J oyce Grenfell, the comedienne and monologue artist beloved by British audiences in the 1950s and '60s, would never have sought such a career if not for the presence and inspiration of Ruth Draper, a close friend of her parents. Backstage after one of Draper's performances in London, Grenfell enthused, "I don't know how anyone dares mention my name with yours," to which Draper responded, "They don't!"
Draper was indeed sui generis. One of the few artists with whom she could reasonably be compared was Martha Graham. As the critic Kenneth Tynan observed, Draper, like Graham, was "condemned by the uniqueness of her talent to appear only in works of her own creation." Though others, such as Cornelia Otis Skinner, tried the art of solo performing at around the same time and also recorded their work, only Draper endures and continues to influence contemporary artists. Her pieces remain fresh in part because she never relied on pop-cultural references, the crutch upon which so much contemporary writing, particularly the comedic, heavily leans, automatically limiting its shelf life. Draper's work revolves around timeless sorts of characters given to timeless sorts of pronouncements. "What is the use of going on with a thing if one doesn't get anywhere?" wonders the overextended matron from "The Italian Lesson."
"Most actors know about Ruth Draper," says Holland Taylor, an Emmy Award winner for The Practice. "It's sort of like singers know about Mabel Mercer. And all singers know that Frank Sinatra said he learned everything he knew about singing from Mabel Mercer."
Draper likely would have been stunned by the comparison, and the continued attention. The fact that she recorded her work indicates that she wanted it preserved. And yet Draper failed to take other basic steps to protect her legacy: she never named a literary executor, and failed to copyright all of her sketches. It was left to her family to contend with such details after her death, in 1956.
"I wish it were possible to send every young actor and actress to witness your remarkable performance," wrote the comedian Eddie Cantor in a 1929 fan letter to Draper. "It would save them many trying seasons in stock."
Though it is no longer possible to witness all the elements of Draper's artistry, she continues to influence actors and writers through her voice, an instrument she handled as deftly as any musical virtuoso. David Mamet, Annette Bening, Lily Tomlin, Charles Busch, John Lithgow, and Simon Callow are among the Draper fans who became acquainted with her work through the RCA recordings.
Of all contemporary artists, Tomlin is the one most associated with Draper. She was trying out character sketches at a coffee shop in Detroit in the 1960s when a customer asked if she'd ever heard of Ruth Draper. "I said 'no,' and he said, 'You make me think of her.'" He also mentioned that Draper had made some recordings. "Sure enough," recalls Tomlin, at the Detroit Public Library, "I found these records. Suddenly, I had a standard, I had something to aspire to." Tomlin was especially moved by Draper's ability to satirize without the cruelty that characterizes so much contemporary comedy. In Draper's work, says Tomlin, she found "something more human and illuminating, and compassionate—loving in a way."
Years later, when Tomlin was on Broadway in her one-woman show Appearing Nightly, she received a complimentary note from Charles Bowden, who had presented Draper during her final seasons in New York. "I was flabbergasted and thrilled and excited, and I went to have lunch with him," says Tomlin. Bowden ended up becoming production supervisor of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the one-woman show for which Tomlin won a Tony. And Tomlin and her partner, Jane Wagner, became close friends of Bowden and his wife, the actress Paula Laurence. Tomlin says she considered them “kind of my spiritual theatrical parents.”
John Lithgow, a multiple Emmy Award winner for Third Rock from the Sun, first learned of Draper in the 1970s while rehearsing for a Broadway production of Trevor Griffiths' The Comedians. Its director, Mike Nichols, conducted what amounted to a "seminar in comedy" says Lithgow, by playing for the actors a variety of recordings, including Draper's. Nichols would also give taped copies of "The Italian Lesson" to writers with whom he worked.
Another Tony Award recipient, Charles Nelson Reilly, the actor, director, and acting teacher, for years used Draper's tapes as a teaching tool in his classes. "She reminds you of the possibility of what an actor's mind can do," enthused Reilly in an interview conducted several years before his death in 2007. "There was no one else like her." Julie Harris, who once saw Draper perform, appeared in several shows directed by Reilly, including her one-woman triumph, The Belle of Amherst, in which she portrayed Emily Dickinson. Reilly, she said, kept “[Draper's] name and her spirit alive."
During Draper's lifetime, she was even more popular in England than in the United States, but now her band of admirers is larger in the U.S., most likely because the recordings were produced in New York. Though for years difficult to find, they were at least available in the States. Which is not to say that there are no Draper fans among Englishmen born too late to have seen her perform. Simon Callow, the actor, writer, and director, first discovered Draper in the 1960s, when as a teenager he happened upon her albums at a secondhand record shop in London. "They were going for something like ten shillings each," he says. "I took them home and immediately fell in love with them."
"It's the contact that she makes which is absolutely unique in my experience," notes Callow, who lauds Draper's ability through changes in her voice, to "actually [become] a different person for each of the people she's talking to without losing her own center." The result, in his estimation, is "the most dazzling mosaic of a person. The range of colors in every person that she creates is nonpareil."
Callow is among those who admit to being "a little less enthusiastic" about Draper's more serious pieces, but that has not dampened his overall enthusiasm: "She really is Jamesian," he comments. "The satire is on the same sort of Olympian level."
Draper had mixed feelings about other actors performing her work. At times she expressed the opinion that performers of solo theater should create their own work, rather than try and interpret hers, but at other times she wavered, less adamant on the topic. Given the uniqueness of her work, there is some question as to whether the playwright-actress can be separated from the play.
For a number of years after Draper's death, performances of her work were sporadic, and included the occasional drag version. It is unclear what Draper would have thought of these interpretations, but there is no doubt that the gay community played a significant role in keeping her work alive. The camp appeal of her upper-class ladies was best described in a review of "The Italian Lesson" from the 1940s: "She sets up a world such as Clare Boothe's in The Women without the use of all the bad actresses Miss Boothe needs."
"There was a long time when no one knew who she was," says Kate Draper, Draper’s great-niece, and once a Broadway actress herself, "but she's always been very popular with gay men. It was always gay actors that found her appealing. I could mention my name, and they'd say 'You're not a relation of Ruth Draper's by any chance?’ "
Starting in the 1980s, Draper’s monologues were performed by an actress named Patricia Norcia, whose financial backers controlled the rights for a number of years. In 2014, Annette Bening interpreted four of the monologues at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles to glowing reviews. Entertainment Weekly gave the production an “A” for being a “unique double-act of rediscovery – of the talented Bening at her most light-hearted and of the brilliant and funny work of Ruth Draper.”
Other actresses said they could not imagine doing Draper. Uta Hagen, who estimated that she saw Draper perform some sixty times, said she never considered doing her own interpretation of a Draper monologue. "I wouldn't even know where to start," she said. Neither would Lily Tomlin: "That would be sort of sacrilegious." Asked if she would ever try her hand at a Draper sketch, Julie Harris responded emphatically, "No! God save us! She was so unique."
While working as a director at Britain's National Theatre in the 1980s, Simon Callow attempted to stage a tribute to Draper with five actresses each doing a different monologue. Though initially enthusiastic, the actresses—Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Anna Massey among them—all came back to Callow with sincere regrets. Draper, a memory onstage for some, a recorded voice for others, was too much to live up to. "That's the real tribute," he notes.
But if Draper was, as David Mamet has said, one of the “great dramatists of the 20th century,” don’t her “plays” deserve to be performed? Her fans remain divided.
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