Drama and theater have long played an important role in student life at Amherst College. Our Dramatic Activities Collection contains evidence of student and faculty performances all the way back to the early 19th century. Clyde Fitch (Class of 1886) was a major force in student theatricals, both on and off the stage, during his time at Amherst. He went on to become one of the most popular playwrights in the United States; a spectacular career that was cut short by his untimely death in 1909. On Thursday, October 23, 2014 we are holding an event in the Clyde Fitch Room in Converse Hall to celebrate the life and career of Clyde Fitch as part of LGBT History Month.
Although we celebrate him as an icon of Queer history at Amherst, it would be inappropriate (and anachronistic) to project our modern notions of “homosexual” or “gay” onto Clyde Fitch. George Chauncy’s book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 is extremely useful, especially since Clyde Fitch spent much of his post-Amherst life in New York City. Kim Marra’s essay “Clyde Fitch’s Too Wilde Love” (in Staging Desire: Queer Readings of American Theater History) presents clear archival evidence of Fitch’s personal relationship with Oscar Wilde, and suggests they may have been lovers. Both Chauncy and Marra point out the difficulty of recovering Queer history when faced with active efforts to conceal and destroy evidence. It is likely that more letters between Fitch and Wilde were destroyed than have survived.
What we can say for certain is that Clyde Fitch was known for his great skill in playing female roles on stage as well as for costuming other performers and decorating stage sets. The Archives is filled with photographs of Amherst men in drag, so cross-dressing should not be immediately conflated with homosexuality, but, by all accounts, Fitch’s whole character was distinctly effeminate. Writing about him in the May 1928 Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly, Chilton Powell quotes Fitch as saying: “I knew of course that every boy regarded me as a sissy; but I would rather be misunderstood than lose my independence” (162).
After leaving Amherst, Fitch moved to New York City where he struggled to build a literary career. During the summer months he traveled to Europe and London, where he met Oscar Wilde, likely during the summer of 1888. While abroad, Fitch fully embraced the aestheticism of Wilde and his circle. Upon his return home, Fitch wrote his first successful play about the man who defined dandyism for the nineteenth century: Beau Brummell.
“Beau Brummell” premiered at Madison Square Garden in New York City on 17 May 1890 and was an instant success. It subsequently toured the major cities of America and launched Fitch’s career as a dramatist.
Fitch wrote thirty-three original plays, twenty-three adaptations, along with a novel and a book of stories for children. At one point, five of his plays were running on Broadway simultaneously. Fitch’s friend Oscar Wilde also had a great success in 1890 with the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Fitch’s own novel was published in Lippincott’s the following year.
Although his works are nearly forgotten today, Clyde Fitch was both a major influence on the shape of American theater and a noted celebrity until his death in 1909. This caricature of Fitch by artist Ernest Haskell gives us a glimpse into how Fitch was viewed by his contemporaries:
Amherst College is fortunate to have extensive holdings that document the life and works of Clyde Fitch. The Archives holds The W. Clyde Fitch Collection along with the books from his personal library. Our Clyde Pride event will be held in the Fitch Room in Converse Hall — a reproduction of the study from Fitch’s home at 113 East 40th Street in New York. The room and the collections were the gift of Clyde Fitch’s mother in 1913.