Miniature Worlds Acting Big: Toy Theaters at the Kislak Center

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The play of Robinson Crusoe (1883), to be performed in J. H. Singer’s Theatre Imperial

“Ocean—strip of water in groove 2; strip of shore, groove 4; wreck, groove 1, right of stage; raft, groove 3, right; Crusoe A, groove 5, left. [Curtain rises]”. When it is performed on a toy theater, the reconstruction of Robinson Crusoe’s shipwreck requires a certain number of technical details. A good staging is about the right choice of sceneries, flats, and figures: Forest or ocean? Little boat or big sinking ship? And which Crusoe figure should we pick – hunting Crusoe? Crusoe in shirt sleeves? Perhaps sitting Crusoe, speaking with his parrot? Granted, numbers and letters help with the assembly, but what would happen if we left our imagination run loose, and create our own deviations from the original story?

 

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A few figures from the stage set of Robinson Crusoe (New York: J. H. Singer, 1883)

 

Toy theaters are miniature theaters used in intimate, private spaces for the performance of special adaptations of plays, novels, and historical events, often published in special booklets called “juvenile dramas.” Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, toy theater was a popular form of entertainment in the United Kingdom and in Europe, and at the end of that century it became widespread in the United States as well. To those interested in the history of this special middle-class pastime for the youth (and their complicit parents), the toy theaters, scene sets, and dramas included in the Charlotte Cushman Club records offer a great starting point.

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The Queer Career of Clyde Fitch

At the beginning of the last century, a playwright had four of his works being produced in Broadway at the same time. He was the first American dramatist to be regularly (and successfully) produced abroad. He wrote an impressive amount of plays, from society plays and historical dramas to farces and melodramas, and he was responsible for more than twenty American adaptations of works by European authors, from Victorien Sardou to Oscar Wilde. Shortly after he died, scholars said of him: “when [he] began to write, American drama scarcely existed; when he died it was reality… He did more for American drama than any other man in history” (William Lyon Phelps, Essays on Modern Dramatists, 1921). In 1971, his name was included in the Theatre Hall of Fame, instituted in that year to “honor those who have made outstanding contributions to American theatre.”

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A portrait of Clyde Fitch (Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, MS. Coll. 1332, Clyde Fitch typescript and letters, circa 1890-1925)

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Clyde Fitch (Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, MS. Coll. 1332, Clyde Fitch typescript and letters, circa 1890-1925)

But today, almost nobody remembers who Clyde Fitch was. In the eyes of younger playwrights and critics, Fitch’s poignant characterization of the protagonists of his works gradually lost relevance as the social context that had inspired them was fading away. For playwright Noël Coward, Fitch was an “old-fashioned” author who wrote “stilted and dated” dialogues, and a few unsuccessful adaptations of Fitch’s works (the opera Jinks, premiered in Kansas City in 1975, and the 1980 Broadway production Hijinks!, both based on Fitch’s play Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines) didn’t do much to rehabilitate the name of the once famous playwright. But even at the peak of Fitch’s career, there was another aspect that led critics to look at him with suspicion, and which to an extent loomed over Fitch’s figure even after his death: he was homosexual.

Granted, no reviewer in Fitch’s time openly stated it. Fitch himself, aware of the rigid confines of the patriarchal society in which he grew up – and to which his work as a writer catered to – strove to keep his sexual inclinations as secret as he could. Nevertheless, rumors circulated. A notorious dandy with a penchant for foreign arts and sartorial luxury, Fitch had been considered “effeminate” since his high school years. This is how writer William Lyon Phelps, who was in school with him, remembered those days:

[Fitch] was even at the age of fourteen a complete individualist…instead of speaking our dialect he spoke English accurately, and even with eloquence, he was immaculately, even exquisitely clothed; he made no friendships among the boys and it was evident that he regarded us as barbarians, which we were… We treated him exactly as the graduates of Oxford ten years earlier had treated Oscar Wilde; they threw him in the Cherwell and wrecked the beautiful decorations of his room in Magdalen.

At Amherst College, where he graduated in 1886, Fitch became especially known as a scenery painter and amateur actor. Because of his slight frame, Fitch was often asked to play female roles, such as Constance Neville in Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, and Peggy Thrift in William Wycherley’s The Country Girl. These and other classics of English literature later inspired the style of Fitch’s first plays: Beau Brummel, Frédéric Lemaître, and Betty’s Finish, all produced in 1890.

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Clyde Fitch in 1884, acting in Wycherley’s The Country Girl (Amherst College Library)

Fitch was especially known for his ability to create well-characterized figures of women with whom the increasingly female-dominated audience of the time could easily identify. In some cases, those characters worked as perfect vehicles for future projects. For example, the English actress and theater manager Olga Nethersole asked Fitch to write a theatrical adaptation of Alphonse Daudet’s novel Sapho (1884) for her. Produced, directed, and interpreted by Nethersole, Fitch’s Sapho (1899) was a triumph with American audiences, who were intrigued by the piquant plot about the love affairs of the lead woman Fanny (Nethersole) with unmarried men. In New York, the show was an authentic succès de scandale. Shocked by the explicitness of the plot which featured an outrageous scene (for the time) in which Fanny and her partner left the stage to consummate their love in an unseen bedroom, several organizations, including the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the New York Mother’s Club, sued the show organizers for indecency, interrupting the production for more than a month. Overwhelmed by the events, Fitch suffered a nervous breakdown which some scholars believe was the result of his realization of the risks posed by such a scandal for his own private life. “Fitch sensed the ‘danger’ that his private life was on the brink of public exposure”, theater historian Theresa Saxon suggests.Screen Shot 2018-02-22 at 2.07.17 PM

Despite the general obscurity to which Fitch’s work is still consigned, the name of this playwright has known, in recent decades, a limited rediscovery, especially thanks to the growing field of gender studies. Fitch’s homosexuality has been extensively discussed, as well as some of his most notable romantic relationships—particularly the one with Irish playwright Oscar Wilde at the end of the 1880s. But how, and to what extent, did Fitch’s personal life influence his literary output? From now onwards, Penn will have a word to say on this matter. After many decades in which they could be found only through the old card catalogue, two collections of unpublished typescripts of 11 plays and theatrical adaptations by Fitch (Clyde Fitch typescript and letters, circa 1890-1909, and the Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch typescript of “The House of Mirth”, circa 1895) can now be easily accessed. Covering the whole of Fitch’s career, from the early 1890s to his premature death in 1909, these typescripts offer a unique perspective on his work and the social context in which he was living and operating. Thanks to them, a new posthumous chapter of Fitch’s queer story will perhaps soon be written.

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The eleven typescript plays by Clyde Fitch included in MS Coll. 1332 and 121 (Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts)

 

 

Ghosts on the Shelf: Or, the Long-Awaited Return of Charles Durang’s “History of The Philadelphia Stage Between the Years 1749 and 1855” (But, Wait, Wasn’t that Thompson Westcott’s?)

Historians of American drama know it well: there is hardly a more precious source on 19th-century Philadelphia theater than Charles Durang’s work dedicated to the history of the city stage in the years between 1749 and 1855. A painstakingly detailed account of the theatrical activities that took place in Philadelphia over a century, Durang’s work appeared in weekly installments on a Philadelphia newspaper, the Sunday Dispatch, and was thus widely available at the time it was published. Today, it can be found in dozens of libraries across the U.S., either in its original form – that is, as clippings from the original newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s, often pasted onto more or less inclusive scrapbooks – or, much more frequently, as a microfilm.

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The title page of volume I of Thompson Westcott’s scrapbooks of Charles Durang’s history of theater in Philadelphia. Westcott’s signature and the date can be seen on the bottom left corner of the image. To the left is an engraving of actor, playwright, and theater manager David Garrick

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The Charlotte Cushman Club records: A Window on Philadelphia Theater History

Perhaps even more than their male colleagues, actresses are often treated like cultural icons dangerously running on the sharp edge between scandal and sanctity, supported and haunted at the same time by an endless flow of more or less authorized anecdotes, interviews, photographs, Instagram posts, Facebook likes, and Twitter followers. But a century ago, in an age in which theater districts still served as meeting places between prostitutes and their clients, the reputation of actresses, especially in the earlier stages of their careers, was often considered dubious unless otherwise proven. In Philadelphia, a group of wealthy theater-lovers thought that young actresses should at least have the right to escape “the brothel-like atmosphere of cheap hotels and the rude stares of corset drummers;” and in 1907, they opened a new organization, the Charlotte Cushman Club, to provide them respectable lodging while performing in the city.

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The Charlotte Cushman Club house at 239 South Camac Street, Philadelphia

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Frozen Dolls and Famous Actresses: A Tale of Two Charlottes

Somewhere in the New England countryside, first half of the nineteenth century. It is a cold winter night. In a lonely home on the side of a mountain, a young woman named Charlotte is dressing up to go to the ball. Only, the ball will be held in an inn fifteen miles away, and the only available means of transportation is the open sleigh of Charlotte’s boyfriend Charles. “Be careful,” says Charlotte’s mother to her daughter, “make sure to wrap up in a warm blanket, if you don’t want to freeze out there!” “There is no way, mom,” Charlotte responds, “how can I expect my splendid dress to be seen if I muffle myself up in that ugly blanket? My silken cloak will be quite enough.” The bottom line: Charlotte is found frozen to death by her beloved Charles at the end of their ride on the snow.

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