Few students of the American stage recall that the most successful and popular playwright in the two decades immediately before O’Neill was Clyde Fitch. During the 1890s and early 1900s, his works dominated the American commercial theatre scene, earning him in excess of $250,000 at a time when $1 was the average daily wage. He was also the first American playwright to have his plays published and sold as popular literature.
On this day in theatre history–May 17, 1890–Fitch opened his first great commercial hit, Beau Brummel, based on the life of the famed Regency dandy, at Broadway’s Garden Theatre. It was not only an instant success, but it became a lifelong vehicle for the number one leading man of the New York stage before World War I, Richard Mansfield. The popularity of this production catapulted Fitch to the top of the list of American playwrights and for the next eighteen years he was the most produced and respected member in the Theatrical Syndicate’s stable of writers.
The subject of the play was not coincidental, of course. Fitch was a “confirmed bachelor,” renowned during his life for his effeminate and eccentric manner as well as his impeccable sartorial habits. At the height of his playwriting career, he was equally famous for being one of America’s leading dandies–an affair with Oscar Wilde was also widely rumored. Fearful of physicians and disdaining most medical care, he nonetheless died in France at the age of 44 from blood poisoning following an emergency appendectomy. His ashes are interred at the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. The Clyde Fitch Fund, established by his parents as a memorial, still provides money for an annual lectureship in literature and drama at his alma mater, Amherst College.
While today his plays are considered prime examples of commercial melodramas, he did write in a wide range of genres (including historical dramas, domestic intrigues, social satire, etc.), attempting to bring a bit of European sophistication to the American theatre. Only recently have his works been reexamined and reassessed for their contribution to the growing complexity of American playwriting prior to O’Neill.