Editor: Leonard Jacobs
Director of Technology: Marc A. Stutzel
Contributors: Americans for the Arts (Arts Advocacy Update), Matt Shorr and C.M. Tomlin (Brown Tweed), Elizabeth Burke (Burke’s Law), Mark Costello (Gaywright Manifesto), Thomas Garvey (Hub Hubbub), Beck Feibelman (The Lorgnette), Roger Armbrust (Peculiar Progressive), Susan Kathryn Hefti (The Preservation Diaries), Stefanie Schappert (Lipstick Conservative).
In the fall of 2006, I founded the Clyde Fitch Report to create a platform in which I could opine on or consider those topics for which I lacked a place in my professional life. There was also some me-too-ism: The blogosphere had caught on fire earlier in the decade and the temptation to join the immolation (self-immolation?) was irresistible.
Yet I’d be promoting a falsehood if I said I possessed total clarity with respect to what I aimed to accomplish. In the fullness of time, however, I noticed relatively few oases on the Web devoted equally arts and politics. After all, not all actors, painters or writers are up on the minutae of local, state or federal legislation and not every elected official is off to plays, galleries or jam sessions every night.
But arts and politics are wedded. These elements of our society are part of its fabric, part of our soul.
So, the mission of The Clyde Fitch Report became clear: to challenge and to debate; to interweave openness and obstreperousness; to be quiet every now and then and listen to other points of view. Sometimes I met those aims. Sometimes, I admit, my efforts needed work.
For 30 months and more than 1,200 posts, I was the sole writer and editor of The Clyde Fitch Report. With this site, however, my role is to be one of many voices that reach out from across aesthetic disciplines and across the political spectrum-be it art forms about which I know little or political viewpoints to which I do not subscribe. For this site-this nexus of arts and politics-welcomes all ideas that appear in this momentous crossroad.
Leonard Jacobs, founder and editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, is a journalist, editor, reporter, blogger and critic with roots in arts, culture and entertainment reporting, and a love of politics. For a full list of the more than 30 outlets in which he has placed bylines, visit his LinkedIn profile here.
Leonard is a former national editor of Back Stage, the trade publication for American actors, and founding editor of Theatermania.com; he also authored the book Historic Photos of Broadway. In addition to publishing the CFR, he is a freelancer and consultant. He appears regularly as a commentator on the FoxNews.com’s live-streaming daily public affairs program The Strategy Room. He is a sixth-generation New York Democrat.
Please visit his media reel here (or click below).
Marc A. Stutzel
Marc A. Stutzel has been knee deep in the internet since the days when animated gifs of American flags and Christmas lights with terrible renditions of old 60s rock classics playing in the background, was considered the cream of the crop of web design. A graduate of Cornell University’s School of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, Marc has been developing websites professionally since 2001 and blogging since 2002. He currently lives in Astoria, New York with his roommate Chula. She’s a cat.
Who was Clyde Fitch?
The Clyde Fitch Report is named for the famous playwright-director of the late 19th and early 20th century. Like our own era, Fitch lived during an era of social upheaval and change. His work reflected his era, with one foot in the conventions of the Victorian era and one foot in the oncoming American century. Below is more on Fitch’s life and work.
Eighteen days after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a box inside Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.-the date was May 2, 1865-William Clyde Fitch was born in Elmira, New York. The only son of a Union army officer and a gregarious, exuberant Southern belle, the destiny of Clyde Fitch was the theatre as well. By his untimely death on September 4, 1909, he was one of the most successful, prolific, popular, and controversial playwrights in American history.
During a span of 19 years beginning in 1890, Clyde Fitch wrote 62 plays-36 original scripts, 21 adaptations, and five dramatizations of novels. On two occasions, he had four plays performing on Broadway. He wrote plays for virtually all the great stars of the fin de si√®cle-from Beau Brummell, crafted for the narcissistic Richard Mansfield, to Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, which crowned a 21-year-old actress, Ethel Barrymore, the Rialto’s reigning queen. John Barrymore (in his Broadway debut), Helena Mojeska (in a cross-country tour), and Herbert Beerbohm-Tree and Henry Miller (in London) all starred in Clyde Fitch plays.
Why is there no full biography of a man who was at once decried by critics yet deified by audiences who, through buying tickets, made Clyde Fitch an immensely wealthy man? What can we learn of Fitch’s wild, inescapable flamboyance-his sartorial tastes in the manner of Oscar Wilde? Indeed, Fitch’s documented romance with Wilde-and the fact that Fitch may well have been cast aside when Lord Alfred Douglas entered the Wilde sphere-offers just one opportunity for historical debate and exploration. Several academics have noted that Fitch took pains to hush public and private whispers of his homosexuality. Yet he stood unquestionably at the center of a coterie of homosexual and homosexual-friendly friends and colleagues. Fitch’s literary agent, Elizabeth Marbury, who first brought the works of Shaw and Wilde to America, and his producer, Charles Frohman, a master Broadway showman who perished on the Lusitania, were just two members of this less-than-closeted clan. To understand Fitch the man, the playwright, one must understand how he hid his homosexuality in plain sight. A 1903 magazine profile of Fitch couldn’t help but mention the baroque, exquisite details of his spectacular East 40th Street mansion, an Edwardian showplace for, among other things, male nude statuary.
Fitch’s circle, always a conflation of the personal and professional, was sprawling. It included the first Peter Pan, Maude Adams; author and critic William Dean Howells; novelist Robert Herrick; actress-philanthropist Eleanor Robson Belmont, for whom George Bernard Shaw wrote Major Barbara; proto-feminist playwright Rachel Crothers; and Elsie De Wolfe, the founding mother of American interior design, better known as the legendary and enigmatic Lady Mendl.
An anecdote about De Wolfe reveals a clue into Fitch’s aesthetic as dramatist and director (he staged virtually all of his own work after 1899). It’s an anecdote critical to the idea that Fitch was essential to the emerging American dramaturgy of the early 20th century. Aside from being Marbury’s lover, De Wolfe was an actress of maddening (more like maddeningly limited) talents. For Fitch’s 1903 play, The Way of the World, the playwright was distressed to note De Wolfe’s annoying habit of waving to friends and fans from the stage. Rather than simply scold De Wolfe for failing to maintain character and dishonoring the fourth wall, Fitch quietly rethought the scene. No longer would he ask De Wolfe to cross the stage on foot. Instead, he installed her-that is, he installed her character-in the driver’s seat of a motorcar, thus freeing De Wolfe to wave to her heart’s content, as such a gesture was a familiar one from drivers during the era of early automobiles. With not a little venom, many early-20th-century critics and chroniclers dismissed Fitch as an aesthete, a dandy, a too-slick constructor of predictable melodramatic pabulum. Yet he was one of the first American dramatists to strive directly, overtly, deliberately for naturalism, to answer the call toward realism proposed by Emile Zola and other European scribes.
Criticism dogged Fitch-his inability to achieve the popularity with critics that he enjoyed from audiences vexed him relentlessly throughout his career. Critics certainly had valid points: One of Fitch’s greatest flaws as a dramatist was the astonishing speed at which he wrote, typically at the expense of crafting believable, resolvable plots and characters. The crankiest, most moralizing critic of the day, William Winter (who wrote during the exact entirety of Fitch’s lifetime, 1865 to 1909), famously accused Fitch of plagiarizing Beau Brummell, the playwright’s first great hit, despite Fitch having successfully proved his authorship in a newspaper article in 1891. Winter nursed his complaint until his death. Other critics openly mocked him. James Huneker of the New York Sun, for example, grew tired of Fitch, in his view, falling short of his potential. Huneker implored the dramatist to slow down, to think innovatively. “Go to Switzerland, Mr. Fitch,” he pleaded. “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 fortune and fame that shall be permanent.”
Fitch’s plays stoked legal fires. Sapho, adapted from a novel by Alphonse Daudet, generated a famous First Amendment case when Olga Nethersole-more press whore than great actress-was charged with indecent conduct after playing a scene in a gown one might generously describe as diaphanous. After the scene, the manner in which the play’s hero whisked Nethersole offstage left no doubt that off-stage sex would be impending-a perfect excuse for the vice squad to stage a raid. Chaos and litigation ensured, and the play’s popularity with the public only grew. Characteristically, Fitch fled to Europe, much as he did every spring. Back in New York, Nethersole was eventually acquitted.
Fitch’s plays stoked moral fires. In The City, Fitch’s last play-one that makes quick work out of such themes as drug abuse and incest-he aimed to address the longstanding criticism that his plays were weak because they limned women too well; that he was incapable, in the parlance of the era, of devising a “man’s play.” Fitch’s audacious use of the word “goddamn” in The City-tame as this may seem by contemporary standards-marked the first time such an expletive was uttered on a Broadway stage.
Fitch’s life was filled with tragedy. Consider this event involving Fitch’s best play, The Truth, which fared disappointingly on Broadway but later proved a huge hit in London. Clara Bloodgood, Fitch’s close friend and the American actress for whom he wrote The Truth, shot herself before a touring performance in Baltimore. She had come to believe, and with good reason, that Fitch preferred the performance of the British star of The Truth, Marie Tempest, considerably more than hers.
By 1909, Fitch’s reputation had gone global: The Truth was playing in, or was set to play in, nearly every European capital and had been widely translated. In his memoir, The Clyde Fitch I Knew, author Archie Bell offers a recollection that suggests how much of a literary lion Fitch was becoming:
“Several years ago, when it had come to the ears of Giacomo Puccini, the composer, that Fitch was a gifted poet, he sought him out during an automobile tour around Florence and asked him to write the libretto for an American opera which Puccini said he was anxious to compose….Fitch viewed the matter from various angles, and for a time was enthusiastic concerning the project…he later decided that when he wrote lyrical lines for the stage, it would be for his own drama, his masterpiece, which he hoped to give the American public.”
But after his death, Fitch’s fame, wealth, and popularity turned out to be fleeting. Indeed, his was a very rapid fall into cultural obscurity, leaving the narrative of his life and work littered with unanswered questions and untold tales. How did producer Charles Frohman coerce novelist Edith Wharton into collaborating with Fitch on the stage version of The House of Mirth? How did Fitch’s fortune-millions of dollars in modern terms, enough to finance a Connecticut mansion that burned to the ground when owned by Alice Cooper in the 1970s-disappear?
Clyde Fitch died of complications from appendicitis in Chal√¥ns-sur-Marne, France. His story, however, mustn’t end with the images of singing nuns guarding his body or of his mother’s heartbreaking roundtrip voyage across the Atlantic to collect the body of her son. Having died intestate, Fitch’s property-three mansions, hundreds of antiques, play royalties-required years to assess. In the interim, rumors ran rampant about the size of Fitch’s fortune and, of course, its final disposition. At one point, a deranged chorine calling herself “Vera Fitch” shot herself in the Hotel Astor, claiming distress over the passing of “Uncle Clyde.” She claimed to be his niece, but Clyde Fitch was an only child.
Before Clyde Fitch, the very idea of “American playwright” was arguably oxymoronic-few had ever made such a living, or lived such a life, creating new works for the American stage. Fitch’s output represents a significant span in the history of American drama, a moment when the well-made foreign plays and actor-manager and stock company business models yielded to homegrown themes and scribes, to the commercial and not-for-profit production models as we know them today. A full biography of the life and work of Clyde Fitch would restore this largely forgotten, discredited icon to his appropriate spot in theatrical and literary history.