In his foreword to The Letters of Ruth Draper: A Self-Portrait of a Great Actress (1920-1956), Sir John Gielgud writes, “I have always felt that Ruth Draper was (with Martha Graham) the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us.” Yet, despite the fact that her career spanned the eras of sound recordings, radio, films, and television, virtually no trace of her performances now remains aside from a few recordings she made — with some reluctance — in 1954, less than two years before she died. These recordings have recently been remastered and are available at www.drapermonologues.com. Their release led Michael Feingold, writing on TheaterMania.com, to call Draper “America’s Greatest Woman Playwright (Maybe)” and inspired Annette Benning to recreate four of them in a 2014 show at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
One of her performances, before a 1954 meeting of the Community Service Society, is available online at the WNYC Archives. In “Three Generations From the Court of Domestic Relations,” which she first performed in 1919, Draper appears as the 79 year old Anna Abrahams, then as Anna’s daughter, Sadie Greenman (47), and finally, as Rosie Greenman (19), Sadie’s daughter. The three women are speaking with a judge, and it gradually emerges that Rosie is trying to convince the judge to direct that her mother and grandmother be put in a home for elderly women so she and her boyfriend can leave for some small town out West where he’s been promised a job. All we hear is Draper’s voice, of course, but from that alone — her changing accents, diction, vocabulary, emotional tenor — that she transforms completely in the course of a 20-minute performance.
She explained her inspiration in an early — and rare – interview with a Boston reporter in 1925:
I used to know a City Magistrate who presided in the Domestic Relations Court, and he told me I could come and sit with him when I wanted to and see what was going on. That’s where I saw the old Jewish woman. In real life, though, the situation was not the same as it is in the stage sketch. The old woman’s daughter and her granddaughter wanted to have her sent away. I thought that was less interesting than placing the stress on the attitude of the youngest generation, so I built the sketch around the young woman, instead of the old one.
Despite the fact that she played poor women in many of her monologues, Draper was accustomed from birth to the society of the wealthy and famous. Her father was a successful surgeon in New York City and her mother was the daughter of Charles A. Dana, editor and part owner of The New York Sun. She attended an exclusive girls’ school, came out as a debutante in 1902, and was active in the Junior League. She would later use her insider knowledge of society women to devastating effect in such pieces as “The Italian Lesson,” “A Debutante at a Dance,” and “A Cocktail Party.”
But she had shown a flair for performance from a young age, and a family friend, the great Polish pianist Paderewski, encouraged her to pursue her passion: “You must do this professionally,” he told her in 1910. “You must make the decision. It must come from you, from inside.” She began by performing short one-person skits of her own creation at private functions at the homes of society friends around New York, and quickly gained a reputation as something of a phenomenon. Henry Adams saw her perform in Washington, D.C. in 1911 and wrote thereafter, “She is a little genius and quite fascinates me.”
In 1913, she traveled to England, where she appeared at parties hosted by society dames and ladies of the nobility. Her audiences included, on different occasions, King George V and Queen Mary and Prime Minister Henry Asquith. While in London, she became friends with Henry James, who once remarked to her, “My dear young friend, you have woven yourself a magic carpet — stand on it!” James even wrote a sketch for her, though Draper never attempted to perform it. The artist John Singer Sargent made several sketches of her, including the one featured on the cover of The Letters of Ruth Draper, which shows her in costume for the sketch, The Scottish Immigrant at Ellis Island.
She returned home to America just before World War One broke out, and her mother died a few weeks after her arrival. She toured the country performing on behalf of War Relief Benefits, and, for the only time in her career, acted as a member of a full cast in a Cyril Harcourt play, A Lady’s Name. The experience quickly convinced her that she should only perform solo, and in works she had written and conceived herself. In October 1918, she returned to England and then, on the day after Armistice, crossed to France.
For the next eight months, she toured American Army camps, entertaining the troops. She returned to England and resumed making the rounds of private homes, but her experience of performing before the soldiers had given her confidence that her art could appeal to more than just the wealthy and privileged. In January 1920, she booked Aeolian Hall in London for a single performance, and the reviews encouraged her to book it for five more in May 1920. This run rocketed her to success. “She is a hit of the season,” wrote The Observer, and The Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer proclaimed:
The art of Miss Draper stands alone…. To hold an audience enthralled for nearly two hours with this brand of dramatic art, without the aid of properties, music or scenery, is indeed a triumph. There is no doubt that her listeners would cheerfully have allowed Mis Draper to continue indefinitely.
The letters in The Letters of Ruth Draper begin at this point and continue over the course of the next 36 years, up to just two weeks before her death, at the age of 72, in 1956. Throughout these decades, she travelled all over the world, performing constantly. As Morton Dauwen Zabel writes in the memoir that introduces The Art of Ruth Draper: Her Dramas and Characters (1960), which can be found in electronic form on the Internet Archive (link):
She performed wherever her travels took her — in theatres, in halls, in drawing-rooms, in college auditoriums, in a country store in New Mexico, in a ship’s salon. She carried none of the enormous equipment of scenery, lights, costumes, managers, impresarios, and paraphernalia the great Frenchwoman [Sarah Bernhardt] required. She travelled through six continents and over thousands of miles by land, sea, and air without retinue, staff, or company, carrying all the equipment she needed in a few dress-cases or hat-boxes and the most rudimentary of make-up kits.
When the French actor and producer, Lugné-Poe, who assisted Draper in arranging her tours over the next twenty years, first approached her about appearing at his theater, he asked her how many assistants and other cast members she would need. “Non, oh non,” she answered. “Je suis seule. Je n’ai besoin de personne. Seule, moi. Un rideau [curtain], seul.” The simplicity of her needs is demonstrated by a sample of the stage requirements listed in an appendix to The Art of Ruth Draper:
A Class in Greek Poise:
A plain straight chair, and a small plain table.
Christmas Eve on the Embankment at Night:
A plain low wooden bench, if possible of weathered appearance.
A Cocktail Party:
A drawing-room chair with or without arms, and a low coffee-table.
A Dalmatian Peasant in the Hall of a New York Hospital:
A plain straight office chair.
A Debutante at a Dance:
A large roomy upholstered or overstuffed armchair.
Doctors and Diets:
A small rectangular table to serve as a restaurant table, and a straight restaurant chair.
Even her preparation was minimal. As Neilla Warren writes in The Letters of Ruth Draper,
She could … arrive at the theatre twenty to thirty minutes before curtain time. She would glance at her mail, ask her stage manager which “sketches” were on her program for that performance, and then, with the help of her dresser, slip out of her dress or suit, and don her pinkish kimono while she supllemented — really only strengthened — her makeup: a little blue eye-shadow, the minimum of mascara and brown eye pencil and rouge — very little — dark lipstick shaped on with her fingertip, powder with a rabbit’s foot or soft brush. She simply wore her own face — her primary tool of expression. Dark brown wavy hair, large brown eyes compelling, expressive, and all-seeing, skin clear with a tone slightly — very slightly — tawny.
Then into her stage dress: brown or beige lace, a dark brown velvet, always sleeveless, basic, unobtrusive, to which could be added shawls or bits of costume for her characterizations. A final glance in the mirror and she walked quickly out to the wing where her dresser had laid out on a table the “costumes” and props for that performance, put on the necessary items; the curtain rose, and with a final word to whomever she was chatting with, she walked into the stage lights — a different character and personality. No more than that, no rehearsal, no moment of reflection or of gathering herself together.
Despite the fact that she was among the best-paid and most in-demand actresses of her day, Draper was little interested in publicity. The playwright Russel Crouse, who worked as her first press agent, once wrote that, “It was a strange association for she did not want any publicity, refused to see me half the time, and every thing I did to help her sell out, which she did, I did in spite of her.” She would do her part by performing, Warren writes, “but personal interviews, details of her off-stage self, most definitely not!” She once called publicity “only a sham sort of literature, pre-digested by someone else for ‘ready reading.'”
In part, the simple pace of her career kept the scope of her private life limited. Of the hundreds of letters published in The Letters of Ruth Draper, the majority are to a few of her close friends and relatives. But when she did have a great romance, it turned out more dramatic than any of her pieces. In early 1928, while appearing in Rome (among Draper’s talents was an ability to perform with equal facility in English, Italian, French, and German), she met Lauro de Bosis, a poet, scientist, and classical scholar. She was 43, he 26, but they were immediately drawn to each other. De Bosis pursued her in earnest, but Draper was filled with self-doubts. After some weeks together, she returned to the U.S., in some confusion. “My great object is to stop thinking — stop worrying — rejoice in the fact that I am loved — in the wonder of my life with its richness and beauty. I seemingly have everything — yet I can’t grasp it — that’s my trouble.
De Bosis followed her a few months later, taking a post with the Italy-America Society in New York City. He and Draper spent many days together, and when she boarded a ship for a tour of Europe the next spring, de Bosis travelled with her. By late 1929, they were considering marriage, but events intruded on their plans. A passionate anti-Fascist, de Bosis abruptly decided in June 1930 to give up his post and returned to Italy, where he began organizing a resistance group, Alleanza Nazionale. It soon attracted the attention of Mussolini’s police, and while de Bosis was away in New York settling his affairs, they arrested two of his associates, searched his mother’s house, and, upon finding incriminating letters, arrested her, too.
Signora de Bosis was released after she signed a letter to Mussolini denying any sympathies for the anti-Fascist cause, but the situation made it impossible for de Bosis to return to Italy. Instead, he moved to Paris, taking a job as a concierge to survive and working with other exiles to organize support against the regime. Inspired by a bold daylight flight by a fellow radical, Giovanni Bassanesi, during which he scattered anti-Mussolini leaflets over Milan, de Bosis began taking flying lessons and bought himself a small airplane. On 3 October 1931, he took off from Marseilles with less than a full tank of fuel, having told the ground crew that he was headed for Barcelona. Instead, he headed for Rome, where he dropped leaflets and circled the city for half an hour before heading out to sea. He was never seen again.
His fate was unknown for some time. Two weeks after his departure, Draper wondered to a friend “if Lauro should call me up perhaps from Spain, or South America, or Egypt.” By early November, howerver, it was clear that he had crashed somewhere at sea, most likely having run out of fuel somewhere between Italy and Corsica. Though she grieved for the loss, she committed to carry on: “O well, I must grit my teeth and know one can’t recall the past, and have a second chance — with all my weaknessses and failures he loved me — and regretted nothing — that I know. By early January 1932, she was touring again, appearing in a series of twelve one-week engagements throughout Great Britain.
And tour she continued to do, despite the travel restrictions of a world war, for the rest of her life. In the last twelve months before her death, she performed in Chicago, Boston, New York City, Scotland, London, The Hague, Vienna, Italy, and Paris. When she couldn’t cross the Atlantic two or three times a year, as had been her habit, she settled for crossing the U.S. by train, appearing everywhere from Jacksonville, Florida to Seattle, Washington. A few weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack, she wrote enthusiastically to Corinne Robinson (mother of columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop) from Minot, North Dakota:
We go to such funny places, and now and then to a friend and luxury and comfort, and in spite of the bad hot air I do like trains! I have superb audiences everywhere, and the response is terrific. New people, young people, alert and keen and warm, and it’s very gratifying…. No worry about advertising, no risk, and assured packed house everything with the “best people” in town and, what I love, the youth! The high school and civic auditoriums I simply hate, but that’s where concerts are held, so I have to bear it, but the audiences seem wild with delight, and it’s a wonderful satisfaction.
By the early 1950s, her place in the world of the arts was so respected that she was awarded a CBE in 1951 and invited to give a private performance at a gala dinner at Windsor Castle. As she ended her last piece, The Scottish Immigrant, she slipped and fell flat on her back. “I managed to get up rather gracefully considering the shock,” she wrote her niece, “and the first persons who came forward were the Queen and both Princesses.”
Such exalted recognition did not lessen her appeal, however, as a young Kenneth Tynan wrote in one of his Observer reviews:
I want to declare Miss Draper open to the new generation of playgoers, and to trample on their suspicions, which I once shared, that she might turn out to be a museum-piece, ripe for the dust-sheet and oblivion. She is, on the contrary, about as old-fashioned and mummified as spring, and as I watched her perform her thronging monologues the other night, I could only conclude that this was the best and most modern group acting I had ever seen….
I have an idea that, at the back of her mind, Miss Draper is hoping still to find a company of actors skillful enough to stand up to comparison with the accuracy, tact, and wisdom of her technique. She is actually doing her
contemporaries a great kindness by not exposing them to such a hazard.
The Scottish Immigrant, which Draper first performed in 1912, was also her very last monologue. On December 29, 1956, the fifth night of what was intended to be a four-week season at the Playhouse Theatre, just off Broadway, she complained to her assistant at one point that, “I just went blank — and kept on talking. I never did that before.” She closed the show with her piece about the girl from the Highlands arriving at Ellis Island to join her fiance, rushing off stage at the end, calling out, “Sandy, my Sandy — I’m here!” Afterward, she asked to be driven to see the Christmas lights in the city, then went home for supper. Her maid found her in bed the next morning, dead from a heart attack.
While her work has inspired several generations of performers, including Lily Tomlin, Spaulding Gray, and Julia Sweeney, and continues to be celebrated, her decision to devote herself strictly to live performances has ensured that Ruth Draper will forever be something of a neglected genius. As David Benson remarked in connection with a 2002 BBC Radio 4 tribute to her work:
If you want to be immortal you must be in films – the best theatre dies with its audience and the best telly and even radio disappears after a while. But movies are forever. Ruth Draper made no films, apart from a few experimental tests with Alexander Korda which were never used. It is a great shame, as the audio recordings, brilliant though they are, only give us half the magic of her work. We miss seeing what she did.