Wednesday, September 24, 2014

HER OWN WAY: The Playwright

Many histories of Broadway theatre begin in the 1920s. But there was never more theatrical activity along the Great White Way than in the two decades before that. At the turn of the 20th century there were between 40 and 50 theatres producing plays in Manhattan—more theatres than London or Paris or any other city in the world.

 During the theatre season, from three to ten shows might open on a single night.  After a Broadway run, some 400 touring and stock companies took the show to theatres across the US.

One of the first great figures of early Broadway was the playwright Clyde Fitch. New York theatre was dominated by European playwrights when Fitch arrived in a time of political reform, social change and artistic energy.

 In a relatively short career—about a decade—he wrote 33 original plays (or perhaps 36) plus 22 to 26 adaptations and dramatizations. Rarely was there was season between 1900 and 1909 in which fewer than two or three new Fitch plays were running on Broadway. In 1900-01 there were four. A later year, five.

 Once when two of his plays opened on the same night, he dashed from making a curtain call speech in one theatre to make another curtain call speech in a theatre across the street.

 Fitch also directed and supervised the design of many of his plays. All this activity made him wealthy—he may well have been the first American playwright to become a millionaire. He was also the first American playwright to also be successful on European stages. He spent part of the year in Europe, traveling and supervising productions.

He wrote plays everywhere—on ocean liners, in touring cars, and was said to have written one of his most famous—The Truth—in a gondola in Venice. His play Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines made Ethel Barrymore a star, and provided the Broadway debut of her younger brother, John Barrymore. Versions of the Fitch play Beau Brummel were made into motion pictures.

 Though highly commercial, his plays could push boundaries. His adaptation of Sapho caused scandal and police raids for suggesting that characters engaged in off-stage sex. His last play (The City) brought new realism (and realistic language) to the stage.

 He excelled in writing about women. They could be strong and principled or (as inThe Climbers) they might be gradually exposed as superficial and craven. He wrote plays set in drawing rooms of the wealthy, in elegant hotels and an ocean liner, but also in a crowded tenement where three young women struggle to make it in New York, in The Girls.

 “Clyde Fitch was a charming, modest man whose many letters to his many friends preserve the loyalty and generosity of a gentleman,” wrote critic and theatre historian Brooks Atkinson.

 Fitch was known as a stylish dresser, and he lived and entertained in high style. He was one of the most famous men in New York. According to Atkinson, “he was so busy that people had to make an appointment twenty-four hours in advance to talk to him on the telephone.”

 Though Fitch is mostly forgotten now, his memory is being revived in and Internet site called the Clyde Fitch Report.  According to the site's biography of Fitch, "the voluminous accounts of Fitch’s life and work rarely confront the man’s sexuality, yet he stood at the center of an energetic and colorful coterie of gay- and gay-friendly friends and colleagues."

Fitch died in 1909 at the age of 44, as the result of an emergency appendectomy (surgery with a high rate of mortality at the time.)

 After Fitch’s death a critic of the day praised him for making American themes respectable, not only in Europe but in the previously European-dominated Manhattan theatre. Fitch was credited with raising standards for design and staging, and the cultural level of theatre in general. He called Fitch the first modern American playwright.

No comments: