She started it all, really; character monologues woven together to form a thematically linked theatrical performance. She called them ‘monodramas’ and though many of them were comedic, odd regional accents and quirky behaviorisms eventually gave way to deeper observations about human psychology. In addition to her dazzling, chameleon-like transformations, audiences were also getting a digestible dose of well-crafted social critique.
It’s disheartening how obscure her name remains today, even with experienced theater folk, as she pioneered an oeuvre that has increased in popularity over the last 100 years. Without Ruth Draper, there probably wouldn’t be Nichols & May, or Lily Tomlin, or Whoopi Goldberg, or Eric Bogosian or Spalding Grey, to name a few.
George Bernard Shaw was a fan. As was Lawrence Olivier and John Geilgud. Henry James was so fond of her he wrote her a monologue of his own. Edith Wharton consoled her after the death of her boyfriend (she was never married). Helen Keller attended several performances with Anne Sullivan diligently tapping the text out on her wrist. Studs Terkel interviewed her on his radio show several times. “My God, how brilliant she was,” gushed Katherine Hepburn.
Not a bad legacy for a gal who began performing in her parent’s living room.
Ruth Draper was born in 1884 into a family of high pedigree. Her father was a surgeon and her maternal grandfather was Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War and later, editor of the New York Sun. Her choice to pursue acting did not sit well with either.
The Industrial Revolution had pushed the classes further apart in New York and those in the upper class (and upper Manhattan) simply did not pursue careers in theater. Touring was grueling, paid little, and prohibited proper relationships. Most saw actors as a notch above prostitutes, which sometimes they were. And if not, they were probably cavorting around with them, drinking late night in mixed company or philandering in the cheap seats just like they did in the galleys of Shakespeare’s Old Globe. (It’s rumored there was more action in the stalls than on the stage.)
But the parlors and drawing rooms of estates were a different story. The wealthy took pride in hosting cultural gatherings, and there was certainly room to do it: musicians and authors and poets were the mainstay of their soirees, and performing in a someone’s mansion was far from the pedestrian environment of a public theater, and significantly harder to get an invitation too.
This is where the young Ruth Draper cut her performing teeth. It was a pianist friend of her parents, and a highly respected artist in the parlor circuit himself, that first noticed Ruth’s exceptional ear for mimicry and encouraged her parents to cultivate it.
It was only a matter of time before Ruth was captivating the salons of her peers, many of who were up and coming patrons of the arts. She could imitate any class of character from the Teutonic German nanny who home schooled her, to the family’s language-butchering Yiddish tailor. She had an especially acute ear for her own kind: the educated, privileged and superficial.
Her most famous monologue, The Italian Lesson, parodied a middle-aged socialite for gossiping more about how her Italian lessons made her erudite, than actually learning to speak a word of the language. It was spot on. And when heard today… alarmingly contemporary.
She also wielded a rather nasty, if not accurate, impression of her sister Dorothea. Though she claimed not to base her characters on real people, one can only imagine the plethora of material she culled from her seven siblings. In one of her monodramas, “Three Generations In a Court of Domestic Relations.” She wow’d audiences by playing a feisty grandmother, a worn-out mother, and the ambitious 17 year old daughter all without leaving her seat. “Instead of leaving the stage to adjust the shawl, I just drop it from my head to my shoulders, and then for the young girl i just fling it off. I think it’s the speed of the transformation that impresses them.”
Her peers couldn’t articulate what it was that made her so engrossing, but they lined up to see her perform. She said of her creative process, “…If you’re completely given over to what you’re portraying, you will convince other people…” She had not lost her youthful imagination or enthusiasm. The popular Nietzsche aphorism (of whom she was no doubt aware) comes to mind: “Maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.” Ruth had “maturity” in spades. She also depended on an enlightened audience. “The audience must work as well as I do. Their imagination must be fired and supply all that is not there.”
Some critics thought she was a snob. But it was never about social status with Draper. It was about taste. There were those that had a finely tuned aesthetic sense, and sought fulfillment from nuance, and then there were blockheads. The Twenties unearthed a good bit of nonsense along with its literary highlights. And for Draper, the spectacles that passed for art were utter nonsense. Her few visits to Hollywood left a bad impression of what “second-rate taste” looked like.
Ruth was at the height of her powers when New York entered its pre-crash golden age. The twenties were roaring, and for every wanna-be Gatsby fighting for a seat at the Algonquin Round Table, there was a hidden gem like Ruth beginning to sparkle. Her reputation spread quickly throughout the city and performances at parlors began to reach capacity weeks in advance.
At her busiest, she was doing forty bookings in five months, all without an agent or manager. She would “wow” one gathering, and another would instantly materialize. She went from one living room to the next, literally across the country. Her hosts were a who’s who of recognizable names: Astor, Stuyvesant, Whitney, Roosevelt (yes, Eleanor). They were epic evenings.
It didn’t take long for word to cross the pond. Draper became a mainstay with the Royal families in Britain and Sweden. Though not formally paid, she was sometimes bestowed with priceless jewelry. It was a phenomenon that surprised even her. “Another sold out night in Paris,” she would say with a sarcastic sigh. But it was real
Though a petite 5’ 4’’, Draper knew how to command attention. Her portrayals were bold and convincing. And she never pandered. Her characters were treated with the utmost respect no matter how ignorant or destitute they may have been underneath. She inhabited them completely, and with dignity. The spectators felt privileged just to watch.
She was generous with her fans; answering mail and cultivating friendships with admirers. After a performance, one story goes, Ruth offered two sycophants a ride in her carriage during a thunderstorm. The fans sang her praises, and then lamented they had never heard “The Italian Lesson” in all their years of seeing her. Draper did it for them on the spot.
She had many close friends, but remained single for most of her life and struggled with it in her voluminous letters. Her vocation might have intimidated many men, but Ruth claimed she would have given it up for Mr. Right. No one believed her. The more famous she became, the more her schedule (which at one point toured Africa, India and South America) prohibited her from maintaining a sustainable relationship.
One man capable of handling a girlfriend that was performed for heads of state and earning more money than he ever would, was Lauro De Bosis, an Italian poet twenty years her junior. It was a passionate affair, but three years into their relationship, Lauro was killed while flying a small plane. Draper would never replace him.
Interestingly, she did not perform in a theater proper until her late 30’s. She eventually conquered Broadway, late in her career. She was in her mid-fifties when Thornton Wilder nominated her for membership in the Institute of Arts & Letters. Unfortunately (for the Institute, that is) the organization’s strict definition for playwright did not include monologues.
It was a double-edged sword, to be an artist’s artist. One 1920’s critic commented that Martha Graham, like Ruth Draper, was “condemned by the uniqueness of her talent to appear only in works of her own creation.”
She threatened to retire several times, but they were idle. At 70, Draper had an estimated 40 monologues at the ready, some of which were over half an hour long.
On December 29th, 1956 after another sold out performance at the Playhouse Theatre, Ruth took a carriage uptown to dinner, and returned to her home to die peacefully in her asleep. The funeral at Grace Church was standing room only. Her coffin was shrouded in the many shawls she wore when bringing her irreplaceable repertoire of characters to life.