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Ruth Draper

On 24 April 2003, I attended what I suppose was a symposium on Ruth Draper. Susan Mulcahy, the journalist who has brought formerly out-of-print recordings of Draper's monologues out on CD, hosted a panel of actors that included Christine Ebersole, Marian Seldes, and Charles Busch. Ruth Draper, for those of you who haven't encountered the recordings, was a lovely woman from an old New York family who developed a childhood passion for character sketch into a lucrative, long run as a monologist. From a gallery of over thirty characters, she would draw four or five for an evening's performance. Some of her sketches were funny, but they were never acid or sarcastic. You may laugh at the things her characters say, but you never quite laugh at the characters themselves - except, possibly, the very silly Mrs Grimmer, of "Doctors and Diets," a woman capable of spouting unending streams of absurdity. ("The incision was fourteen inches deep.") All too often, even Mrs Grimmer reminds me of the ridiculous things that I've said. 

Ruth Draper didn't write down scripts until well into her career. She had no need of them herself; she entered her characters so completely that she could effortlessly alter their words from night to night in response to her audiences. The scripts were published in 1960, as The Art of Ruth Draper, but if the book were her only legacy, her art might well have passed into oblivion. Shortly before she died, at the end of 1956, however, she was persuaded to record many of her longer and better-known routines. While the audiences that had seen her on stage since the end of the First World War died off, a new audience grew up around the even more stripped-down recordings. (Marian Seldes, a celebrated interpreter of Edward Albee, bridges both worlds, having seen Draper perform in a Park Avenue apartment when she (Ms Seldes) was barely twenty - an event that she recounted thrillingly to last night's gathering.) After one of her early performances, the story goes, Mrs Patrick Campbell said to George Bernard Shaw, "That was acting!" To which Shaw replied, "No, that was life." The recordings prove, a fortiori, that these theatrical eminences weren't exaggerating. Draper could establish a character in two or three lines, with nothing more than a shawl or a hat for a prop, and then spin a fascinating full-length portrait over the following ten or twenty minutes. Lily Tomlin has long acknowledged her debt to Ruth Draper, and last night Ms Ebersole and Mr Busch did the same.

I had hoped that someone might actually 'do' one of the monologues, and when it became clear that this wasn't going to happen I considered raising my hand during the Q&A and asking, not in so many words, why not. But the panelists provided their answer midway through the discussion. Unfortunately, their high regard for Draper's work led them all to conclude that the recordings are the last word on the subject, and that any attempt to re-interpret the written and recorded legacy would be ill-advised. 

Certainly there is no need for imitations of Ruth Draper. But her sketches have a timelessness and a reach - I'd hesitate to call it a universality, because the pieces are so bound up in the peculiarities of language - and an integrity that brings Shakespeare to mind. You can listen to Mrs Clancy, of "The Italian Lesson," Draper's best-known piece, all you like, but you will never know her any better than you know anyone in real life: there will always be an inscrutable core, an impasse, if you will, that will only become more obvious. Draper's ability to place this core on view while respecting its inscrutability is what distinguishes her living impersonations from caricatures. Draper's characters, moreover, never address the audience. They are always engaged in conversations with unseen but palpable companions. There is nothing directly revealing about the sketches; revelations come, rather, just as they do in life, as the indirect implications of ordinary behavior. Shaw was right: this is life.

Because the characters are so powerfully drawn - and the drawing, after all, is in the writing - I believe that Draper's texts can be approached apart from her performances of them. Indeed, actors would be hard pressed to find more challenging material. Although I haven't yet seen Tovah Feldshuh in Golda's Balcony, I did catch her (all but) one-woman show, Tallulah Hallelujah!, and I'm pretty sure that she could work wonders with "Doctors and Diets" and "In a Railway Station on the Western Plains" - not to mention "A German Governess." I'd like to see Allison Janney tackle the trio in "Three Women and Mr Clifford." The task of making up the list I'd rather leave to you. But I should hate to see Draper's work embalmed by her recordings.

The recordings, however, are indispensable. Not only are they great fun but because Draper's masterpieces of American literature are unavailable in print, they're all we've got. To find out more about the recordings, and about Ruth Draper generally, visit the Draper Monologue site. For her work in bringing Draper to wider contemporary notice, by the way, Susan Mulcahy deserves a prize.

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