Arts - Autumn 2020

What a Great Talker She Was

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By Willard Spiegelman | September 23, 2020
Ruth Draper in 1941. After her triumphant performances in London in 1920, “she never suffered a professional failure.” (Everett Collection Historical/Alamy)
Ruth Draper in 1941. After her triumphant performances in London in 1920, “she never suffered a professional failure.” (Everett Collection Historical/Alamy)

In the old days of vaudeville and burlesque, standup comics weren’t the only speakers to take to the stage. Another breed of noble performer also stood and delivered, sometimes presenting serious monologues, sometimes simply talking. A few of these artists crossed over to oral interpretation, reciting tried-and-true set pieces from oratory, drama, and poetry. A rare few others did something better : they wove characters and whole dramas out of their imaginations and offered them up for their audiences. This was performance, long before the advent of performance art.

The greatest of these unclassifiables was Ruth Draper (1884–1956). In 1935, a Pittsburgh columnist, puzzling over how to characterize an upcoming performance of hers, wrote that “the English language does not contain a word which perfectly describes [Draper and her art].” He eliminated “Speaking Portraits” and “Character Sketches,” two terms that had been associated with her work, as not quite accurate, while also rejecting “diseuse” and “monologist.” Draper was profoundly sui generis, her performances nothing short of astonishing.

What did she do? She stood or, later in her career, sat on stage, sometimes with a table to go with her chair. And she talked. In the last years of her life, she made a series of recordings for RCA, although she had resisted the offer to do so at first, reluctant to perform without an audience, a stage, and her modest props. Arthur Rubinstein helped convince her. Arturo Toscanini, also a fan although he barely knew English, assigned his chief engineer to the project. It was long thought that after the initial run-throughs proved unsuccessful, the producer secretly turned on the tape during a warm-up. Some experts dispute that story, arguing that Draper knew she was being recorded. At any rate, her recorded legacy, which includes 17 examples of what Draper called her “company of characters,” made fans of Lily Tomlin, Mike Nichols, Simon Callow, Tom Waits, and countless others, including me.

Henry James offered this legendary bit of encouragement: “My dear child, you have woven your own very beautiful little Persian carpet. Stand on it!”

Draper came from a large, prominent New York family. Her father, William H. Draper, was a doctor, a professor of clinical medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Her maternal grandfather was Charles A. Dana, editor and publisher of the New York Sun. At nine, she entertained other children with her improvised impersonations. A decade later, she was doing the same before the Junior League. She had costumes: “a few hats …  a dressing gown, a waterproof, and a collection of shawls,” according to her friend Iris Origo. (At one of her final public performances in England, before female inmates at the Holloway Prison in 1954, she would remark on those shawls, now shabby: “I like to have them near me. They have been my faithful friends.”) Right before the First World War, she was doing sketches at a west London salon where the likes of Rubinstein, Jacques Thibaud, and Pablo Casals played chamber music. Henry James wrote a piece for her to do, but she refused, saying she could perform only her original sketches, with her characters. James offered this legendary bit of encouragement: “My dear child, you have woven your own very beautiful little Persian carpet. Stand on it!”

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