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Hamlet's Dresser: A Memoir Paperback – February 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

Of what do we write when we write of love? In Bob Smith's case, it is Shakespeare's poems and plays. Hamlet's Dresser braids two strands of his life into a modest, heartbreaking, and soaringly affirmative memoir. A bookish, lonely child, his crush on the Bard's work became love when, as an alienated teenager, he joined the American Shakespeare Theatre as Hamlet's dresser. In time he would dress other characters, perform in small roles, become a coach and a watcher, and eventually lead senior citizens' groups in Shakespeare-appreciation courses. But this ecstatic marriage was haunted by his sad, contorted childhood: an increasingly dysfunctional mother, a distant father, and Caroline, his profoundly retarded sister. "Art," he writes, "can be a brutal thing, not just some decoration placed over the truth, but the truth itself." Smith's prose is bluntly ineffable: a rundown theatre looks like "Miss Havisham's bride cake" and the first teacher who didn't like him was "Miss Shumaker. It was right after I stopped pleasing everybody." The book is thick with short passages from Shakespeare. Placed in perfect context, they leap from the pages, abrupt as panoramic pop-ups. --H. O'Billovich --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In this intimate, inspiring account, Smith concludes that words and ideas possess the ability to heal and transform a life no matter how dire and painful the circumstances, using his own difficult childhood and productive adulthood as proof. Here, the literary balm is the work of Shakespeare. The book opens with the death of one of the members of a group of seniors who gathered regularly in Manhattan to read the Bard's plays with Smith as their leader. Smith immediately shows his literary skill as he captures the humanity of his students. That sensitivity serves him well when he writes of his dysfunctional family (a traumatized mother, a distracted father and a disabled sister), revealing their shortcomings with clarity while seeking to understand his place in their lives and in the world. Smith adroitly assumes the role of observer and chronicler during his wry recollections of his topsy-turvy youth, while also examining how families can harm children emotionally with well-intended half-truths and neglect, as relatives make him feel he's somehow responsible for his sister's handicaps. Some of the most painful passages come during the unraveling of his mother's health while his father is at war, burdening young Smith further in caring for his increasingly troubled sister. Whether Smith is describing his alcoholic aunt, his spiteful grandmother or his aging students, his ability to juggle humor and pain never fails. Throughout this triumphant book, the shadow of Shakespeare looms, and Smith finds meaning in the plays to redeem his daily existence, eventually becoming Hamlet's dresser at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he delights in the workings of theater and meeting Katharine Hepburn, Jessica Tandy and others. Veteran memoir readers will find this book absorbing, refreshing and touching.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (February 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684852705
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684852706
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #189,525 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Ramona Honan on June 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Hamlet's Dresser is Bob Smith's memoir about his life going up with a severely retarded sister, a detached father, and overwrought mother. He tells of his escape of this environment and lonely childhood when he discovers the language and world of William Shakespeare.
It is not a book about Bob Smith's devotion to his sister, but his endeavor to escape the confines of his sister even though he loved her very much. The main aspect of the book was his intertwining of Shakespearian passages in describing his past life and his present life when he teaches the elderly the wonders of the Bard. This in itself really opens up so many facets of how he felt. He is the Hamlet of his life and his mother is Lady MacBeth with his sister being Ophelia.
Though his writing is rather florid at times, this is an amazing first book by Mr. Smith. Without the Shakespearian prose interspersed throughout the passages, it might have been just another memoir, but Mr. Smith has turned it into a book that flows. The reader can even start comparing aspects of their own life with Shakespeare just as the elderly do in his classes.
Read it and compare it with your own life.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Lisa Renard on November 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover
A professor friend of mine recommended this book to me. She had read a review in the Washington Post. Normally, I nod politely at such recommendations and go about reading whatever else it is that was already on my wish list. But, for some reason, I went out and bought this book.
I read it on the plane and, to my great embarrassment, found that I had to put the book down in my lap several times and take deep breaths, lest the other passengers see the tears welling in my eyes.
Bob Smith is a man I didn't know of before picking up the book. I didn't expect to care about his memoir. What I found is that I ended up caring very deeply and simply could not put it down until I'd finished it. To say that it is a moving book is an understatement. Somehow, Mr. Smith touches on all of life and love and loss and hope and well --- humanity. Perhaps it is because he weaves into his tale the timeless wisdom found in Shakespeare. And he does so masterfully.
By reading this memoir, you will learn about life, yourself, Shakespeare, and what it means to be human.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Pierre R. Hart on October 29, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Art convincingly engages life in this coming-of-age autobiography. Viewed from a half century's distance, the author vividly describes a boyhood and youth spent largely in Stratford, Connecticut. As though for counterpoint, he occasionally interrupts his primary account to relate his adult experiences with senior citizen groups as a Shakespeare expert. Much as the Bard's words sustained him through a difficult and painful youth, so too do they provide pleasure and consolation to the aging. Throughout, Smith complements his own words with appropriate passages from the plays and sonnets.
Central to Smith's narrative is his relationship with Carolyn, his profoundly disabled sister. Virtually incapable of speech, resistant to every attempt at toilet training, and prone to obsessive-compulsive behavior, her presence in the household takes a heavy toll on the other family members. Her mother retreats to the bedroom, her father mysteriously disappears every Tuesday and Bob, despite his great affection and concern, seeks solace in the library, museums, and the theater. As a fifth grader, he first encounters Shakespeare, whose eloquent language displaces the tense silence of his home. As he remarks: "Poetry became a beautiful place to hide from my life and my parents, a place I knew they'd never follow me to." (p. ll2)
The book's apt title relects Smith's initial involvement with an actual production when, as a sixteen year old, he becomes a dresser for the American Shakespeare Festival's "Hamlet." His fascination with the theater does not translate into serious aspirations as an actor. Rather, he elects to develop the stage management skills essential to the support of a successful production. As he admits in a brief backstage encounter with Katherine Hepburn, "I'm a watcher.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Jane Wilson on May 24, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful book, written with great skill. The author looks back on his life and gains perspective and distance from it as he considers the language and stagecraft of Shakespeare. You could say that because of Shakespeare his life, particularly in early adulthood, becomes endurable. At the beginning of the book we see him as an inspired teacher bringing Shakespeare into the world of the elderly in New York, with spectacular success. He schedules with them a weekly seminar where the plays are discussed in detail, revealing themselves as relevant in unexpected and new ways. His new friends mysteriously cannot get enough of the language, the play experience, and discussing the issues with which the characters struggle. Their insights and enthusiasm startle and encourage him.
The author�s skill with the elderly may be founded somehow in his childhood commitment to a beautiful but severely retarded younger sister to whom he is deeply attached. For different reasons his childhood is lonely and painful, but this only becomes clear very slowly. Gradually the reader perceives that the book is really about Smith�s complex relationship with his sister. At a climax point of harrowing detail he breaks off and to bring us back to an amusing habit of someone in his senior citizens� class, an actor preparing for a demanding scene, or fascinating details about (for example) Katharine Hepburn�s stage wardrobe. We see how the whole rich framework of the author�s life is determined by his love of acting, actors and the Shakespeare stage.
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