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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
Mansfield was an actor of brilliant but limited talents. He desperately wanted to be recognized as the greatest living actor in America, but he had to settle for being one of the country’s favorite players of broad melodrama. His Shakespeare, when compared to Booth’s, was coarse and vulgar, but his dual portrayal in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was one of the wonders of the stage. He could change himself from Jekyll to the repulsive Hyde in full view of the audience with great effect. When it came time to drag Sir Davenport Carew to the floor and strangle him, Mansfield threw himself into the scene with such gusto that the actor playing Carew sometimes fainted.
Mansfield offered Fitch thirty dollars a week to write Beau Brummel , plus a royalty arrangement that would stop at $1,500. Borrowing liberally from a previous play by William Blanchard Jerrold and a book by William Jesse, Fitch turned out a show perfectly suited to Mansfield’s histrionic talents. Starting out as the very essence of a Georgian dandy, Mansfield minced his way through the first act. Then he began Brummel’s spiralling downfall to abject poverty, through a crackerjack mad scene beloved by actors and audiences alike to a final pathetic death in a shabby rooming house. The play was a three-handkerchief triumph and became a staple in Mansfield’s repertoire, as popular as his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde .
The playwright in that period was on the bottom of the theatrical ladder, and producers often neglected even to list his name on the playbills. For the next two years Fitch wrote four scarcely noticed plays that earned him little but additional experience. He became known as a craftsman who could work quickly and turn out plays that gave actors a chance to shine.
These were just the qualities producer Charles Frohman was looking for in 1892. At the height of his career, just before he perished in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, Frohman controlled six theatres in New York, more than two hundred throughout the rest of the United States, and five in London. He personally managed the careers of twenty-eight leading stars and paid out more than thirty-five million dollars a year in salaries to the ten thousand people on his payroll. Yet perhaps because he resembled an amiable frog in a starched collar, he was painfully shy. He would often dart down a side street to avoid meeting one of his resplendent actors in public. He could not bear the strain of opening nights and almost never appeared at them, preferring to stay in a hotel room or a nearby restaurant while runners brought him word of the audience’s reaction.
Frohman had become a producer to reckon with in 1889, when he scored a smash hit by staging a historical pageant play called Shenandoah , complete with an actor playing General Sheridan atop a live horse. Frohman believed implicitly that “a play really requires a star artist, man or woman—woman for choice.” Frohman usually selected his actors and then cast about looking for something in which to show them off. Two of his first stars were a pair of promising players named John Drew and Maude Adams. The son of Mrs. John Drew and uncle of the Barrymores, Drew worked under Frohman’s management for twenty-three years, playing in an endless series of drawing-room comedies. Dubbed “The First Gentleman of the Stage,” Drew grew so comfortable in these roles that one opening night when he was supposed to feign sleep, he actually did slip off into slumber as his desperate co-actor delivered cues into the sound of Mr. Drew’s sonorous breathing. Maude Adams was never America’s greatest actress, but she was certainly its most beloved performer. Her ethereal, moonbeam quality in later plays such as The Little Minister and Peter Pan brought her unmatched popularity and an income of twenty thousand dollars a week.
To launch his two stars Frohman commissioned Fitch to dust off a French farce called The Masked Ball . The plot was little more substantial than a half-hour situation comedy on television: a sweet young wife reforms her rakish husband by pretending to get tipsy at a costume party. Slight as it was, the play enchanted audiences and had a good run of more than a hundred performances.