Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Who is Clyde Fitch?

I knew you were asking. I mean, you didn't articulate the question, but I knew you were asking. Here is the precis I have been using for several years to reintroduce Clyde Fitch to the world.

Eighteen days after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a box inside Ford’s Theatre—the date was May 2, 1865—William Clyde Fitch was born in Elmira, New York. The only son of a Union army officer and a gregarious, exuberant Southern belle, Clyde Fitch’s destiny was also the theatre. By his death in September of 1909, he was one of the most successful, prolific, popular, and controversial playwrights in American history.

During a span of 19 years beginning in 1890, Clyde Fitch wrote 62 plays—36 original scripts, 21 adaptations, and five dramatizations of novels. More than once, he had four plays performing on Broadway; on one occasion, he had five. Fitch wrote plays for most of the great fin de siècle stars, from Beau Brummell, crafted for the self-worshipping, Richard Burton-esque Richard Mansfield, to Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, which crowned a 21-year-old actress, Ethel Barrymore, the Rialto’s reigning queen. John Barrymore (in his Broadway debut), Helena Mojeska (in a cross-country tour), and Herbert Beerbohm-Tree and Henry Miller (in London) all starred in Fitch plays.

Why does no complete biography exist of a man who was, all at once, decried by the critics yet deified by the audiences who made him an immensely wealthy man? Was it his wild, inescapable flamboyance—his dress, his tastes in the Oscar Wilde manner? Fitch’s documented romance with Wilde—and the fact that he was likely cast aside when Lord Alfred Douglas entered the scene—offers us a clue. Yet it is only a clue, for throughout his life, Fitch took pains to dampen whispers about his homosexuality, even as he stood at the center of a coterie of friends and colleagues—like Elizabeth Marbury, his agent, who brought Shaw and Wilde to America; like Charles Frohman, the master Broadway showman who produced most of his plays and died on the Lusitania—who were homosexual and unabashed about it. To understand Fitch, one must understand how he managed to hide his homosexuality in plain sight: A 1903 magazine profile couldn’t resist describing in detail his spectacular East 40th Street townhouse, an Edwardian showplace distinguished, in part, by abundant Greek male nude statuary.

Even as Fitch stood at the locus of a famous (and famously homosexual) artistic community, his circle was substantial and sprawling. His friends and colleagues included the first Peter Pan, Maude Adams; author and critic William Dean Howells; novelist Robert Herrick; actress-philanthropist Eleanor Robson Belmont (for whom Shaw wrote Major Barbara); feminist playwright Rachel Crothers; and Elsie De Wolfe, who would later be renowned as Lady Mendl, the founding mother of American interior design.

An anecdote about De Wolfe offers us insight into Fitch’s aesthetic as a dramatist and director—a clue to understanding how critical he was to the rise of the modern American theatre as we know it. Aside from being Marbury’s lover, De Wolfe was an actress of maddening—well, maddeningly limited—proportions. In 1903’s The Way of the World, Fitch took note of De Wolfe’s distressing habit of waving to her friends from the stage. Yet rather than scold her about breaking character, Fitch quietly re-imagined the scene. Now, instead of De Wolfe crossing the stage on foot, she drove a car, thus freeing her to wave from the road—a gesture that would be both familiar to the audience yet one that would prevent De Wolfe from demolishing the fourth wall. Twentieth century critics dismissed Fitch as an aesthete, a dandy, a slick constructor of predictable, four-act, melodramatic pabulum, yet he was one of the first American dramatists to strive for an American response to the call to realism proposed by Emile Zola and others in Europe.

Controversy and criticism dogged Fitch in equal measure, but particularly the latter; his greatest flaw as a dramatist was unquestionably the astonishing speed at which he wrote, often at the expense of fully believable, resolvable plots, and completely realized characters. The crankiest critic of the era, William Winter, who wrote from 1865 until 1909, accused Fitch of plagiarizing Beau Brummell; despite the fact that Fitch proved otherwise back in 1891, Winter nursed his complaint until his died in 1916—certainly as long as he nursed his apparent homophobia. James Huneker of the New York Sun, complaining that Fitch was falling far short of his potential, once wrote:

“Go to Switzerland, Mr. Fitch. Forget all about your promises to Charles Frohman, your promises to your bankers, and think only of the artistic future of Mr. Clyde Fitch. You have one foot in the stirrup. Get both. And then gallop on to a hazard of new fortune and fame that shall be permanent.”
Fitch’s plays stoked legal fires: Sapho, adapted from an Alphonse Daudet novel, brought about a famous First Amendment case when Olga Nethersole—more press whore than actress—was charged with indecent conduct after playing a scene in a gown best described as generously diaphanous. After the scene, the hero whisked Nethersole offstage, the implication of impending sex quite clear—and an excuse for the vice squad to order a raid. As chaos ensured, Fitch fled to Europe—as he did every spring—while back in New York, Nethersole was acquitted.

Fitch’s plays stoked moral fires: In The City, Fitch’s last play—one which made quick thematic work of drug abuse and incest—Fitch aimed to counter longstanding criticisms that his work was woman-centric, that he could not, in the parlance of the day, craft a “man’s play.” Was this an attack upon Fitch’s sexuality? That much isn’t clear. This much, however, we know: His use of the word “goddamn” in The City marked the first time such an expletive was ever uttered on a Broadway stage.

Tragedy in the theatre is, of course, the kissing cousin to controversy. Consider, for example, the events surrounding Fitch’s best play, The Truth, which fared badly on Broadway but later proved to be a tremendous London hit. Clara Bloodgood, Fitch’s close friend and the actress for whom he wrote the play, shot herself before a tour performance in Baltimore, believing (perhaps with reason) that Fitch liked the performance of the British star, Marie Tempest, far more than hers.

By 1909, Fitch’s plays and reputation were going entirely global: The Truth was playing, or was scheduled to play, in nearly every European capital that year, and it had already been translated widely. In his memoir, The Clyde Fitch I Knew—the only document that approaches the quality of biography—author Archie Bell delivers a tantalizing recollection that tells us a thing or two about just how genuinely significant a literary figure Fitch was rapidly becoming:

“Several years ago, when it had come to the ears of Giacomo Puccini, the composer, that Fitch was a gifted poet, he sought him out during an automobile tour around Florence and asked him to write the libretto for an American opera which Puccini said he was anxious to compose… Fitch viewed the matter from various angles, and for a time was enthusiastic concerning the project…he later decided that when he wrote lyrical lines for the stage, it would be for his own drama, his masterpiece, which he hoped to give the American public.”
Yet for all his fame, wealth, and popularity as a boulevard-style playwright, Fitch’s success was, in the end, fleeting. His near-total fall into cultural obscurity not only in the years immediately following his death, but, indeed, nearly a century later leaves the narrative of his life riddled with questions. How did producer Charles Frohman coerce novelist Edith Wharton into collaborating with Fitch on the stage version of The House of Mirth? What became of a storied fortune which, among other things, financed a Greenwich, Connecticut mansion that later burned to the ground when owned by Alice Cooper? How could Fitch’s fortune—nearly $20 million in today’s terms—simply disappear?

Clyde Fitch died of complications from appendicitis on September 4, 1909, in Chalôns-sur-Marne, France, but his story does not end with tales of singing nuns guarding his body (true) and tales of his mother’s lonely, heartbreaking voyage across the Atlantic with the body of her beloved son (also true). Having died intestate, all of Fitch’s property—three mansions, hundreds of antiques, play royalties—required years to assess. In the interim, rumors ran rampant on Broadway about the size of his fortune and what would become of it. A deranged chorine, calling herself “Vera Fitch,” shot herself in the Hotel Astor, for example, claiming distress over the passing of “Uncle Clyde,” blissfully unaware, apparently, that Fitch was an only child.

Before Clyde Fitch, the idea of the “American playwright” was essentially oxymoronic: very few had ever made such a living, or lived such a life, creating work for the American stage. Fitch’s work bridged a critical span in the history of the American theatre—well-made plays, actor-manager stock companies, and creaky, melodramatic star vehicles on one side of the divide, and a growing belief in realism, naturalism, all the other 20th century “isms,” firmly on the other.

A biography of Clyde Fitch would serve to restore this oddly forgotten icon to his appropriate place in theatrical and literary history.

(Yes, I am writing one.)


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