Although many of Clyde Fitch’s plays were written while he was traveling—as, for example, was Her Own Way, written for Maxine Elliott partly in Florence and read aloud to friends in London—Fitch’s plays are thoroughly American, a fact recognized by William Dean Howells, who favorably reviewed Glad of It in Harper’s Weekly early in 1904. In a letter of thanks to Howells, Fitch acknowledged the novelist’s influence, writing that, although he himself was lost in the midst of “shams,” Howells’s name was a signpost to the true path.
Fitch’s generally undeserved reputation as a playwright who wrote exclusively for star performers gained currency with his first success Beau Brummell, written at the request of Richard Mansfield through the influence of the reviewer E. A. Dithmars. Mansfield, unhappy with Blanchard Jerrold’s version, was initially pleased with Fitch’s script. With the play in rehearsal at Palmer’s Theatre in January, 1890, Mansfield suddenly withdrew the play, then decided to go ahead at the Madison Square Theatre in May. Even then, the production was fraught with problems; Mansfield, financially overdrawn, was forced to cut corners. Costumes were at a premium, borrowed or provided out of the actors’ own trunks. In addition, actor and playwright argued over the last act, Mansfield insisting on a happy ending. Fitch’s compromise—bringing back the king and Brummell’s old friends at the very moment of the Beau’s death—made the play a success.
Based on the life of the eighteenth century dandy George Bryan Brummell, the friend of the prince regent George IV, the play is a potpourri of romance, wit, and nostalgia that does, nevertheless, depict enough character development in Beau to gain the audience’s sympathy when he finally dies impoverished in France. His first-act appearance is characterized by superficial wit, polished manners, and exquisite sensibility as contrasted with the bluff, natural mien of his nephew, Reginald Courtenay. The romantic interest involves Reginald’s clandestine love for an unnamed woman whose father refuses consent, and Beau’s financially motivated proposal to Mariana Vincent, Reginald’s beloved.
While Beau’s mistaken identification of Mr. Vincent as a merchant peddler and his difficulty in disentangling himself from his mistress, Mrs. St. Aubyn, provide comic relief, the second act presents Brummell in a more ennobling light as he confesses to Mariana that, although he proposed because of her wealth, he finds that he loves her in her own right. His quarrel with the prince regent is occasioned by his attempt to protect her father. Flustered by having his flirtation with Mrs. St. Aubyn exposed to public scrutiny by the clumsiness of Mr. Vincent, the prince is offended by Brummell’s familiarity.
Again, in act 3, Brummell becomes more humanized as Mariana, convinced that he has saved her father’s honor by snubbing the prince regent, refuses to give up her engagement at the urging of Mrs. St. Aubyn, who, out of jealousy, offers to intercede with the prince if Mariana will not marry. Knowing that her wealth can save Beau from his creditors, Mariana agrees to marry him; then she meets Reginald, whose letters have been stopped by connivance between the servants. Beau, in a self-sacrificing gesture, releases her from her engagement and is led away by the bailiffs.
Beau, with his “glory gone,” is depicted in the fourth act in abject poverty, his faithful servant Mortimer having pawned all his possessions. Fitch’s melodramatic genius created the act in which Brummell sees his old friends in a vision, Mortimer assisting as he goes through the empty formalities of greeting his nonexistent guests. That the guests actually return to play their parts at the end of the play satisfied both Mansfield’s desire for a happy ending and Fitch’s realization that no happy ending was possible.
The Truth began as a casual remark in 1906 to Fitch’s business agent about a character who could not avoid telling lies. He elaborated the plot in less than two hours after being asked to write a play for the actress Clara Bloodgood and was convinced that the result was “psychologically and technically” his best work. Initially, the critics were less convinced; reviews after the first night, on which he also opened The Straight Road, were unenthusiastic. As the record shows, however, the second tour of the play, in October, 1907, was very successful. In addition, European audiences and reviewers were extraordinarily enthusiastic over the performance of Marie Tempest, whom Fitch met at Versailles. Indeed, her success abroad was the indirect cause of the suicide of Bloodgood, depressed over the lack of American response.
Becky Warder, the play’s protagonist, seems to lie for the sheer inventiveness and challenge of juggling varieties of truth. Perhaps if Fitch had been a greater playwright, he would have explored, as the twentieth century playwright Luigi Pirandello did, the existential ramifications of such a condition. Fitch, however, concentrated on the effects of Becky’s lying on her marriage. Like his later play The City, The Truth ends with a reconciliation based on self-knowledge.
Act 1 is reminiscent of the eighteenth century comedy of manners. Becky carries on a flirtation with Lindon, under the pretext of reconciling him with his wife, Eve, and she entertains his wife between his visits. She deceives her husband not only about Lindon but also about the price of a bonnet and about money sent to her sponging father. Through it all, she protests that she loves her husband. The audience can judge that she does indeed try to convince Lindon to return to Eve; nevertheless, she cannot stop lying.
The converse, that a sincere man can awaken a woman to good, is only suggested, not underscored, because it is the character of Becky that is emphasized, not that of Warder. Indeed, the sudden appearance of Becky’s father and Mrs. Crespigny—the landlady with whom he has been living, from whom he has been borrowing, and whom he has been...
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