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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1284

Born in Elmira, New York, on May 2, 1865, William Clyde Fitch was the first of five children and the only son of Alice Maud Clark of Hagerstown, Maryland, and William Goodwin Fitch, a staff member to General Heintzelsman during the Civil War. When he was four, the family moved...

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Born in Elmira, New York, on May 2, 1865, William Clyde Fitch was the first of five children and the only son of Alice Maud Clark of Hagerstown, Maryland, and William Goodwin Fitch, a staff member to General Heintzelsman during the Civil War. When he was four, the family moved to Schenectady, where he later joined with friends to form the Amateur Club and the Hookey Club and edited The Rising Sun, the pages of which express Fitch’s early verve and vitality. His childhood frailty and love of beauty, learned from his charming, vivacious mother and sisters, made him an anomaly as he grew older; preferring the company of girls, to whom he wrote precocious love notes, and affecting individualistic aesthetic costumes, he marked himself as an original as early as his attendance at the Hartford Public High School.

Fitch’s reputation followed him through preparatory school in Holderness, New Hampshire, and to Amherst College, where his classmates and Chi Psi fraternity brothers found his picturesque appearance no deterrent to his good humor and inventiveness. In fact, his first dramatic effort was a second act to a Harper’s operetta, Il Jacobi, written in haste to complete an evening program for his fraternity. During his college years, he acted, produced, and painted scenery, frequently transposing effects from, for example, Daly’s theater in New York, where he was an avid visitor. His college acting career included performances in Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (pr. 1773) and in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (pr. 1775).

After graduating from Amherst College in 1886, Fitch went to New York, attempting both journalism and tutoring—which he disliked—to support himself. His novel A Wave of Life and short stories for The Churchman were written at a boardinghouse on West Fifty-third Street. The beginnings of his successful career can be traced to two experiences: He presented a letter of introduction to E. A. Dithmars, the drama critic for The Times, who provided the entrée to opening nights; and he spent some time in Paris with his mother in 1888, where he composed and read the one-act original play Frederick Lemaître.

By 1889, Fitch had established himself in New York and increased his circle of acquaintances to include such artists and writers as Oliver Herford of Life and William Dean Howells. His old friend Dithmars spurred Fitch’s dramatic career by introducing the young playwright to the actor Richard Mansfield, who wanted a tailor-made play about Beau Brummell. After several false starts, including an argument with Mansfield about the ending, the play opened on a shoestring budget on May 17, 1890, at the Madison Square Theatre, where it was a huge success. Five months later, Felix Morris produced Frederick Lemaître in Chicago with the Rosina Vokes Company.

Soon before Fitch went to London to work on the unsuccessful comedy Pamela’s Prodigy, he countered the critic William Winter’s charges that Mansfield’s kindness had made him only the titular author of Beau Brummell. His apprenticeship years, from 1890 to 1892, were devoted to adapting and rewriting, commissions appearing at financially opportune times. Of his works in this period, his adaptation of The Masked Ball from Bisson and Carré’s French play Le Veglione proved the most important, catapulting John Drew and Maude Adams to stardom and assuring the reputation of Charles Frohman.

Fitch’s output of plays produced between 1891 and 1898 testifies to his unremitting industry, broken only by his lavish entertainment for his growing circle of theatrical acquaintances and his frequent trips abroad. His two biggest successes during this time were Nathan Hale, which opened at Hooley’s Theatre in Chicago, and The Moth and the Flame, first produced in Philadelphia. He became, in fact, one of the first commercially successful American dramatists; Frohman, who had looked to the British playwrights Arthur Wing Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones for his productions, tapped the young playwright. Barbara Frietchie, which opened at the Philadelphia Broad Street Theater on October 10, 1899, surpassed even Nathan Hale in popularity, bringing in ten thousand dollars in a single week. Inspired by a photograph of Fitch’s mother as a girl and written for Julia Marlowe, the play, a romanticized version of the events surrounding the American revolutionary war hero, evoked an ongoing discussion about poetic license. His next major success was The Cowboy and the Lady, which was well received on the circuit and in New York in 1899, but it was criticized because of the swearing, which Fitch, who had never been West, employed as local color. Clearly, Fitch proved himself a master of versatility. As the year 1901 opened, no fewer than three Fitch plays, aside from Barbara Frietchie, were on the boards in New York: The Climbers, a comedy of manners; Lovers’ Lane, a rural romance; and Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, described as a “fantastic comedy.”

Indeed, Fitch frequently had more than one play running at the same time. His Greenwich, Connecticut, homesite, purchased in March, 1902, and christened Quiet Corner, was to alleviate some of the intense pressure under which he worked in his studio in New York, a studio crammed with keepsakes and theatrical books, flowers, and memoirs—and guests. In addition, Fitch traveled some six months of the year, sometimes taking a “cure” such as the one at Parma, Italy, where he met actress Lily Langtry. Throughout all, he continued to write; in 1902, suffering from illness and exhaustion, he produced both The Stubbornness of Geraldine in November and The Girl with the Green Eyes in December, both with the same attention to fine detail that fostered his reputation as a realist.

The composition and rehearsal of the less than successful The Coronet of the Duchess in 1904 were typical of Fitch’s work habits at Quiet Corner, where he and his menagerie of pets entertained a constant flow of visitors and where he composed his plays under a favorite apple tree, his birdcages hanging above him and his company chattering around him. After the next year, in which Her Great Match, Wolfville, and The Toast of the Town were produced, Fitch gave a series of lectures in Philadelphia and New York at Yale and Harvard, in an attempt to educate the public, as he put it, about their responsibility: “Hardened theater” was the result, he believed, of a constant and unhealthy cry for novelty and a refusal to take the drama seriously.

In one sense Fitch heeded his own words when, in 1906, in the midst of Toddles, The House of Mirth (produced with the cooperation of Edith Wharton), and The Girl Who Has Everything, he began to write The Truth for Clara Bloodgood. This play, which depicts the effect of inveterate lying, seems to be an oblique commentary on the falseness of the theatergoing public itself, which prefers to trivialize the truth into melodrama, just as the heroine prefers to jeopardize a happy marriage for the sake of fibbing and flirtation. Perhaps not surprisingly, the initial reception was not as enthusiastic as that of The Straight Road, opening the same night. Reviewers became more warm in their praise, however, even comparing Fitch to Henrik Ibsen; the French wildly applauded Marie Tempest in the foreign presentation of the play.

Fitch’s years of overwork began to take their toll. Suffering from perpetual indigestion and a weak heart, he virtually retired to Katonah, New York, in 1907. The last year of his life found him writing The City, a play that justifies his self-assessment as a major contributor to the American drama. Indeed, his last reading of the play, five days before he left for his last trip to Europe, left him exhausted. His continued illness on the trip ended in his death in Châlons-sur-Marne on September 4, 1909.

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