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Echo Chambers 

Sounds from the young 20th century

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
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There isn’t a stage actor alive who hasn’t felt the theater’s ephemerality after closing night, when the set is struck, the lights unplugged and an entire theatrical world, whose artifice was so vivid for however many weeks, suddenly vaporizes into a recollection. Where films, videotape and digital formats preserve — howsoever imperfectly — performances, stage actors virtually disappear into thin air after leaving the scenery, putting their legacies at the mercy of the audience’s fading memory. The Keans and the Booths may have the lion’s share of footnotes in theater-history texts, but we’ve never known them as future generations will know Brando or Streep.

This point is driven home by the relative anonymity of New Yorker Ruth Draper, grandmother of the one-woman show and a legend in her time, the bulk of whose extraordinary monologues were performed between 1920 and her death in 1956. She hobnobbed with American presidents (Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) and English royalty, with Henry Adams and Henry James (who wrote a monologue for her, which she never performed). On March 14, 1928, she sipped tea with Mussolini — at least, according to one of her calendar entries. (Her admiration for the fascist later subsided.) Draper’s adoring fans included George Bernard Shaw, Arturo Toscanini, Noel Coward, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Sherwood and Thornton Wilder. Draper routinely packed larger houses in the U.S. and Britain, and Sir John Gielgud described her as being “the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us.” Draper’s fleeting fame and the difficulty of preserving live performance are both suggested in a 1988 review by critic Bernard Levin for the Times of London: “The magic of her genius can never be reconstructed for those who did not see her, and will never be forgotten, until they die, by those who did.”

Draper is now something of a cult figure among those who have become familiar, or reacquainted, with her via two published works compiled and/or written by her biographer Dorothy Warren, The Letters of Ruth Draper and The World of Ruth Draper. (The 95-year-old Warren claims to have seen at least 37 of Draper’s performances, for which she can produce the programs.) Meanwhile, last November, Drapermania was given an adrenaline shot by a Vanity Fair article by Susan Mulcahy, who, in researching her subject, learned that the recordings of Draper’s monologues — most of which were made in the later part of the actress’s life — had gone out of print. After trying in vain to find a more experienced producer to compile them into a collection, Mulcahy took on the task herself, resulting in an intriguing two-CD package for BMG’s Special Projects division, now available exclusively through www.drapermonologues.com. Though Draper’s recorded voice may be a mere echo of the live-theater experience Levin describes — the woman alone on a chair in a pool of light, changing characters with the flip of a shawl — an echo is better than nothing, and from Draper’s echoes the listener can reconstruct the outline of a universe.

Draper is the theatrical ancestor of Spalding Gray and Lily Tomlin — though she’s more inclined to restrict her gentle satire to East Coast WASP society. (Imagine a one-woman show of the characters of A.R. Gurney.) Some have accused Draper of being too precious or refined, but this charge is merely a symptom of inverted snobbery, for American stage characters from the ’20s and ’30s were almost entirely drawn from the upper classes, at least until the appearance of a cadre of Group Theater and Actors Studio playwrights that included Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller.

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Draper lampoons her characters with genteel barbs, using their own words and eccentricities against them. The most popular sketch during Draper’s lifetime, and leading off the Mulcahy package, is “The Italian Lesson.”

“Come in, Signorina,” Draper chirps in a mellifluous soprano to the all-too-willing dupe who’s arrived for her language class. “To think we’ve arrived at last to The Divine Comedy . . . Oh, this is thrrrilling! Dante at lahst!” Our teacher then hashes her way through a line or two of the Italian, breaking her own stride with constant digressions and interruptions: She yells at a child who’s climbing on the furniture. Midsentence, she picks up the phone and calls a friend to learn what happened after she left some committee meeting: “I thought that the woman was going to murder you. How did we ever get her on the committee? Oh, she’s impossible! I’ve never seen such manners. One doesn’t behave like that on a committee, exactly . . . Yeaah. Oh, my dear, you heard that! I’ve never heard it. I’ve only thought it.” A manicurist shows up, a puppy runs around, there’s a clandestine phone call to a lover and a request to the cook for dinner: “Maybe a leg of lamb . . . Oh, I’m so tired of lamb. Jane, do you remember that recipe I brought back from France? I know you put in eight pigeons, and you put almost everything in with them, little glazed onions and brown potatoes and mushrooms, and everything was swimming around in a divine sauce. I don’t know how you made the sauce . . . [picking up a ringing phone, she laughs] Oh, did you hear all that? It’s delicious. I’ll give you the recipe.”

And, inexorably, there’s Dante, and the teacher’s gushing platitudes, delivered early in the monologue and serving as a thematic template for the chaos to follow: “What wonderful lines! Aren’t they mahvelous! They’re so wonderful because they’re so true. To think that those lines were written hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and yet they’re so true. Wonderful picture of confusion, those two men stumbling along together in a dark forest.”

There are nine monologues in all. “Doctors and Diets” captures the lunacy of dieting women having lunch at a restaurant. “The Actress,” with Draper’s dazzling array of tones and dialects, is as much a dramatic portrait as a cartoon of a Continental diva. Et cetera. But Draper’s mostly upper-crust world is as small as the range of jokes it allows, leaving the sense that these nine monologues are plenty enough to sell her point. (Warren aptly describes Draper as “the Chopin of dramatists,” a creator of “tiny etudes.”) These recordings are a gift not because we’ve never heard such sketches before, but precisely because we have — the Los Angeles stage is swimming in such one-person portrait galleries — and because to hear Draper is to further understand where they come from.

San Quentin Drama Workshop’s recorded production of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy is a six-CD labor of love, six years in the making and still awaiting a distributor. The 1938 novel is hardly seminal, caught as it is somewhere between James Joyce’s baroque flourishes of language and the austere wit that would come to define Beckett’s later poetical style. It is, nonetheless, a robust, freestanding work by an emerging genius. There isn’t so much a plot as a series of byways. The central character, not unlike his creator, engages in a relentless search for nothingness — and gets what he’s looking for, more or less, when he’s killed in a gas-heater explosion. But that’s largely beside the point, which seems at first to be Murphy’s (Colm Meaney) rejection of “work” and values attending survival in the modern world — all to the dismay of his love, Celia (Barbara Dowling). The central point, however, is really Beckett’s use of language to upend the way literature grasps at perceived reality and to create an ever-shifting universe that’s as detailed, amorphous and intangible as a dream. The distinguished cast also includes Fiannula Flanagan, Morgan Shepard, Nora Masterson, Sheelagh Cullen, Ian Abercrombie, Billy Hayes, Alan Mandell, Rick Cluchey and R.S. Bailey. Their devotion to the project is evident in this sublime recording.

RUTH DRAPER AND HER COMPANY OF CHARACTERS: SELECTED MONOLOGUES | A two-CD collection distributed by Acme Content Company for BMG Special Projects Available exclusively at www.drapermonologues.com

MURPHY | BY SAMUEL BECKETT A six-CD collection performed by San Quentin Drama Workshop Presented by TZ Entertainment

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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