Concerning Clyde Fitch And The Local Sense
( Originally Published 1911 )
THERE are three important elements involved in the writing of a play: the sense of situation, the sense of characterization, and the sense of dialogue. If regarded in the light of recent stagecraft, it will be seen that no matter what the type of play may be, no matter what the problem of the play may be, the infinite ramifications found in a perfectly constructed drama are usually gathered together under these three fundamental heads. Our American dramatist has to a very commendable and remarkable degree mastered within recent years two of these characteristics. Living in an atmosphere where situation dominates every corner of our national existence, it is not strange that his eye should be trained to catch the essentials of the moment. This quickness on his part is due not only to inherited tendencies, bat to training as well.
Moreover, being particularly keen as to the how and the wherefore, rather than the why, the American is prone to draw from national existence that which he asks for, and to receive answer from his fellows according to the value, the force of the question he puts. This modus operandi constitutes the distinct school of training in which our American playwright has thus far been educated.
Let us consider for a moment the statement made before, that among our younger men who are essaying the dramatic form as a means of expression, the larger number have been at some period of their careers engaged in newspaper reporting. What bearing has this fact upon their workmanship? First, it has required of the reporter, who is after daily occurrences, to grasp the essential points in a story, to make use only of those factors which will picturesquely represent in a rapid fashion the progress of a tragedy or the narration of a situation. The reporter is furthermore required to sense this situation with his eye; his style must be shaped so as to depict that process of visual motion. Color and action are his goal. The error of his way lies in his absolute ignoring of the logical sequence of events on one hand, and in his failure to recognize the difference between relative and true proportion on the other. Not so very long ago, in conversation with Augustus Thomas, I was not surprised to find him confessing that to his newspaper experience he owes his success as a writer of dialogue. To his way of thinking, the value of an interview rests in the dexterity with which the incisive, the irresistible, the compelling question is put. What, after all, is drama but the interchange of just this kind of talk?
In England, Pinero is one of the prolific writers of plays. I have elsewhere called attention to the fact that had not the dramatic instinct been uppermost, Pinero would have been a novelist; and this same statement is true of Clyde Fitch. The man who has the ability to tell a story, and to tell it in an easy, interesting fashion, possesses the art of the narrator. But if in addition he sees the story in action, he is somehow forced to tell it in accordance with the form which action demands. In other words, whenever the novelist introduces into his book an active interchange of personality with personality, he is compelled to use the very form that distinguishes drama; that is, dialogue. The playwright translates life wholly in terms of action, in terms of conversation, in terms of situation. His idea must almost invariably be involved closely with the effects of this idea on the characters of his play, and on the development of the plot of his play. This is not saying, in reference to novel writing, that we may cut the dialogue from a book, and piece it together, thus making a play. This method has been the cause of so many failures consequent upon the hasty dramatization of novels. The essential structure of each form is different, and it is this difference in the framework of these two forms of art that made Arthur Wing Pinero in London and Clyde Fitch in New York, dramatists rather than novelists.
The latter was comparatively a young man at the time of his death, yet the body of his work which never showed abatement in its increasing proportions is so large as to overcloud by its very profuseness the pleasing qualities which it assuredly has.' The gift of writing dialogue easily, the excellent distinction of being endowed with a prolific, inventive talent, are sometimes dangerous, even though they may be fortunate qualities to own. If the dramatist working at high speed would only take time to realize that his rapidity of execution is due solely to his employment of only two out of the three elements underlying all drama, the net result of his product would be of more permanent value, because he would then become aware of the fact that he is not making full use of the third element. The idea in a drama is the vital spot in its construction.
From the time that Mr. Fitch graduated from Amherst College, he was actively engaged with his pen, beginning by writing lighter verse, and also by working out some prose sketches which cannot be termed fiction in the true sense of the word. "The Knighting of the Twins, and Ten Other Tales" (1891), is now little known though it contains most charming delineations of child life. To the student of Mr. Fitch's dramas they suggest those main characteristics of his own attitude toward life and the conditions of life which dominated most of his later stage work. For by temperament Mr. Fitch was a sentimentalist, and because of temperament he viewed the details of environment in their bearing upon feeling.
Mr. Fitch was, to a certain degree, also a realist, if by realism we mean the handling of everyday occurrences and of the familiar natural problems of existence; but his realistic data was usually subjected to a high light of what at one moment we might term German romanticism and at another moment French sentimentalism. Much as quite a few of his plays have been discussed from the standpoint of their feminine suggestiveness and from the standpoint of their feminine sensuous interests, in point of morality Mr. Fitch was wholly conventional. His cleverness in over-coming this conventional tendency rested on his theatrical employment of the unusual. In other words, in point of visual sense, Mr. Fitch's observation of little things was about as sane as that of any other living dramatist, his fault being that he failed to bring his minute observation in relation with any large, vital, or sustained idea.
In 1897, Mr. Fitch published a little volume entitled "The Smart Set : Correspondence & Conversations." It is an-other example of the insistent dramatist who obtrudes himself over and above the story-teller in the writing of a book. It contains the attitude of the dialogue, and so we may claim that Mr. Fitch was a born playwright, in the double sense that in expressing himself he perforce had to use dialogue, and in viewing life he invariably felt compelled to estimate it in terms of situation. His undoing was that he lacked the consuming idea.
As far as dramatic belief is concerned, Mr. Fitch was thoroughly sincere. He lived up to his convictions as to what drama should be in general, and he expressed his convictions in the following terms:
"I feel myself very strongly the particular value a value which, rightly or wrongly, I can't help feeling inestimable in a modern play, of reflecting absolutely and truth-fully the life and environment about us; every class, every kind, every emotion, every motive, every occupation, every business, every idleness! Never was life so varied, so complex. . . . Take what strikes you most, in the hope it will interest others; take what suits you most to do what perhaps you can do best, and then do it better. Be truthful, and then nothing can be too big, nothing should be too small, so long as it is here and there. . .. If you inculcate an idea in your play, so much the better for your play and for you and for your audience. In fact, there is small hope for your play as a play, if you have not some idea in it, some-where and somehow, even if it is hidden. It is sometimes better for you if it is hidden, but it must of course be integral. ... One should write what one sees, but observe under the surface. It is a mistake to look at the reflection of the sky in the water of theatrical convention; instead, look up and into the sky of real life itself."
This quotation contains the essence of Mr. Fitch's attitude toward life. It shows him prone to place idea throughout his work in a secondary position, and he thus unconsciously became a very true critic of himself. For he was given to infuse into his picturesque entertainments some small semblance of ideas, which, while not seemingly vital, were so commonplace as to have intimate connection with the human side of his audiences. "The Climbers," "The Girl with the Green Eyes," "The Girl and the Judge," "Her Own Way," each of these contains an element of live meaning, apart from the mere interest of story or attractiveness of scene; and this very presence of a suggestion of the vital spark in drama is what made one most regretful regarding Mr. Fitch as a dramatist. For he had that within him, out of which worthy dramatic literature might have been evolved.
The general impression was that he did not make good, for the very reason that his ideas never seemed to arrive. That he was not consciously imitative of foreign models is observable by the fact that whenever he attempted to absorb foreign situations, whenever he adapted French pieces; such as "Sapho," those qualities for which he might be justly praised were either corrupted or wholly absent from the scene. But Mr. Fitch was not indifferent to foreign activity, especially as manifest in the modern French dramas. Curiously, he welcomed in them just those large and significant characteristics which, had he possessed them, would have placed him in the front ranks of the progressive dramatic movement. He once said: "No one at the present moment is getting the essence of his environment in thought, word, and deed, as Hervieu, Lavedan, Donnay, Capus: Capus with the idea for the basic principle, the idea serious; Lavedan and Donnay, the idea social; Capus all sorts of ideas together, any old idea so long as it is always life especially the life superficial, with the undercurrent really kept under."
Our American dramatist has, during the past decade, developed within himself a tremendous sense of locality. This is very natural, considering his keenness of observation. But he has not yet sufficiently balanced this observation with an intellectual perspective of those characteristics which go to make the nation. We could more readily describe Mr. Fitch by saying that he was a typical New York dramatist, than a typical American dramatist; for the conventions running through his plays are those of a society which is common to New York City. Even in his scenic indications, he preferred to appeal to the local sense of New Yorkers. His " Major Andr้," played at the Savoy Theatre, was supposed to have taken place in an old colonial residence situated exactly on the spot occupied by the Savoy Theatre itself. His " Glad of It" had one act behind the scenes of the Savoy Theatre. His " Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines" opened on the docks of the Cunard Steamship Company. The last two acts of "The Truth" were laid in a Harlem flat. "Girls" was filled with allusions to apartment life in New York, which only New Yorkers could fully appreciate.
This local sense is most likely to be encouraged in those dramatists who have gained experience through newspaper reporting. Mr. Thomas confesses that when he began to write for the stage, he mentally divided the country into various sections for his own purposes. He did this by centring his attention upon the social position women occupied in the North, South, East, and West, and he states the case thus: "In the South the unwritten law and the spotlessness of a woman's reputation are the first items, as they are the last. In the middle West they are not so punctilious; and in the far West, where the scarcity of the article raises its price, a woman's position is not prohibitive, if, after accepting a man's name and his protection, she runs straight and is true. In the North we have commenced to accept the English idea of compensation and consideration for services to the husband where a wife has been seduced." Whether Mr. Thomas actually did regard the country from this standpoint must be supported by careful examination of his plays, but we believe that this statement of his is more closely applicable to Mr. Fitch's own consideration of the sex problem. His plays were avowedly romantic, their psychology mostly commonplace and healthy. It was distinctively the psychology of the story-teller, and in in-stances was not only cleverly, but realistically, portrayed.
For instance, "The Girl with the Green Eyes" is a close, persistent analysis of jealousy.
Mr. Fitch attempted nearly every form of drama. His character studies, such as those typified by "Beau Brummel" written in conjunction with Mr. Mansfield, "Fr้d้ric Lemaitre," and "His Grace de Grammont," reveal a delicacy and deftness which, although lacking in virility, constitute, none the less, miniatures of a notable order. He attempted war drama in his "Nathan Hale" and "Barbara Frietchie," but they may be described as war dramas with the war left out. He wrote straight comedies as well as farces; and in the realm of melodrama, such a piece as "The Woman in the Case" might be taken as a typical example.
The interest of Mr. Fitch usually centred upon the feminine side of his play. No writer for the stage had a keener sense of changing styles and foibles than he. Oftentimes his weakness lay in his too great dependence upon the novelty or familiarity of detail. He wrote so many pieces with these characteristics, that we were never startled by Mr. Fitch's inventive powers. Before going to see a new piece, we were almost sure of finding certain familiar features which belonged to no one else but him. Our curiosity was piqued, but so distinctly did we imagine that we knew the flavor of Mr. Fitch's atmosphere, that unless he gave us that flavor we left the theatre disappointed. We can say of "The Climbers," for example, that through the customary method Mr. Fitch employed, his public was willing to find amusement in the first act of a play which opened in a house of mourning a short while after the burial service had been performed. In "The Stubbornness of Geraldine," which in point of love interest is as typically German as "Her Great Match," the cleverness of representing the deck of one of our large ocean liners was legitimately entertaining.
But the Fitch flavor, which was so familiar to theatre-goers, and which might almost be said to have become crystallized, created in the forty or fifty plays, which are to his credit, a level of cleverness above which very few of the pieces stand out. Nearly all of his plays bore a close relation-ship, one with the other. His heroines were mostly of the same romantic type, his heroes had the same polished daring. It is a mistaken idea that there are but few ways in drama of creating humor. We may no doubt reduce an analysis of humor to a certain number of elements, but the combinations of those elements are infinite. The fault with Mr. Fitch's humor rested in the fact that he was prone to use the same combinations over and over again. I would say of him that his grasp of the life and manners of New York, from earliest times, was more intimate than that possessed by any other dramatist or writer of the day. Because of this grasp, he was able to play with details, to contrast the past with the present, to create his humor by means of this balance of the past with the present. Take, for example, "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines." The references to Hoboken made by Madame Trentoni are put from the stand-point of those early times, rather than from the standpoint of to-day. Should one read the diaries of Tyrone Power, the grandfather of the present actor of that name, he would find the same characteristic innuendoes that sound humorous to us to-day, simply because they while not wholly true of the Hoboken of the present have, nevertheless, an element of truth in them.
Mr. Fitch created humor, likewise, by a method of comparing material advance. When Madame Trentoni comes down the gang-plank and meets the New York newspaper reporters, she is enthusiastic about the quickness of the trip over something like fourteen days and the reporters boast that in time to come they will even be able to make it in ten days. In view of the Lusitania, one cannot help but smile! And this was the deftness of Mr. Fitch at full play. Take away from him those characteristics that were known as the Fitch qualities, and which might be termed superficial qualities if they were not truthful reproductions however they might be superficial and the remaining characteristics would indicate his limitations.
The comedy of manners is not only a legitimate form of dramatic art, but it is also one of the hardest forms to make vital. "The School for Scandal" has persisted from generation to generation, not because of its story, not because of its reflection of eighteenth century habits and customs, not because of its idea, which is hardly noteworthy, but because of its humanity underlying the superficial, a humanity which is eternal, whether in powder and patches, in hoop-skirts, or in the fashions of the present. There is a spontaneous flow of humor in this drama, dependent upon character, rather than upon situation or local reference. In fact, an over-abundance of local reference would take the sympathetic appeal away from a comedy after the age had passed.
Moreover, an over-emphasis of the local, even at close range, is detrimental to the understanding of a piece, out-side that particular locality. Local characteristics, even national characteristics are only useful, in so far as they help to round out the character-value of the play. The Americanism in "The Lion and the Mouse" was its ruination in England. The Western allusions in George Ade's "The College Widow," which was presented in London, hastened its return home. It is to be remarked that Mr. Fitch successfully produced abroad only those plays of his that were more French in flavor than American. "The Cowboy and the Lady" was only fairly received. But "The Truth" has not only brought success to Marie Tempest; because of its foreign atmosphere, it has won its way through-out the Continent. Americans never quite realized how much of a reputation Mr. Fitch had abroad. His last trip to Europe was a veritable sweep of the theatrical field. London had just received favorably "The Woman in the Case," and other managers were clamoring for his pieces, no matter how old they were. Sir Charles Wyndham was watching "The Blue Mouse," Belasco was seeking a contract with him, and every one was envious of the Shuberts who had secured the rights to "The City," that play which was to prove the last forceful flash of the maturing Mr. Fitch.
The list of plays I have compiled will indicate some of the activity of Mr. Fitch. It will show that in point of variety, if not in point of solidity, he was closely akin to Mr. Pinero, without that deep interest in the psychology of character which marks the English playwright. It might almost be said that the majority of his plays were but variations of the same theme. His technique was sometimes skilful, at other times it was hasty and crude; at its best it was more polished than vigorous. In the matter of dramatization, one might well imagine why Mr. Fitch was unsuccessful in turning Alfred Henry Lewis's "Wolfville Stories" into a Western play. But it is less evident, except in the inherent defects that beset the dramatization of any novel, why it was that "The House of Mirth," a distinctively New York story of the smart-set, written by Mrs. Wharton, should have missed the mark.
One final characteristic of Mr. Fitch needs to be noted, and it becomes distinctive if the reader is at all familiar with the personalities involved. Mr. Fitch nearly always wrote his plays with a definite actress in view. The con-sequence is that his characters almost invariably partook of the personality of their model. In "The Truth" and in "The Girl with the Green Eyes," the heroines are markedly like the late Clara Bloodgood. In " The Stubbornness of Geraldine," the heroine is closely related to Mary Mannering. It is hard to find a better portrait of Miss Barrymore than in "Captain 3-inks." "Her Own Way" is identified with Maxine Elliott, and "Barbara Frietchie" is synonymous with Julia Marlowe.
Thus, after noting the chief plays to Mr. Fitch's credit, we return to the original thesis, which dealt with the three underlying factors in drama. Our consideration has undoubtedly shown that what Mr. Fitch needed most was the accentuation of the element of idea, of vital idea. By the cultivating of this, he would perforce have been obliged to work less rapidly. But Mr. Fitch was never careless, even in his rapidity. Quick workmanship was part of his nature; he was quick to observe and quick to appreciate. His humor was ever present, and he dramatized everything that came within his vision. To his sense of character, his sense of situation, and his sense of dialogue, Mr. Fitch added a fourth sense distinctively his own that of New York locality. His position in American drama is one which has afforded a large amount of healthy enjoyment; and to have done this is to have done a great deal. In the matter of construction, his plays that have been published will serve the dramatic student as excellent examples of external stage-craft. They will illustrate for him in what manner the observation of familiar detail may be made use of, theatrically; they will illustrate in what way the interest of an audience may be held through an ordinary, though none the less picturesque, story.
Clyde Fitch has been dead over a year (1911). Had he lived much beyond forty-five, we should have seen a certain transformation in his technique, and a more pronounced purpose in his plots; for he was becoming deeply conscious of the fundamental truths of life, and he was eager to put strength into his dialogue in order to offset the delicacy and feminine flashes which the public always considered purely Fitchean. "The City" was his first, as it proved to be his last, effort in that direction.
Mr. Fitch often claimed that he was always measured in the public press by stereotyped phrases which clung to him because his manner was ever the same. He deplored the fact that the newspapers failed to give him credit for his close study of character, such as one finds in "The Girl with the Green Eyes" and in "The Truth." Only after he was dead did the critics begin to realize the incommunicable flavor permeating his dramas. This flavor came partly from a close understanding of New York life, whether of the past or of the present in "Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines" or in "Girls." But it was in larger share the flavor of personality. No degree of profundity could ever have limited Clyde Fitch's enthusiasm while writing or rehearsing; he was quick in mind and in execution, and sometimes his very deftness and easy brilliancy were his undoing. He realized this; he tried his best to push back the numberless contracts and offers which claimed his time.
He took his success as na๏vely as a boy, but he was planning to place more attention upon the message than he had heretofore done. This may later have handicapped him, for passages of an ethical nature in " A Happy Marriage" retarded the action of the piece.
After all, the sum total of his work cannot be rejected from the body of dramatic literature; his very style is distinctive and is a measure of the man's outlook upon life. He told his story simply, directly, tenderly and humorously. Only when he resorted to theatrical trickery did his work become uneven; and this unevenness accentuated the rich humanity and the kindly observation of his normal plays. One cannot call "The Stubbornness of Geraldine" a great drama, but it has a certain lively charm that no other playwright seems able to embody in a play. The temptation is to call such sentiment commonplace. "Granny" was full of it; so was "The Girl Who Has Everything." Seeing these plays in succession, the theatre-goer would criticise their apparent resemblance. But an analysis would inevitably lead to the conclusion that the resemblance lay in the same personality behind them, and not in any monotony of detail.
Clyde Fitch was extravagant in his invention; he was careless in throwing a whole problem away, within the limits of a line of dialogue. Such extravagance was indicative of his natural interest in all things bearing on human relation-ships. He brought the whole of life within the compass of home, and he gained his audiences by a seeming comradeship which made them feel that his windows overlooked the very housetops with which they themselves were familiar. He knew how to use the reporter's method; one could see this in "The Woman in the Case," and in "The City." But his usual method was literary, not journalistic; it was narrative in direct fashion, and not impressionistic. And because he knew his New York so well, he could afford to throw out those sparks of wit and humor which transcend a town, and are common to all provincial attitudes toward life. If he was cynical, it was friendly banter; he was never bitter. Yet looking deeper into the printed page of his published plays, it is apparent that he had had quite enough of society at the time of his death; that the city had made such demands upon his physical strength as to turn his desire toward the quietness of country life. There, he would have started the larger work of a different kind from that characterizing his long list of popular plays. Whether he would have succeeded as well is a matter for futile speculation.
He has been dead over a year, and he is missed; there is no one to take his place. A remark was once made by Thomas A. Edison to the effect that he hoped some day to have the time at his disposal for making a real contribution to science. But it is not easy to believe that anything he may do will ever surpass his actual genius in hitching his wagon to a star; in other words, in attaching a high imagination to practical conditions. So was it with Clyde Fitch. His personality is part of the work he did, and New York's duty is clearly defined, for he is in a sense the city's playwright. America has not yet understood what honor is due to such literary achievement. Its immediate reward was in the crowds that constituted a Fitch following for some fifty plays, mostly popular in their long "runs." Still, there is more to do, for now that he is dead, we know that something rare is taken from the theatre something with a distinct literary value light, no doubt, airy, and sometimes frothy, but none the less life with which we are all familiar.
There is nothing old-fashioned in Clyde Fitch's attitude or in his workmanship; they will scarcely become out-of-date for many a decade. There are other artists much stronger, with theories of technique mulch more original. But Clyde Fitch's originality is to be found in his close connection with the material he used. His audiences were given much more of himself than they ever knew. And that is why they will never find any other plays quite like his.