The Once and Future Clyde Fitch

Broadway Playwright Clyde Fitch (1865-1909) was born on this day.

Much like his contemporary Oscar Wilde, with whom he is said to have had an affair, Fitch established a reputation as a dandy and personality while still in college. An Elmira, New York native, Fitch had gone to Amherst, where he was highly regarded for his acting in amateur theatricals. Fitch’s devotion to dandyism manifested itself strongly in his very first play Beau Brummell (1890), commissioned by Richard Mansfield as a starring vehicle. The play is an apt illustration of Fitch’s success and cultural impact as a playwright: not only was was it revived on Broadway many times, but it was adapted into Hollywood films in 1913, 1924, and 1954. It is largely through these films that most Americans have framed any idea at all of the eponymous Restoration dandy, whose name became idiomatic for a well-dressed, sissified swell. Many of Fitch’s plays ended up having that kind of longevity and reach, becoming better remembered with the wider public than the playwright himself.

Fitch wrote over 60 plays: 36 original, and 26 adaptations (21 from foreign plays, 5 from novels). Fitch’s second play The Masked Ball (1892), produced by Charles Frohman, co-starred Maude Adams and John Drew, Jr, initiating what would become a popular professional pairing. Other notable works: Bohemia (1896, adapted from the same source as Puccini’s La Boheme, which premiered the same year); Nathan Hale (1899); Barbara Frietchie (1899, the reputed source of the first half of Barbara Stanwyck’s stage name); Sapho (1900, a naughty vehicle for Olga Nethersole); Captain Jinks of the Horse Marine (1901, breakthrough vehicle for Ethel Barrymore); The Girl with the Green Eyes (1902), Major Andre (1903), The Woman in the Case (1905, starring Blanche Walsh and later made into films in 1916, 1922 and 1923); an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905); and the posthumously produced The City (1909), among dozens of others.

Eat your heart out, Lena Dunham!

Clyde Fitch died of a burst appendix while traveling in France after quacks had convinced him not to have it operated on. One of the ironies of being a catalyst for change is that the transformed world no longer recognizes or appreciates how it got there. And change in the 20th century was lightening fast. Pretty quickly Fitch’s name became shorthand for “old-fashioned”: e.g., “That went out with Clyde Fitch”. It is used that way for comic purposes in the movie All About Eve, for example. And yet he was one of the key people who forged our conception of Broadway as we now know it.

The beauty part is that which has been changed can be changed again. Largely through the efforts of critic Leonard Jacobs Clyde Fitch’s name lives again in the 21st Century. Jacobs’ influential web site The Clyde Fitch Report covers the nexus between art and politics. It also includes this wonderful, deeper tribute to Fitch. And who’d have dreamt Clyde Fitch’s mustache would be revived in the 21st century? His plays, too, deserve, such enthusiastic revival.

I have visited Fitch’s grave at Woodlawn Cemetery (blogged about that visit here). It is an enormous, ostentatious thing, commissioned by his mother, whom Fitch was very close to. His father, an army officer, was less keen on the theatre.  People who are not keen on the theatre get chilly treatment here on Travalanche.


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