In a grand 1920's home, a New York society matron's Italian lesson is just beginning. "'Midway along the pathway of our life,'" she recites with a trill, "'I found myself in a forest dark'—we say: a dark forest, don't we?—'because the direct way was lost.'" But her reading of her beloved Dante ("Dante and Shakespeare: they seemed to know everything") proceeds no further. First she calls a friend for a quick gossip. Then she consults with the cook, plays with a new puppy, gets her husband's golf clubs to him, disposes of symphony tickets, thrills to her lover's call. And so on for 28 minutes as Ruth Draper, the grande dame of the one-woman show, adjusts her voice for each caller and interloper so precisely that, by the end, we know almost everything about this woman—and her world.
This astonishing performance is legendary in theater circles, but few have seen it. Draper (1884-1956) considered herself a character actress, not some sort of stand-up performer. No footage survives of her vast repertoire of sketches. And it was only near the end of her life that she consented to record her monologues. Thanks to Susan Mulcahy, a journalist with a passion for Draper, these long-unavailable recordings are now on CD (at www.drapermonologues.com). No need to dress up. Just close your eyes and listen.
Draper's talent made her a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. She had only to place a small advertisement in a newspaper to sell out a theater. As a member of Society, she was comfortable playing to high-toned audiences and visiting friends like Edith Wharton and Henry James. And her fans included the century's most discerning figures: Noël Coward, John Gielgud, Katharine Hepburn. What were they cheering? A woman standing alone. "The people who come have to use their own imaginations to get the effect, and they appreciate that," Draper said in a rare interview. "There is no scenery, no person except myself on the stage. The others are the joint product of my own and the audience's imagination."
Twenty years ago, I heard a scratchy record of Draper morphing from the matron of "The Italian Lesson" to a Scottish immigrant to a Maine dowager. Her mimicry was exact. But what made the recordings unforgettable was her empathy. She identified with each of her characters; she was, as critics had described her, a modern-day Jane Austen. "I never try to point morals in my monologues," she said. "I believe the material has got to go deeper into human life and human feeling."
When a companion said of a Draper performance, "Have you ever seen such acting?" George Bernard Shaw shot back: "That's not acting, that's life!"