By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By Lilly Lampe
As a perfect contrast to the layered elaborations of "The Italian Lesson," take the early and durable "A Scottish Immigrant at Ellis Island." A young village girl has come to America to marry her hometown sweetheart, now a New Jersey farmer. She says goodbye to friends from the boat; she answers, to the best of her village understanding, the immigration inspectors' questions. She does not have enough money to land on her own, and must wait until her fiancé shows up. Finally he does.
Nothing could be flatter or more banal than this simple anecdote; nothing could be more heart-rending than Draper's treatment of it. She does not "point" anything; the girl is simply there with you. You feel her shock when the inspectors ask if she has been in prison; her discomfort when they ask how much money she has; her increasing panic, carefully covered, as she searches the crowd; her mingled joy and relief when she spots her young man. (This emotional capper, played perfectly, makes me catch my breath every time.) And although Draper was 71 when she recorded it, you never doubt that you are hearing a girl of perhaps 19.
Less breathtaking but more daring is "Three Generations," in which Draper plays a succession of Lower East Side Jewish women in family court. The daughter, who wants to marry and move out West, is trying to put her invalid mother and 80-year-old grandmother in a home; their counterclaim is that her plans are predicated on an unreliable boyfriend. The three women testify in descending order of age; when Draper shifts character, the vocal transformation is so complete that you instinctively look around to see who has just entered the room. As in life, or a great short story, the outcome is uncertain: The judge demands more evidence. Draper lets us judge by what we know of the three women. (W.A. Darlington of the London Telegraph once declared that Draper wasn't an actress but "a short story writer" who "employ[s] herself as a medium instead of a pen.")
But hers are theatrical stories. Though she eschewed the theater's contrivances, her grasp of its dramatic core is magically unerring. To hear it at its height, turn to "A Railway Station on the Western Plains." The Algonquin set called the piece "melodrama"; playwright Marc Connelly's burlesque of it was celebrated. To hear Draper do it, at the end of her career, is to watch a master alchemist transmute melodrama into the higher form.
It starts quietly: The night shift is on; there is a blizzard outside and a dance at the town hall. The speaker, who runs the station café, is on easy terms with the railwaymen. Chitchat about pies and coffee, the revelation of a new engagement, the repair of a minor hand wound, show her hardheaded good nature. News comes of a train wreck. The injured are being brought in. The monologue becomes a chaos of urgent details. All the appurtenances of disaster melodrama are trotted outthe missing lover, the abandoned baby, the traumatized child, the emergency operationbut never treated melodramatically. We wait for the woman to crack, for the usual stagy hysteria. Instead, the frightening events are handled as facts, which she faces factually. Her mettlesome, broad-accented common sense starts to take on enormous staturea quintessence of the West, of its generosity and resource. The unhyped sense of reality puts one inside the experience, not looking on from outside; improbably, this is the work of art that has made me feel most strongly what life must have been like, until recently, in Afghanistan. This is what people mean when they say that art opens doors, that great work never dates. We'd be truly blessed if every artist working today stood the test of time as well as Ruth Draper. But that would require her integrity and her unremitting devotion, as well as her imaginative power. It's because of the love those virtues inspired that we're blessed with this astonishing legacy.