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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
By 1900 hordes of aspiring American writers began to turn their hands to playwriting, largely attracted to the field by the allluence of Fitch and the high prestige he brought to the craft. However, influenced by such novelists as Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, they had no desire to follow the dictum of conservative critics who held that the theatre “is not the proper place for a clinical disquisition or a detailed portrayal of vicious life.” They thought that was exactly the place for it.
Fitch naturally tried his hand at the new realism, but always at a more refined level, though sometimes he was very daring. The Climbers was refused by Frohman and every other producer in 1900 because the story-opened immediately following a funeral and ended with a suicide, both elements considered too strong at the time. Fitch, however, confounded the theatre establishment by staging a production that had the audiences standing five deep in the back of the theatre.
January 7, 1907, should have been the greatest night in Fitch’s life. Two of his plays opened the same night. After the curtain rang down on The Truth at the Criterion Theatre, he had to cut short his speech in time to run across the street to make another speech at the close of The Straight Road . The Truth was perhaps Fitch’s best play, a finely wrought drama of a nice woman who almost destroys her family because she is a habitual liar. It was the play closest to his heart. All of the advance word along Broadway was that it was going to be Fitch’s biggest hit. Clara Bloodgood, the respected actress playing the lead, had banked her career on scoring a personal success in it. “If I’m bad, no one can blame anyone but me,” she had delightedly written Fitch during rehearsals. “And may it be put on my tombstone, ‘ She is a slob ’ if I can’t get away with it.”
The critics, however, dismissed The Truth as another superficial effort by Fitchie and since it didn’t sound like fun, the audience stayed away. Its failure cut Fitch deeply. “It is heartbreaking,” he wrote a friend, “especially as it will convince me that it is impossible for me to succeed in New York with the present press .” The play closed in New York after thirty-four performances and limped out on the road in search of better business, with Mrs. Bloodgood acting her heart out to half-empty houses.
Again Fitch had to go to Europe to find critical success. The Truth opened in London three months later, with Marie Tempest, and was a success. It quickly became the most respected American work ever to playin Europe. Productions were well received in Rome, Genoa, Hamburg, and Stuttgart. Its unlooked-for success had a tragic consequence. Mrs. Bloodgood was playing in The Truth in Baltimore when she read of the great triumph Miss Tempest had had in the same part. Desolate, the actress went out and purchased a .38-caliber revolver and a pamphlet entitled “How to Shoot Straight.” At the moment when she should have been ready to go on stage, Mrs. Bloodgood sat in her hotel room, put the muzzle to her lips, and killed herself.
Fitch turned out six plays in the next two years, including a farce called Toddles , which gave the young John Barrymore a chance to show off his skill at light comedy. Increasingly, however, he was finding himself put in the shade by the new realistic playwrights like Edward Sheldon and Eugene Walter. Chafing under the criticism that “a butterfly who lives an exquisite existence” could never write a real man’s play, Fitch was determined to write the toughest of them all. In a fury he wrote The City . “It welled in him, and overflowed in a torrent of creativeness,” said his friend Montrose Moses.
As friends gathered at his house to hear him read segments of the play, Fitch exclaimed: “Listen to this, isn’t it tremendous! I know you’ll say people won’t stand for it, but wait till you hear how I shall treat it.” What he was going to treat was a story of the moral disintegration of a family that moves to New York City and sells itself to success. As added fillips, one character was a dope fiend, and there was also a theme of implied incest. The high point would come in the second act when the villain leapt to his feet and shouted, “That’s a Cod damned lie!” Such a blasphemy had never been heard on a New York stage before. Many of his friends wondered if Fitch really dared use it. Fitch dared. He cast Walter Hampden and Lucille Watson in leading roles and went off to Europe before starting rehearsals.
While driving through France, his health, never robust, failed him. He suffered a recurring attack of appendicitis on August 28, 1909. He decided to stop off at a hotel in Chalôns-sur-Marne in hopes the pain would pass. Putting a hot-water bottle to his side, he wrote a prophetic letter to an old friend: “I had made up my mind I would write you a letter if I died tonight. … I’m not so well as I’ve pretended, and much less well than I wish it known. … I think the change and outdoors have benefited me undoubtedly. But such weakness.”