Authors: James A. Herne

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright and actor


James A. Herne, born James Ahern, was instrumental, as both actor and playwright, in the transformation of melodramatic spectacles to realistic plays on the late nineteenth century American stage. The son of hardworking Irish emigrants, Patrick and Ann Temple Ahern, Herne was sent to work in a brush factory at age thirteen. The following year, after seeing the famous actor Edwin Forrest, young Ahern set his sights on a stage career as well. In 1859, at the age of twenty, he paid $165 to play a small part in an Albany barnstorming company’s production. Later that year, he landed his first paying job in Troy, New York. Finally established, he changed his name to James A. Herne and spent the next nineteen years as an itinerant actor and stage manager.{$I[A]Herne, James A.}{$S[A]Ahern, James;Herne, James A.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Herne, James A.}{$I[tim]1839;Herne, James A.}

Herne moved to Chicago in 1878 and married fellow actor Katherine Corcoran, who encouraged him to collaborate with stage manager David Belasco on an original play. The result, Hearts of Oak, became a popular vehicle for Herne and Corcoran. The couple performed it across the United States for the next seven years and earned enough money to buy a home in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where they raised their three daughters.

Hearts of Oak presented a simple, realistic, though somewhat sentimental story with no clear-cut heroes or villains, unlike the typical melodrama of the period. The change seemed to suit audiences; however, Herne did not have similar success with his next two efforts. The Minute Men of 1774-1775, a didactic melodrama about the American Revolution, lacked the expected bombast and patriotism. Drifting Apart, a social drama exposing alcohol abuse among Gloucester fishermen, was too realistic and depressing for popular taste.

Herne’s next effort, Margaret Fleming, assured his place in American theater history. Ironically, it was a dismal failure during his lifetime and nearly ruined him financially. The stark story of a moral and incorruptible woman who agrees to raise the illegitimate child of her philandering husband, Margaret Fleming treated the subject of adultery and its consequences much too openly for most theatergoers. Nevertheless, the play had the unequivocal support of the literary critic and novelist William Dean Howells, who helped produce it in Boston. Margaret Fleming also inspired a handful of followers who later staged that city’s first translation of the European realist Henrik Ibsen. Despite this encouragement, Herne’s efforts cost him a small fortune; he was forced to move to New York and find work as a stage manager.

Still, Herne remained undaunted in his pursuit to make realistic plays appealing to popular audiences, and his tenacity brought him success. In 1893, Herne presented Shore Acres, first in Chicago and then in Boston, where it was a hit. The play featured Herne as Uncle Nat Berry, an endearing local color character referred to as a “Downeaster,” who thrilled New England audiences. The role secured Herne’s reputation as an actor and made him a million dollars. Although still more realistic in terms of character and plot line than most other plays of its day, Shore Acres offered a sentimental story and avoided the controversial social issues presented in Margaret Fleming.

Following the success of Shore Acres, Herne presented his next-to-last play, The Reverend Griffith Davenport, the tragic story of members of a Civil War family divided against one another. The manuscript was subsequently destroyed, along with that of Margaret Fleming, in a fire in Herne’s Long Island home. Herne’s wife rewrote Margaret Fleming from memory but was not as familiar with the later play. Herne’s final effort, Sag Harbor, a revision of Hearts of Oak, returned to the down-home themes of Shore Acres and may have enjoyed that play’s considerable success. However, exhausted from campaigning for William Jennings Bryan in the 1900 presidential campaign, Herne returned to New York, where he died the following year.

Although Margaret Fleming, Herne’s most significant work, was largely unappreciated at the time, he proved a pivotal figure in the development of serious American drama. He wrote and performed plays that could entertain but also educate audiences and heighten their awareness of significant social issues. His pioneering efforts anticipated both the groundbreaking work of the Provincetown Theater, which began less than two decades after Herne’s death, and its most notable artist, Eugene O’Neill.

BibliographyDurham, Weldon B. “James A. Herne.” In American Playwrights, 1880-1945: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William W. Demastes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Includes a biography of Herne and a bibliography of his work.Edwards, Herbert J., and Julie A. Herne. James A. Herne: The Rise of Realism in the American Drama. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1964. Includes illustrations, a bibliography, and an appendix devoted to Herne’s plays.Perry, John. James A. Herne: The American Ibsen. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1978. Discussion of Herne’s life and works; includes illustrations.
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