18 October 2008

Discovering Ruth Draper

There is really no excuse for my failure to acquaint myself long ago with the work of Ruth Draper (1884–1956). Up until this week, I could have told you that she wrote and performed comic monologues, that one of these inspired a short opera (The Italian Lesson, by Lee Hoiby), and that she inspired Lily Tomlin. But I’d never heard any of Draper’s work. That’s changed, because as I begin to research the life of Madeline Kahn, I’m told by her brother that she, too, was inspired by Draper, and almost before I could say another word, he pressed into my hands Madeline Kahn’s own audio cassette tape of Draper monologues. What could I do but listen?

That Draper mimics a variety of voices, I knew, but I was unprepared for her formidable powers. Though some of her society matrons are clearly related, no two characters sound entirely alike: they are fluty, gruff, dull or piercing. Beyond the timbre, however, it’s in the accents that the most striking distinctions lie. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that the monologues are performed by one woman and not by a battalion (or perhaps a cotillion) of ladies. A monologue called “In a Church in Italy” is not a monologue at all, but an ensemble piece for an English watercolorist, an Italian beggar, a German tourist with children (interested primarily in the fact that the Kaiser once visited, and in whether chocolate can be obtained nearby), a philandering Italian lady, and a group of American sightseers — all played by Ruth Draper.

These folks come and go, and each speaks her native tongue. I’m dazzled by the audacity: whole chunks of Draper’s work are given over to French, Italian and German, automatically excluding even bigger chunks of her audience. As if that weren’t risky enough, in “The Actress,” she interrupts speeches in Russian-accented English and French for a long rant in a made-up, Slavic-sounding language that nobody speaks — though it is, in its way, entirely intelligible. Approximately 48 percent of my writing and my (now forgotten) performing careers has been devoted to listening to editors and directors telling me that I was “on the verge of losing the audience.” Either no one told Ruth Draper that she might lose her audience, or else she simply did not care. If you are open to this sort of thing, you will get it, or you will have patience for her to resume speaking a language you understand. If you’re not open to it, Miss Draper will manage, somehow, to carry on without you.

Her material is at times impossibly subtle, focusing on the most mundane activities and requiring the listener to pay close attention. Sometimes the humor lies in the accretion of detail, other times in the adroit insertion of incongruity among those details, for she wields irony like a scalpel. And those details are profuse, too, for she paid close attention, too. I am reminded, particularly in her portraits of New York society, of the work of Edith Wharton, and thus it’s no surprise to learn that Draper, like Wharton, was born into New York’s upper classes, and that her earliest performances were offered not in theaters but in Manhattan drawing rooms. Like Wharton, Draper is a satirist but only occasionally a jokester.

Outright comedy does emerge, though. In “Doctors and Diets,” a certain Mrs. Grimmer bends over backward to get a table for herself and three friends at a fashionable restaurant; once the ladies are seated, they discover that they’re all on diets and thus won’t be partaking of any of the specialties of the house. Instead, they lunch on boiled turnip, or the juice of 11 lemons, while discussing — avidly, even reverently — their fad diets and the doctors who recommend them.

Because I’ve only heard Draper’s work, and only a little of it, I can’t quite imagine her stagecraft. I read that she used no props, and that her only costume was a shawl. It’s almost unimaginable, or would be, if I hadn’t seen Lily Tomlin and witnessed her ability to transform herself into whole throngs of people using only her voice, face, and body. At times, I’ve thought Tomlin was wearing elaborate makeup and a costume, so completely did she insinuate the character in my mind’s eye. I gather that Draper could manage the same trick, and with both artists I sense layers of background, beyond what’s presented — the sense that Lily Tomlin knows exactly what Edith Ann’s living room looks like, for example, or what Ernestine the operator ate for breakfast. Entering a Draper monologue is, in the same way, entering a fully realized and inhabited universe.

And I’m beginning to grasp that, if I’d asked Madeline Kahn about the background of some of her characters — the education of Lili von Shtupp, or the reading habits of Eunice Burns — I’d have gotten not only an answer, but a monologue. How sorry I am to have missed that!

NOTE: More information can be found, and compact discs featuring Draper’s monologues can be purchased, here.

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