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John Gielgud calls her ""the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us"" (in a tie with Martha Graham). But internationally acclaimed monologist Ruth Draper--she preferred to be called a ""character actress""--remains one of those legendary talents whose magic is bright for those who saw her perform but frustratingly elusive for those who have to imagine just how moving and funny and awesome her solo vignettes really were. Her recordings and videotapes miss the spark, reviews of her performances never seem to capture the glow, and now we have her letters--which cast little new light on her craft or her art. They do, however--amid the chatter about travel, food, friends, family, and business--offer some disarming cries from a woman, raised in the tough, enlightened New England tradition, whose career came first but who longed for Great Love, holding on tight to a romantic, ""beau""-oriented naivet‚. At age 36 in 1920, Ruth writes from Scotland to chum Harriet Marple: ""You may be sure I won't deny myself marriage on the ground that it would interfere with my work! It's just the subtle consciousness that haunts me that 1 shall never have the thing that I want. . . . I see what I have to do--renounce the hope that haunts me--and I'll be free as a bird."" Great Love did come, however, nearly ten years later, in the person of 26-year-old Italian writer Lauro de Bosis--an apparently deep and blissful romance ended when Lauro never returned from a 1931 mission to fly over Italy, dropping anti-Fascist leaflets. ""All my wealth is in my memories,"" Ruth wrote after that tragedy, and the following 25 years are indeed little more than a round of sold-out houses, private shows for royalty like Queen Mary (""I'm glad the old dear wanted me to come""), and lots, lots more travel. Draper knew scads of famous people, of course, but only her ties with blind, paralyzed, saintly playwright Ned Sheldon are really evoked in the letters; there are few surprises in her correspondence with, or about, Bernard Berenson, Duse, Bernhardt, Shaw (""most interesting and very delightful""), Arnold Bennett, etc. Editor Warren conscientiously, though rather gushily, fills in all the biographical gaps, and an appendix gives brief descriptions of all the monologues. But Draper's ordinariness--not her genius--went into her letter-writing, and a very special theatrical biography is probably what's needed to put the spotlight on her story (especially the Lauro episode) and her unique command of the naked stage.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1979
Publisher: Scribners