What a Great Talker She Was

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!”

Draper returned to America and during the war worked in a New Jersey munitions factory (she loved the physical labor). Then she went back to London, where in 1920 she did two performances of her material at the Aeolian Hall. She was 35. The course was set; from that point on, she never suffered a professional failure. Back in the States following the Second World War, Draper typically would offer five or six monologues per show, some as long as 30 minutes. On December 29, 1956, after a performance at Manhattan’s Playhouse Theatre, she asked her driver to go up and down Broadway so that she could see the lights. She died in her sleep that night. At her funeral service at the historic Grace Church on Broadway, her “worn shawls” draped the coffin.

Queried by the English stage actor known as Mrs. Patrick Campbell, “Have you ever seen such acting?” George Bernard Shaw replied, “That’s not acting. That’s life.” The comedian Joyce Grenfell called Draper a “hand mime,” able to make you see forks and spoons and other objects. Eddie Cantor wrote a fan letter in 1929: “I wish it were possible to send every young actor and actress to witness your remarkable performance. It would save them many trying seasons in stock.” John Gielgud said that “Draper was (with Martha Graham) the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us.” The theater critic Kenneth Tynan, after attending one of her London performances, wrote, “It seems, in passing, absurd to use a singular verb in connection with so plural a player. … Ruth Draper are now at the height of their career, and you only have six more weeks in which to see them.”

When Lily Tomlin was doing improv comedy sketches in a Detroit coffee shop in the early 1960s, a customer directed her to Draper’s recordings, which she found at the public library. Tomlin was immediately inspired, impressed by the absence of cruelty in Draper’s humor, the depth of humanity in her characters, and her respect for these characters even as she satirized them. Tomlin adeptly absorbed the lesson, weaving her own brand of sympathy and delight into Ernestine the telephone operator and Edith-Ann the child-philosopher on Laugh-In, and then in the multiple figures in her one-woman Broadway show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, in which she, like Draper, relied on simple dress (in Tomlin’s case, black pants and black blouse) and no other props. The voice and the body language did everything.

Like many listeners, I began, by chance and at the suggestion of more sophisticated friends, with what many enthusiasts still regard as the quintessential, the greatest, Draper performance, a sly combination of Noël Coward, high gay camp, and satire tinged with understanding. “The Italian Lesson” opens with a question in a raised, slightly tremulous voice, followed by a commanding invitation: “Come in? Come in, Signorina.” The Park Avenue doyenne Mrs. Clancy, surely based on dozens of real-life ladies Draper knew well, speaks in a starchy voice compounded of imperiousness, authority, omniscience, and world weariness. The voice is one possessed even today by some Upper East Siders of the sort Draper grew up with: “Locust Valley lockjaw,” it is sometimes called, but Draper’s grande dame can break out of it when high emotion, giddiness, or humor overwhelms her. She is the mistress of her realm—a house with domestic servants, a car and driver, a husband, four troublesome children, a multitude of friends—but this morning she is making time for her weekly Italian lesson. “To think that we have arrived at the divine comedy … Dante at last!” she exclaims, delighted to delve deeply into the work of the poet who, along with Shakespeare, “seemed to have known everything.” And so they begin, with the opening of the Inferno: (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita … ). Mrs. Clancy enunciates the Italian slowly, mellifluously. She stumbles but translates, even improvises, taking poetic liberties, much to her own satisfaction. Meanwhile, her pronunciation and translation are gently corrected by the Signorina—we do not hear the teacher, only the witty responses of the student.

She never gets past the first three lines. What intervenes? Life, in its multiple, predictable, intrusive ways. The cook comes in. So do the manicurist (“Can you manage, Miss Mary?”), the secretary, the children, and a new puppy recently delivered (“Aren’t we going to love him? We’ll call him Dante, because he came in the middle of my Dante lesson, and we’ll call him Dan for short!”). Mostly, she responds to telephone calls. Mrs. Clancy has friends with names like Gladys, Mabel, and Camilla. (As with the Signorina, we do not hear any of these characters—everything is done, with great panache, via implication.) The door may be shut, but the outside world intrudes. This is a woman with substantial obligations, all of her own making: appointments, committee meetings, luncheons at the Plaza, symphony concerts, charitable missions. In addition, there are her intimates, like one just back from holiday in Mexico (“Did you get to Guatemala, too?”), even a male lover whose identity we immediately infer when we hear Draper lower her voice, a middle-aged woman reduced for the moment to a cooing, seductive teenager.

The lady’s words have meaning, but what’s really important is the way her voice registers tone, or rather tones, the meanings beneath the meaning. Draper’s genius is knowing how to lend nuance; to project emotion; to whisper conspiratorially (“That’s not for the children’s ears … I’ll meet you at the Plaza”); to offer suggestions that we know will be heeded (“I rather feel like a Camembert cheese,” she opines to Jane, the cook); to say “all right” to her husband on the other end of the line with weary boredom oozing from every fiber as he orders his golf clubs to be delivered to the train; to praise Count Bluffsky, a White Russian émigré reduced to painting society portraits, while at the same time demanding alterations to the new picture of her daughter (“The light is lovely on it, and we’re crazy about the frame … It’s a real work of art, and I think it will be absolutely perfect if you make those few little changes”).

Luncheon at one, a hospital committee meeting at two, a bridge lesson at three: there’s not a moment free. After a half hour of frenzied planning, revisions, regrets (she’d rather stay home with Miss Swift and clear off her desk), and more commands, Mrs. Clancy has one more request of her staff: Miss Swift must order a book for the upcoming meeting of her book club. “It’s called Our Inner Life,” she asserts with breezy insouciance. And we realize that, consumed by her flurry of obligations, scheduled to the minute, this busy lady has no inner life.

Or does she? My partner, an astute reader and listener, suggested to me that this one line is a barbed arrow that hits its mark all too easily, that Draper’s satire is for just this moment too obvious, too unsubtle. I see the point, but I disagree. The characterization has been generously painted. We see the absurdity of the woman’s life, but we also share in that life. Draper asks us implicitly to look from without, but also from within. Her satire is never malign. In “A Debutante at a Dance,” we hear the voice of a young woman (redolent of a 1930s Katharine Hepburn) who might easily be Mrs. Clancy’s daughter. She wants to be all high seriousness, à la Matthew Arnold, but she never shuts up, and combines nervousness with foolishness. In other words, she is a teenager, like Gloria Upson in Auntie Mame. Although we laugh, we must try to sympathize. Even the rich have troubles. They can’t help themselves.

We see the absurdity of the woman’s life, but we also share in that life. Draper asks us implicitly to look from without, but also from within.

Not all of Draper’s characters come from the upper classes. She casts a wide net, with accents and even languages not usually heard near Fifth Avenue. There’s the “Scottish Immigrant at Ellis Island” who waits for a glimpse of her fiancé on the pier. There are the “Three Generations in a Court of Domestic Relations,” grandmother, mother, and daughter from the Lower East Side arguing for (or against) putting the old woman into what was not yet called, in those days, a senior citizens’ facility in the suburbs. The country woman “In a Railway Station on the Western Plains” who helps save lives following a train wreck. And her Down East country cousin who sits “On a Porch in a Maine Coast Village.” We are far away from ladies who lunch, or English gentry who open a bazaar, or actresses who speak in different tongues. But in all cases, we are in the richly heterogeneous realm of Draper’s imagination, which invests all of these characters with deep and luminous humanity.

There’s one character whom we come to know intimately but who never speaks. Perhaps Draper’s greatest creation is a Mr. Clifford, a successful Wall Street money man. He might as well be the husband of our Dante scholar. In “Three Women and Mr. Clifford,” we see him through the eyes of his private secretary, his wife, and his mistress, each of whom gets her say, talking to, with, and about him. Each knows a different man, or rather some intersecting facets of a man of many parts. We become acquainted with him at second hand, through the women in his life.

A dramatic monologue of the sort we know from Shakespeare allows a character on stage to reveal him- or herself to us. Shakespeare invented “the human,” according to Harold Bloom, by creating this kind of inwardness. Draper also offers inwardness, but her single speakers are not uttering monologues. They assert and respond, they parry and thrust, they move forward to social and psychological climaxes and resolutions, in the company of other people, whom we neither hear nor see. A one-sided conversation with these imaginary others extends or varies the radical innovation of Aeschylus, who—more than two millennia ago—gave us the essence of drama by introducing the “second actor” to a stage formerly occupied by a single speaker and a chorus. Conflict and resolution became possible. The art of Ruth Draper, as Kenneth Tynan observed, is multiple: we experience human feelings and relations, condensed into a single voice but expanding into a vision of the world.

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Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English, emeritus, at Southern Methodist University. His latest books are Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead and If You See Something, Say Something: A Writer Looks at Art, a selection of his reviews from The Wall Street Journal..


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