She described herself as a character actress . . . never a monologuist. Those who saw her perform speak with awe, as of a legend. Some remember specific characters she played - the American tourist, an old Italian peasant, a frightened young Scottish immigrant, the flighty debutante. Others speak of her many faces, her many voices, the almost bare stage which suddenly, before their awakened imaginations, become filled with people. Still others remember the shawls with which she evoked so many of her characters . . . the same shawls which draped her casket at her death.
When Ruth Draper died in her sleep on December 30, 1956 at the age of 72 (at the mid-point of a sold-out New York engagement), most of her tangible life's work as the most highly regarded, most famous monologuist of our time, died with her. Her scripts, a few phonograph records, a few filmed sequences for British television were, seemingly, at that remained.
Now, in "The Letters of Ruth Draper" by Neilla Warren, we have an opportunity to sense, to almost touch, Ruth Draper's elusive genius. For, though she was primarily an actress who created an staged her own material, she also was an insatiable correspondent. Out of the more than 2,000 letters made available by family and friends, Warren selected roughly 300 to frame this letter-narrative of Draper's life. Warren fills some of the gaps with diary notations, and provides transitional details, as well as background information about personalities and incidents mentioned in the letters.
The result is a combination autobiography-biography permeated with an air of freshness, of immediacy. Draper's letters were written in a steady stream before, during, and after . . . ever everything. And so, we find ourselves experiencing everything right along with her. At times, the book becomes as suspenseful as a novel, especially during the tumultuous period she was involved in a tragic love affair, with a young Italian anti-fascist writer, just before World War II. Finally, nearing the end, as we know her death is imminent, it is remarkable to read of the activity, the lust for life that thrives until the very last day.
Depending on one's level of tolerance, her breathless effusiveness may grow tiresome. But, this was really the essence of Ruth Draper who, at age 70 wrote-"I see the world at ways through the eyes of a child." This was her enthusiasm for life and work. Her voice is vibrant, filled with energy, curiosity, and constant delight at what she was around her. Surprisingly, she also suffered profound insecurity; frequently she was in despair. But the voice is vibrant even in despair.
Born in 1884 in New York City, the seventh child of eight in a well-to-do-family, she and her siblings were encouraged to develop their individual talents and personalities. By the age of 8 she was performing character sketches for the family. She never took elocution, speech, or acting lessons, and only once, unsuccessfully, did she ever perform with other actors in a conventional play. The methods she developed in her mid-twenties were essentially the same ones she used throughout her life. Observative, intuition, an unerring ear, an almost infallible memory, wit, compassion, and tremendous energy were the key elements in her creative process. It was a talent she was born with, and which she honed to perfection.
Without a doubt, this is a large and impressive body of correspondence by a most remarkable artist and woman. Perhaps the most amazing thing about these letters-and perhaps it is the key to her art-is that despite almost world-wide adulation and an international circle of Who's Who friendships, they show that she always remain exactly as she was in 1921 when she announced proudly (almost defiantly) to French producer Lugne-Poe-"Je suis seule." I am alone."