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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
Life to me then was like a glorious staircase, and I mounted happy step after step led by your hand till everything seemed to culminate on that day of our wedding. You men don’t, can’t realize what that service means to a girl. In those few moments she gives her whole self, her love, her body, and even her soul sometimes to the man who, she believes wants, starves for her gifts. You treated this gift of mine, Dick, like a child docs a Santa Claus plaything for a while you were never happy away from it, then you grew accustomed to it, then you broke it, and now you have even lost the broken pieces.
While the public flocked to these plays, critical opinion on Fitch was less enthusiastic. A small minority applauded his work, claiming it was in the manner of the French farceur Augustin Scribe and that his apparent superficiality was a mask hiding the voice of the serious social commentator underneath. Most critics, however, felt that his apparent superficiality was genuine and that underneath the thin veneer of his dialogue lurked the hollow box of his plots. They dismissed him as a “male milliner” who embroidered his plays rather than wrote them.
Much as Neil Simon is today, Fitch was regarded by the critics as a mechanical writer lacking in depth. When Fitch came out with a bright comedy, they would moan that here was another slick offering from the facile pen of Clyde Fitch. When he attempted a serious drama, they would say he was overreaching himself and should stick to light comedy. Following the opening of The Woman in the Case in 1905, the critic for the New York Press found it “salacious, talky, preposterous and futile,” as well as “hideously vulgar.” The Press said the “happiest incident of the evening was at the end of the third act when Mr. Fitch announced he was going away, and that it would be a long time before he would appeal to playgoers again.”
“Go to Switzerland, Mr. Fitch,” pleaded a more sympathetic but patronizing critic of the New York Sun , James Huneker. “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 fortunes and fame that shall be permanent.”
That was probably good advice; but Fitch already had more fame and fortune than any American writer had dared dream of. He ground out play after play, most of them successful. He was the first American dramatist to have his plays published in book form and the only American to be regularly produced abroad, where his plays were respectfully received by critics and public alike.
Fitch toured Europe every spring. An inveterate collector, he craved beautiful objects and repeatedly succumbed to what he called “attacks of old shop.” On his return he brought back trunks filled with rare books, brocades, tapestries, antique furniture, and delicate porcelains. He built a house on East Fortieth Street that became one of the city’s most famous salons.
Drenched in burning incense, with servants in blue and white livery discreetly padding about, his home was a small museum of fine art and calculated effects. The Pompeiian entrance hall, done in white marble, featured a della Robbia madonna facing a white mantel, with a running waterfall splashing into a flowerfilled basin below. A statue of the youthful Adonis stood in a niche on the stairway leading to a Louis XIV drawing room, decorated with Watteau shepherds and Gobelin tapestries. Here the beautiful people of the world of arts and letters came to dine on superb French cuisine and enjoy Fitch’s bubbling conversation. “He collects together the most intellectual men and the most beautiful women,” remarked an English visitor. No one was ever more striking than the host. With his sensitive face set off by copious dark hair and a guardsman’s mustache, Fitch was the very picture of the elegant artist. One guest remembered him wearing “a gorgeous flowing gown of silk brocade, full in the skirt, plaited and fastened at the waist by a heavy silk girdle, and brown velvet trousers turned up at bottom.” He was a good host, unfailingly polite and considerate—“the essence of Continental courtesy and culture,” said one guest.
Fitch was so completely a creature of the theatre that aside from travelling and collecting antiques, he seems to have had virtually no interest outside of the profession. The theatre was his home, his plays were his life, and his characters were his children. In 1904 Maude Adams wrote Fitch, pleading with him to “go to some place where the art is dead and life is uppermost common life. We live so much among people of morbid tendencies … we begin to think they are real … they are real of their kind but it isn’t a red blood kind.”
“I live my life in the mists of shams,” Fitch once confessed to William Dean Howells. Few people were ever able to penetrate those mists. For all of his gregariousness, Fitch remained essentially a very private person. His enemies—and he had a few—whispered he was a homosexual. The turn of the century was the time when homosexuality was, as Oscar Wilde said, “the crime that dared not speak its name.” Certainly, Fitch never married or established any known relationship with a woman that was not entirely professional or platonic.