I’ve solved my playgoing problem. When the theater leaves me disheartened, I retreat to the invisible theater in my CD player. I slip in a disc, and out comes the voice —one of the infinitude of voices—of the woman, nearly half a century dead, who is this unseen theater’s single, vibrant resource: Ruth Draper. The most perfect artist in the history of solo performance was over 70 when she made these recordings: She was born in 1884 and died in 1956. You might understandably expect her performance, or the material she wrote herself, to seem antiquated. But you’d be wrong: Few three-dimensional relics of that vanished time are as tangible as the greatness of her art.
The extensive range of vocal tones, ages, and accents that Draper creates, with a free-flowing ease born of long practice, affirms the truth of the subtitle that always appeared on her programs: Even on a disc player, Draper indeed seems to bring with her a “Company of Characters,” crowding around, jostling for your attention. Among this captivating congeries, you may easily overlook the most significant voice of all: that of the writer who invented these people, their situations, and the words they speak. More than any other solo performer of the last century, Ruth Draper was a major provider of dramatic texts. She may, very possibly, deserve to be called America’s greatest woman playwright. Certainly, listening to her, it’s hard to imagine other women (or men) of her time whose work still lives onstage this forcefully. And we lack, remember, the benefit of her charismatic physical presence, which reviewers regularly praised along with her vocal and literary skills.
You can gauge the degree of devotion Draper inspired when you realize that, without it, these revelatory recordings wouldn’t exist. A deeply private person offstage, she shunned publicity, and set down her work for posterity only because producer Charles Bowden, managing her farewell tour, coaxed her into an RCA recording studio. Knowing that Draper, a perfectionist, would never produce final takes, Bowden made the engineers keep the tape running during her “rehearsals,” and these are what we hear.
Without her devotees, RCA’s cost accountants wouldn’t have let us hear much of them, either. After Draper’s death, the company issued only a meager single LP of three selections, soon out of print. In the 1960s, it subcontracted the rights to Spoken Arts, which issued a five-LP series containing 11 pieces. By the early ’80s, that too had become a rarity. After that, silence, until the CD era produced a new admirer with Bowden’s perseverance: Freelance writer Susan Mulcahy, preparing a Vanity Fair piece on Draper, fell in love with her art. Thanks to Mulcahy, we have these two two-disc sets, offering the widest recorded survey ever available of Draper’s remarkable repertoire: 17 of the 23 monologues RCA recorded.
Audiences in Draper’s era expected a female monologuist to be funny, and Draper often is. She was born into the best New York society, and often deals with its arcane social rituals. Her signature piece, “The Italian Lesson,” merges the two, charting the often hilarious to-and-fro of an upper-class wife being tutored in the opening canto of Dante’s Inferno while simultaneously coping with husband, children, servants, social clubs, charities, the latest gossip, and more, in a seemingly endless procession of interruptive people, pets, and phone calls. The situation is hootingly absurd, every detail’s chosen with guillotine-sharp exactitude, and it’s not uncommon for first-time listeners to fall out of their chairs laughing.
But—as turns out to be usual with Draper—much more than foolery is going on. Beneath the character’s pretentious silliness and self-absorption, she cares about other people; she knows and cares about art (even Dante, though she barely gets through three lines); she cares about doing things well and with dignity. And the last intrusion explains her distractedness, putting an extra twist on everything else: The journey of her life has indeed brought her to the middle of a dark wood. It also makes the piece an “Italian” lesson in more than one additional sense—romantic, duplicitous, living life to the full. Under the extreme hilarity lies an extreme melancholy; the tension between them means the monologue always reveals new facets on rehearing.
“The Italian Lesson” and its attendant portraits of giddy society ladies—”Doctors and Diets,” “Opening a Bazaar,” “Showing the Garden”—planted the image of Draper as a theatrical Helen Hokinson, specializing in cartoon dowagers. But Draper’s refusal to stop there—the aesthetic equivalent of her refusal to stay a well-bred debutante giving parlor performances—is the linchpin of her art. She set out, in effect, to study experiences as alien to her as possible, to texture her programs and “stretch” her acting abilities. To say that she succeeded is like saying that Moby Dick was pale in color and largish. No: This is the great white whale, the real thing.
Many of these non-society pieces are among Draper’s earliest, which means they date from a period when the lower classes were largely portrayed, in the monologues of vaudeville comics and “elocutionists,” as dim-witted buffoons with impenetrably thick dialects. From the start, Draper ignored this convention. Though as limited in their way as her upper-class figures, her lower-class women are equally resourceful, dignified, and emotionally deep. Nor does she ever sentimentalize them as the era’s kitschy women’s-magazine writers would have. In conflict or on their own, her women stand proud and clear.
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 out—the missing lover, the abandoned baby, the traumatized child, the emergency operation—but 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 stature—a 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.