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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
The warmth of the hot-water bottle intensified the inflammation. In agony Fitch finally called for a doctor, who performed an emergency operation. At first the playwright seemed to weather the crisis, but blood poisoning set in. He died seven days later.
The City went into rehearsal without the master and opened on December 21, 1909. The audience was on the verge of hysteria. The blasphemy sent a shock through the audience that Miss Watson said she could still feel fifty years later. At the end of the second act men and women screamed and stood about waving handkerchiefs. Several women fainted and had to be carried out of the theatre, The final curtain fell on pandemonium. Lawrence Reamer, a critic for the New York Sun , applauded wildly and then collapsed in a dead faint. He was revived and applauded some more. He was still applauding as he left the theatre. Miss Watson couldn’t count all the curtain calls. She remembered at least eighteen. Then the curtain went up again with no one on stage. The audience cheered the empty set. Finally, a few actors trudged out, and there was more shrieking and fainting in the audience. “Several times, days and weeks later,” Miss Watson recalled, “persons who were in that hysterical firstnight crowd told me that they had seen, through their tears, Clyde Fitch walk to the footlights and take a bow.”
It was a touch Fitch would have loved.
The next day Fitch got the reviews that had been denied him during his life. The Tribune said, “an audience half wild with excitement roared its approval last night. … The audience exhausted itself with cheering. And those cheers were deserved. They were earned by the power of the playwright and by the power of the acting. … The play is strong as a raging bull.” The plays of Clyde Fitch are all but forgotten now. But the American theatre was never quite the same again. He had made native playwriting and American themes popular. If he was more interested in box office than he was in artistry, he nonetheless was instrumental in breaking the Victorian hold over American theatre and making it responsive to the ideas of modern drama to come. Walter Prichard Eaton said that modern American playwriting began with Clyde Fitch. In the year following his death, Broadway, for the first time, saw more plays written by Americans than by Europeans.
It was said that Fitch came to American playwriting when it could barely walk. He nurtured it and helped it through adolescence. Six years after he died, a group of artists produced a play by Susan Glaspell on a porch in Provincetown, Massachusetts. They were joined by a lanky, brooding ex-sailor with a suitcase full of manuscripts. The next year they produced a pair of one-act plays, Bound East for Cardiff and Thirst, by Eugene Gladstone O’Neill. The American theatre was about to come of age.