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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
“A graceful, petty kleptomaniac who pilfers the counters of European comedy,” George Jean Nathan wrote of Fitch. To a degree the famed critic was right. The American theatre was still wary of its native writers. Just as wealthy families, confident in their money but unsure of their taste, regularly toured the Continent searching for European art treasures, so producers shopped around looking for dramatic properties that could be imported to America. In all, Fitch cranked out twenty-one of these adaptations, often completing one in three or four days. As his hand grew more sure, however, he wrote more original plays and became the first American writer considered commercial enough to be produced regularly in New York. With the success of The Masked Ball , Fitch became officially known as a “hot writer,” writing thirteen plays in the next six years. By 1899 he was the only American playwright whose name meant anything on a marquee. He was the toast of Broadway. And for years the phrase “a scene straight out of Clyde Fitch” stood for something that would be sure-fire at the box office no matter how the critics might sniff at its artificiality.
Fitch wrote surpassingly well for actresses of the day. “His most marked characteristic is feminine delicacy,” said Theatre Magazine . “He loves the latest fashion in gowns and feel of the newest fabric. His speeches arc satin, his scenes arc silk and marble and roses.” Actresses enjoyed doing Clyde Fitch plays and generally had great success with them. Julia Marlowe scored hugely in Barbara Frietchie , with Barbara recreated as so lovely a young thing that there was not one old gray hair in her head for Stonewall Jackson’s men to shoot at if they wanted to. In Her (heal Match audiences were almost persuaded that Maxine Elliott, considered the finest sobber in the American theatre, could act as prettily as she looked. When young Ethel Barrymore had her first starring role in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines in 1901, she got the kind of reviews they don’t write anymore.
“Last night hosannas rang through the town,” one critic crowed. “Not since John Drew led Ada Rehan before the curtain … has there been such cause for hurraying, such kid-glove-bursting applause, such bouquet tossing across the bedazzled footlights, welcoming our youngest, our newest, our dearest star, Miss Ethel Barrymore. … Today Herald Square will be a wild hurly-burly of ticket buyers lining up at the beaming, bustling box office at the Garrick. … New York is at your feet! Dear Ethel, Dear Miss Barrymore, Dear Miss Ethel Barrymore—newest princess of our footlight realm.”
Fitch constructed his original plays meticulously. Professing “an aversion to the typewriting machine,” he wrote each play exactly five times in pencil. Using large sheets of paper and five different colored pencils, he changed hues for successive drafts and scrawled over, under, and around the original. “Then I could tell at a glance which is my first, second or fifth thought.” Fitch could write anywhere. He fashioned one of his most famous plays, The Truth , while in a gondola in Venice. He loved his characters. Once he had put them on paper, he would often let them have their own way and change his story accordingly. He grew so fond of Mimi in his adaptation of Henri Munger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème that he couldn’t bear killing her off at the end and instead let her live.
Managers left details of production to him. He directed his own plays and personally chose the casts. At rehearsals he was a strict taskmaster. He bombarded the company with scrawled notes on every detail: “The lace must be coffee-colored— NEVER WHITE . The pink must be deep rose— NEVER PALE .” He once threw up his hands and complained that with the possible exception of John Drew, there was not an actor on the American stage who knew how to handle a silver dining service properly.
Fitch worked eighteen hours a day. He would often rehearse one play in the morning and another in the afternoon. He became so busy that it was necessary to make an appointment a day ahead of time to speak to him on the telephone. He also had a finely tuned sense of commercial theatre and was quick to mine any new trend. When light comedies were in vogue, he wrote the wittiest. When American historical drama looked like good box office, he triumphed with Nathan Hale and Barbara Frietchie and helped make native American themes popular. When it was possible to do “sex plays,” he wrote the most startling in shows like Sapho . When audiences were ready for more serious contemporary stories, he supplied some of the most interesting. In The Climbers he attacked traditional family conventions by putting a snarling family catfight on the stage that was not to be topped until Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes in 1939. His eye for detail and social commentary was sharp, and yet there was a deep sentimental streak in his work. It seems overdone now, but the faithful ladies in his audiences were deeply stirred. A speech by Blanche Sterling in the last act of The Climbers , recalling her love for her blackguard husband, Richard, is typical: