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More Sock And Less Buskin
In the hands of a rococo Yankee named Clyde Fitch, the American stage came of age with a gasp of scandalized shock
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
He was born William Clyde Fitch on May 2, 1865, of an old New England family that traced its ancestry back to the early Puritan settlers. In his youth Fitch displayed a flair for the dramatic that seemed out of place with his stern heritage. To young Phelps, a classmate at Hartford High School, Fitch was “the most eccentric student in school. He was not like the normal boy in clothes, appearance, gait, manners, taste, language and voice. No other youth would have dared wear such clothes. … His gait was strange, the motive power seeming to dwell exclusively in the hips. If you can imagine a gay sidewheel excursion steamer with the port and starboard wheels moving in turn instead of together you will obtain a fair idea of the approach of William C. Fitch. … When the bell rang for ‘long recess’ every other one of us rushed out into the schoolyard and played furiously for twenty minutes; he remained in the schoolroom, writing notes on perfumed paper and tossing them to the girls. …”
Not surprisingly, the other students made his life a burden. A bully once opened a window and heaved young Fitch out of it. “He never made much show of resistance nor did he protest too much; but he never changed one iota,” said Phelps. “We thought he was effeminate, a mollycoddle, a sissy; we did not know that he had the courage of his convictions, and was thus the bravest boy in school.”
Later, when Fitch was a success, he told his old classmate, ” I knew, of course, that everybody regarded me as a sissy, but I would rather be misunderstood than lose my independence.”
He kept that independence all his life. In a time when gentlemen were supposed to dress conservatively, Fitch paraded through New York in glorious technicolor. He was fond of tweeds and fur coats with plaid mufflers, and he affected high collars, broad English hats, and fawn-colored spats. He pioneered in daring ensembles in which his coat did not match his trousers. If his friends could comment that “Clyde’s clothes seem to enter a room before he does,” and his enemies could gibe that there was more than just a “hint of lavender” about him, Fitch never seemed to notice. His only thought after graduating from Amherst in 1886 was to make a career for himself in the theatre.
Those were the glory days of the great stars. Edwin Booth was still playing, as was Lawrence Barrett, Joseph Jefferson, and Mrs. John Drew, grandmother of the Barrymores. The finest performers of Europe regularly toured America. Tommaso Salvini, performing only in Italian, stirred audiences with his Othello. Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry, and Ellen Terry filled theatres with their performances in English and French classics.
The city was teeming with busy theatres. By 1900 there were forty-one legitimate houses, more than in any other city in the world. Broadway itself began on Thirteenth Street at the Star Theatre, where Henry Irving and Ellen Terry played. It meandered uptown for a mile and a half to the New York Theatre on Forty-fifth Street. The street lights just going up would, in 1901, give the street its nickname: The Great White Way. Tickets started at fifty cents and were scaled to a two-dollar top, although unscrupulous scalpers could gouge customers a dollar fifty to three dollars extra for a fifty-cent seat to a hit show. Except for a few early vaudeville houses and the Metropolitan Opera, where high society paid as much as five dollars to hear Nellie Melba, the theatre was about the only form of entertainment available. Going to a play was a major event that called for pomp and ceremony. “What a magnificent sight it was from the stage in those days,” one actress recalled. “The women wore gorgeous evening gowns and the men were always in formal attire, their white shirts and waistcoats gleaming in the darkness. And I shall never forget the wave of perfume that wafted across the footlights to us on the stage. How happily we basked in it.”
If the plays themselves “bore no serious relation to art or life,” as Brooks Atkinson has written, the audiences didn’t care. They stamped their feet and whistled as they applauded and hurled bouquets onto the stage—with diamonds and other precious stones often thoughtfully included for the lovely ladies of the Floradora Sextette. Audiences shouted encouragement to favored performers, hissing the villain and yelling warnings to the distressed heroines.
“It was a superb theatre to be young in,” wrote the contemporary critic Walter Prichard Eaton, ”[and] it was a great world to be alive in. The only thing missing in all of this was that there was almost no native American playwriting. Except for an occasional homespun drama like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the theatres lived on a steady diet of Shakespeare and modern plays from Europe.
Fitch came to New York determined to win his fortune as a playwright. By 1889 he had written a draft of a largely autobiographical novel, some poetry, and an unproduced comedy. He had also gained a reputation around theatre circles as a rather charming young man with a flair for words. When the actor Richard Mansfield told the New York Times drama editor Edwin A. Dithmar that he was looking for someone to write him a play based on the story of Beau Brummel, Dithmar suggested Fitch.