Hirschfeld Has Mastered His Lines

One definition of the word "line" reads "all the speeches in a play, esp. the speeches of any single character." It could be said that the "lines" of Al Hirschfeld, theater caricaturist, are all the works of American theater as seen by a keen observer in an aisle seat. Mr. Hirschfeld has documented Broadway and beyond for more than 70 years, and his work is now on exhibition at the Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University.

While best known for his sketches that have accompanied reviews in The New York Times since 1928, Hirschfeld's work has become so synonymous with American theater that his drawings have appeared everywhere from United States postage stamps (a series of comedians) to the cover of TV Guide (the actors on "Seinfeld").

He prefers the term "characterist" rather than "caricaturist," as his pithy, jazzy renderings can be comical but never malicious. He is a master of stylized physical exaggeration: dark smudges for Jason Robards's eyebrows in a scene from O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," leering whorls for the eyes of Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf in "A Room of One's Own." Hirschfeld fans also enjoy finding his little puzzle, the name of his daughter, Nina, which he sneaks at least once into each design. He began the tradition in 1945. In 1960, he began to note the number of "Ninas" in a number by his signature.

The exhibit at Harvard's Pusey Library includes examples of three categories of Hirschfeld's work: The New York Times drawings, theatrical portraits of single actors or playwrights, and detailed, general views of theater-going, with titles such as "Theatre Lobby," "Opening Night, the Intermission." This last type is a tribute to the audience and includes dozens of playgoers, socialites, royalty, critics. Hirschfeld himself is often among the crowd, at the side of the page, ever observing.

* "Drawings by Al Hirschfeld" is on view through Sept. 18 at the Harvard Theatre Collection, Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

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