now. Tom Courtenay has been a Sir for some time now, and Albert Finney has reportedly turned down a knighthood more than once. So it’s Sirs all around. Well, Freddie Jones isn’t a Sir, but Eileen Atkins is a Dame, so that’s all right. The irony—well, it isn’t actually, irony, as such—is that Sir is not a Sir himself, which we don’t find out until two-thirds of the way into the play:

HER LADYSHIP: […] And you drag everyone with you. Me. Chained. Not even by law.
SIR: Would marriage have made so much difference to you?
HER LADYSHIP: You misunderstand. Deliberately.
SIR: I should have made her divorce me.
HER LADYSHIP: You didn’t get a divorce because you wanted a knighthood.
SIR: Not true.
HER LADYSHIP: True. You know where your priorities lie. Whatever you do is to your advantage and to no one else’s. Talk about being driven. You make yourself sound like a disinterested stagehand. You do nothing without self-interest. Self. You. Alone.
SIR: Pussy, please, I’m sinking, don’t push me further into the mud—
HER LADYSHIP: Sir. Her Ladyship. Fantasies. For Gd’s sake, you’re a third-rate actor-manager on a tatty tour of the provinces, not some Colossus bestriding the narrow world. Sir. Her Ladyship. Look at me. Darning tights. Look at you. Lear’s hovel is luxury compared to this.

That moment comes as a shock to me still, even reading the play through twice in a month. I believe in Sir, still, because of course I want to believe in him, and Sir feels that pressure the way we all do up there, that we trade our love for his agreement to be what we want to love. Norman, of course, loves him even more for failing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Afterthoughts for casting Sir: Alfred Molina, of course, and although like Mr. Gambon it's hard to imagine him choosing to play it in New York, it's utterly remiss of me not to mention Jim Broadbent.


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