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Fiske, Harrison Greylocked

(30 July 1861–02 September 1942)
  • William Stephenson

Fiske, Harrison Grey (30 July 1861–02 September 1942), theatrical editor and manager-producer, was born in Harrison, New York, the son of Lyman Fiske, a hotel owner, and Jennie Durfee. Fiske’s well-to-do family moved to New York City when he was a child, and there he developed a lifelong passion for the theater. He was educated by tutors and at private schools and traveled in Europe. Thanks to family influence with the owners of the papers, while still an adolescent Fiske began reviewing plays for two newspapers, the Jersey City Argus and the New York Star. During his one year at New York University, he began contributing to a theatrical weekly, the New York Dramatic Mirror. He decided that year to make theatrical journalism his profession. His father bought an interest in the Dramatic Mirror, and Fiske, barely eighteen, became its editor in 1879.

Under the young man’s devoted editorship, the weekly publication became more than a journal of stage information; it became the guardian of the theater’s managerial and artistic standards. Fiske was determined to bring about better conditions for the artists of the theater and to protect them against managerial exploitation. He succeeded in establishing the Actors’ Fund in 1882 to aid destitute actors. He also worked to bring about the passage of laws to protect playwrights against piracy of their works. In 1883 Fiske bought a third share of the Dramatic Mirror and in 1888 became its sole owner.

Fiske, though large in height and girth, was a personable young man skilled in the arts of gracious living. One interviewer described his appearance as that of “the ideal New York man of position, handsome, well bred, and well dressed” (Washington Post, 4 Mar. 1906). In 1886 bachelor Fiske turned his attention to courting a rising young actress, Mary Augusta Davey (known as Minnie Maddern), as passionate as he in her devotion to the theater. They married in 1890, more from their shared love of the theater than from ardent personal attraction. She, a stage professional from childhood, was only sketchily educated and retired from acting after marriage, the better to absorb her husband’s broader knowledge of life and the drama. She never gave up thoughts of the stage, however, having no desire for children or domesticity. In 1893 she returned to the stage in a tragedy, Hester Crewe, written by Fiske. It did not succeed; Fiske wrote several plays, and none succeeded.

In 1894 her triumphant success in a performance of the demanding role of Nora in A Doll’s House changed Fiske’s life as well as her own. Reports of theatergoers’ acclaim for Mrs. Fiske’s performance went nationwide. A national tour in the play was immediately called for. Her biographer Archie Binns wrote: “[The public] had seen Minnie Maddern, the winsome and the capricious, suddenly loom up as a great actress… . Now [Fiske] saw that her career was more important than his, and his life would have to be changed to fit hers.” Ever the theater lover, he was wholehearted in support of “the clear light of genius.”

While continuing as editor of the Dramatic Mirror, Fiske over the next years became more and more involved in managing the career of the great star that Minnie Maddern Fiske became. At first he was simply a silent partner in management, letting others handle actual production. In 1897, however, the producer of Mrs. Fiske’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles withdrew before the play opened, pleading lack of funds. Fiske, believing in the play’s dramatic value, stepped in. Once in, having experienced the excitement of the play’s great success, he remained active as his wife’s producer.

Both husband and wife, beginning in 1897, were swept up in a shared twelve-year campaign against a business group’s attempt to dominate the commercial theater. Six managers and theater owners, led by Marc Klaw and A. L. Erlanger, had gained control of bookings for nearly all the major playhouses across the nation and proposed to offer them only to stars and producers who booked exclusively through their organization, known as the Theatrical Syndicate. The Syndicate people wanted Fiske, who was both editor of the Dramatic Mirror and producer-husband of a star, on their side. He was approached early and offered very favorable terms to send his wife’s touring productions to their theaters.

Fiske refused to go along. As he put it years later, he “realized that the establishing of such a syndicate meant the degeneracy of the stage … ” (Washington Post, 4 Mar. 1906). The more he learned of the Syndicate’s operations, the more Fiske recognized it as a trust, or monopoly, that would begin by dictating financial terms to theater professionals and end by strangling artistic innovation in the theater in the name of commercial caution. After he turned the group’s representative out of his office, the Syndicate made continued attempts to silence him, but “Fiske publicized every attempt … to win him over and every threat they made to quiet him,” according to theater historian Monroe Lippmann.

Fiske succeeded in alerting the theatrical world. In years to follow, many stars and producers proclaimed they would never bow to the Syndicate, only to defect under financial pressures brought by that organization. The Fiskes alone persevered as a matter of principle. For years, the Syndicate barred all New York theaters to Mrs. Fiske, until Fiske was able by subterfuges to lease—and renovate at great expense—one antiquated playhouse that became available. The Manhattan Theatre became Mrs. Fiske’s New York showcase from 1901 to 1906. She was still barred from the majority of the nation’s suitable playhouses in other cities.

While Mrs. Fiske toured the country in whatever decrepit non-Syndicate theaters could be found or acted in skating rinks, assembly halls, or tents, Fiske used the Dramatic Mirror to inveigh against the machinations of the Syndicate. He published a number of supplements detailing its workings and willingly fought a libel suit brought against him by the Syndicate, because it allowed him to make public the private agreements made among the members of the Syndicate. The suit was finally dismissed.

It was a long, expensive fight: tours carried out under adverse conditions lost the Fiskes much of the money Mrs. Fiske’s potential successes in these years might have earned. It was also a brutal fight, fiercely personal, that once led to fisticuffs between Erlanger and Fiske. In 1909, however, the Fiskes’ battle against theatrical monopoly ended with the rise of a rival syndicate headed by Lee Shubert and J. J. Shubert, who controlled enough theaters to return competition and independence to bookings. By 1910 Fiske could once again choose any New York theater for his wife’s plays.

The couple’s achievements, even under adversity, were considerable. Mrs. Fiske, in a series of productions, had become a leading interpreter of Ibsen’s plays. The pair had also encouraged the work of young American playwrights, bringing plays by Langdon Mitchell, Edward Sheldon, and Harry James Smith to success. Fiske had some achievements of his own, also. He had introduced Bertha Kalich, the great star of the Yiddish theater, to the English-speaking theater. He had given actor George Arliss his first starring role.

Fiske’s record as a producer was not unblemished, however, especially in financial matters. He had inherited no wealth from his high-living father, but carried on his father’s free-spending style. In his theatrical productions he sought artistic quality above all, and that brought higher costs and lower profits. The closing of the Manhattan Theatre in 1906 was due to losses Fiske had incurred there.

In 1911 Fiske took his deepest plunge into the risks of theatrical production. That year, with Mrs. Fiske having one of her great successes in the farce-comedy Mrs. Bumpstead-Leigh, he sold the Dramatic Mirror—the couple’s only steady source of income. He entered into production of an elaborate Arabian Nights fantasy, Kismet, starring Otis Skinner. The play demanded a cast of dozens and elaborate scenic effects. Artistically, Fiske’s career as a producer reached its crest with Kismet. The play made a huge success with the public and ran from 1911 through 1914 in New York and on the road, but profits were minimal because of high production costs. Then Fiske’s attempt to make dancer Lydia Lopokova an actress in a 1914 production, Just Herself, failed utterly and disastrously. By the end of 1914, Fiske was in bankruptcy court.

Fiske and his wife remained loyal professional partners, though their marriage had deteriorated to the point that they lived in separate residences. They continued to work together on productions for her. By 1914 Mrs. Fiske was in her fifties, the New York theatergoing public’s tastes were changing, and the popularity of moving pictures was eating away at the “road,” where Mrs. Fiske had her most loyal following. Never again did the pair know the success of earlier days. Neither did Fiske’s prudence as a manager improve. In Allen Churchill’s words, he followed “an unsteady course between the brilliant and the disastrous. In the end, disaster won … ” A failed revival of Much Ado about Nothing brought Fiske back to bankruptcy in 1927. His wife’s death in 1932 effectively ended Fiske’s career in the theater, and he spent the last years of his life living quietly and working on a never-published autobiography. He died in New York City. His place in American theatrical history had been assured years before, by his long, courageous, principled battle against the monopolistic power of the Theatrical Syndicate.

Bibliography

The papers of Fiske are in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Materials on his life and career are in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center. His work as a theatrical journalist is analyzed in Paul Roten, “The Contributions of Harrison Grey Fiske to the American Theatre as Editor of the New York Dramatic Mirror” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Michigan, 1962). His part in the fight against the Syndicate is considered, based on a 1936 interview with Fiske, in Monroe Lippman, “The History of the Theatrical Syndicate: Its Effect upon the Theatre in America” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Michigan, 1937). Much material about Fiske’s life with his wife, based on his manuscript autobiography, is found in Archie Binns, Mrs. Fiske and the American Theatre (1955). Other views of the way his life intertwined with his wife’s are in Allen Churchill, The Great White Way (1962). A view of Fiske in midcareer is in Marie B. Schrader, “Harrison Grey Fiske: A Chat with the Noted New York Editor, Manager, and Dramatist,” Washington Post, 4 Mar. 1906. Obituaries are in the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune, both 4 Sept. 1942.