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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 first-night audience that poured out of Wallack’s Theatre in 1900 must have appreciated the cold February air, for they had just watched a thoroughly shocking play. Sapho , an American adaptation of a minor French novel, had burst upon the New York theatre like a thunderclap. The after-theatre crowds at Rector’s and Delmonico’s gabbled excitedly about what were the most explicit love scenes ever seen on the New York stage.
Played in the expansive manner of the time by the English actress Olga Nethersole, Sapho told the sudsy story of Fanny LeGrand, a woman of great passions and pliant scruples. Fanny habitually cast off one man after another until she finally met her match in the arms of the ruthless Jean Gaussin. When Jean started to walk out on her, Fanny hurled herself to the stage, pleading, “I’ll blacken your shoes, if only you’ll let me stay.” It was one thing for a stage heroine in 1900 to lie prostrate begging for her virtue. It was quite another for her to offer it. Jean picked her up and carried her toward the stairs—“slowly,” as one theatre historian said, “because Olga Nethersole was no light burden”—and headed for what was clearly her bedroom. “At last!” Jean cried. “So soon!” Fanny murmured, and the two disappeared inside. The curtain dropped and went up again on a stage bathed in artificial morning sunlight with mechanical birds singing in the wings as Jean tiptoed out.
The American theatre scene, which had existed almost entirely on classical revivals, often carefully bowdlerized, charming light comedies, sturdy melodramas, and an occasional historical pageant thrown in for moral and patriotic uplift, was finally turning racy. There had been ample warning of the flood tide to come. In recent years audiences had been gingerly watching a series of slightly daring French plays that tugged at their sense of moral rectitude.
In The Sporting Dulchess , first seen in 1895, a man runs away with a married lady, and the two find themselves trapped in a hotel room. While they are wrestling on the couch, her husband breaks in and saves his wife in the nick of time from the traditional “fate worse than death.” But in Sapho there was no last-minute rescue, and many in the audience believed Miss Nethersole and her leading man actually consummated offstage what they had only hinted at on.
The next day Sapho didn’t just get reviews, it got editorials. “We expect the police to forbid on stage what they would forbid in streets and low resorts,” the New York Journal sputtered.
The “sole effect” of such plays, declared the New York Tribune , “aside from the gratification of a prurient taste, is to defile the minds of the young … with needless and harmful knowledge of the seamy side of life.”
Goaded by the press, the police duly went to Miss Nethersole’s apartment at the Hoffman House late one night and took her in a taxi to the Central Street Station, where she was booked for corrupting public morals. In the sensational trial that followed, Miss Nethersole acted out some scenes from Sapho to the fascinated jury, which promptly acquitted her. The night Sapho reopened to a packed house, street sellers hawked copies of the original French novel at scandalous prices. The police were on hand, according to the New York Dramatic Mirror , to save “the lives of the many foolish and curious persons, who wishing to see the play about which so much had been said, found themselves in a breath-stopping and limb-breaking throng of the prurient-minded that risked existence as well as double prices in order to satisfy their vulgar curiosity.”
The playwright responsible for this brouhaha scarcely had time to be concerned about it all. He was already working on seven plays that would be produced the next year in New York and London. He was Clyde Fitch, the most popular, most successful playwright America had ever seen. Shortly after Sapho finished its turbulent run, Fitch, who can be compared to Neil Simon of our day, would have four plays running concurrently on Broadway: The Climbers, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, Lovers’ Lane , and a revival of Barbara Frietchie . Earning as much as $250,000 a year in those hard-dollar, notax days, Fitch was the undisputed king of American playwrights. In a dazzling twenty-year career he wrote thirty-six original plays, twenty-one adaptations, and five dramatizations of novels. As the eminent critic and scholar William Lyon Phelps wrote in 1921, “when he began to write, American drama scarcely existed; when he died it was reality. … He did more for American drama than any other man in our history.”
He was born William Clyde Fitch on May 2, 1865, of an old New England family that traced its ancestry back to the early Puritan settlers. In his youth Fitch displayed a flair for the dramatic that seemed out of place with his stern heritage. To young Phelps, a classmate at Hartford High School, Fitch was “the most eccentric student in school. He was not like the normal boy in clothes, appearance, gait, manners, taste, language and voice. No other youth would have dared wear such clothes. … His gait was strange, the motive power seeming to dwell exclusively in the hips. If you can imagine a gay sidewheel excursion steamer with the port and starboard wheels moving in turn instead of together you will obtain a fair idea of the approach of William C. Fitch. … When the bell rang for ‘long recess’ every other one of us rushed out into the schoolyard and played furiously for twenty minutes; he remained in the schoolroom, writing notes on perfumed paper and tossing them to the girls. …”
Not surprisingly, the other students made his life a burden. A bully once opened a window and heaved young Fitch out of it. “He never made much show of resistance nor did he protest too much; but he never changed one iota,” said Phelps. “We thought he was effeminate, a mollycoddle, a sissy; we did not know that he had the courage of his convictions, and was thus the bravest boy in school.”
Later, when Fitch was a success, he told his old classmate, ” I knew, of course, that everybody regarded me as a sissy, but I would rather be misunderstood than lose my independence.”
He kept that independence all his life. In a time when gentlemen were supposed to dress conservatively, Fitch paraded through New York in glorious technicolor. He was fond of tweeds and fur coats with plaid mufflers, and he affected high collars, broad English hats, and fawn-colored spats. He pioneered in daring ensembles in which his coat did not match his trousers. If his friends could comment that “Clyde’s clothes seem to enter a room before he does,” and his enemies could gibe that there was more than just a “hint of lavender” about him, Fitch never seemed to notice. His only thought after graduating from Amherst in 1886 was to make a career for himself in the theatre.
Those were the glory days of the great stars. Edwin Booth was still playing, as was Lawrence Barrett, Joseph Jefferson, and Mrs. John Drew, grandmother of the Barrymores. The finest performers of Europe regularly toured America. Tommaso Salvini, performing only in Italian, stirred audiences with his Othello. Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry, and Ellen Terry filled theatres with their performances in English and French classics.
The city was teeming with busy theatres. By 1900 there were forty-one legitimate houses, more than in any other city in the world. Broadway itself began on Thirteenth Street at the Star Theatre, where Henry Irving and Ellen Terry played. It meandered uptown for a mile and a half to the New York Theatre on Forty-fifth Street. The street lights just going up would, in 1901, give the street its nickname: The Great White Way. Tickets started at fifty cents and were scaled to a two-dollar top, although unscrupulous scalpers could gouge customers a dollar fifty to three dollars extra for a fifty-cent seat to a hit show. Except for a few early vaudeville houses and the Metropolitan Opera, where high society paid as much as five dollars to hear Nellie Melba, the theatre was about the only form of entertainment available. Going to a play was a major event that called for pomp and ceremony. “What a magnificent sight it was from the stage in those days,” one actress recalled. “The women wore gorgeous evening gowns and the men were always in formal attire, their white shirts and waistcoats gleaming in the darkness. And I shall never forget the wave of perfume that wafted across the footlights to us on the stage. How happily we basked in it.”
If the plays themselves “bore no serious relation to art or life,” as Brooks Atkinson has written, the audiences didn’t care. They stamped their feet and whistled as they applauded and hurled bouquets onto the stage—with diamonds and other precious stones often thoughtfully included for the lovely ladies of the Floradora Sextette. Audiences shouted encouragement to favored performers, hissing the villain and yelling warnings to the distressed heroines.
“It was a superb theatre to be young in,” wrote the contemporary critic Walter Prichard Eaton, ”[and] it was a great world to be alive in. The only thing missing in all of this was that there was almost no native American playwriting. Except for an occasional homespun drama like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the theatres lived on a steady diet of Shakespeare and modern plays from Europe.
Fitch came to New York determined to win his fortune as a playwright. By 1889 he had written a draft of a largely autobiographical novel, some poetry, and an unproduced comedy. He had also gained a reputation around theatre circles as a rather charming young man with a flair for words. When the actor Richard Mansfield told the New York Times drama editor Edwin A. Dithmar that he was looking for someone to write him a play based on the story of Beau Brummel, Dithmar suggested Fitch.
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.
“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:
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.
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.”
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.