On the Road with James A. Herne

On the Road with James A. Herne  (1914) 
by Hamlin Garland

from The Century Magazine, Aug 1914

James A. Herne was an American playwright and actor. He is considered by some critics to be the "American Ibsen", and his controversial play Margaret Fleming is often credited with having begun modern drama in America. Excerpted from James A. Herne on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


Author of "Her Mountain Lover," "The Long Trail," etc.

ONE afternoon in January, 1888, Mr. Charles E. Hurd, literary editor of the "Boston Transcript," gave me two theater-tickets and asked if I had ever seen Jim Herne play. I told him I had not.

"Do so at once," said he; "for he is a realist after your own heart."

I accepted the tickets with pleasure, and that night witnessed the performance of "Drifting Apart," by James A. and Katharine Herne.

They were playing at that time on a second-rate, out-of-the-way stage in the South End, and their surroundings were cheap and tawdry, but I can still define the profound impression made upon me by their action and the play.

The plot of the piece was very simple. In the first act Jack, the middle-aged husband of Mary Miller, was shaving himself in preparation for a trip to the village to purchase some Christmas presents, and all through the scene, which was charmingly set. Herne moved unaffectedly, joking, chuckling, making quaint toilet preparations with a naturalism I had never before seen upon the stage; and Katharine was almost equally delightful as the wife. When at the close of the act her sailor husband returned with his arms full of bundles, helplessly intoxicated, the horror, the despair, which filled the heart of Mary formed a complete and piteous contrast to the delicious comedy which had preceded it.

The two acts which followed, being a dream, were less moving, but the fourth act, which brought Jack back to sobriety and restored the reality of the simple New England coast life of the opening scene, was almost equally colloquial. The play closed with satisfying glow, with Jack repentant and Mary forgiving.

This quiet naturalism, this unaffected humor, deeply moved and interested me. and I felt it my duty to write to Herne, thanking him for the pleasure he had given me. I also expressed my admiration of the acting of "Miss" Herne, and went on to say that by such writing as that in the first and last acts of "Drifting Apart" he had allied himself with the best local-color fictionists of New England, and deserved the encouragement and support of the same public.

A day or two later I received a modest and earnest letter from him in which he said:

"I am going on the road very soon, but when I return in May I shall be very glad to have you come out to my house."

The wish was fulfilled some months later, and in answer to a note of cordial invitation I hastened to call upon them at their home in Ashmont. It was a modest, unesthetic frame cottage such as a carpenter might live in, but Mrs. Herne met me at the door, looking quite like Mary Miller of the play, and presented to me her three little daughters, Julie, Crystal, and Dorothy, who made me instantly at home in the family sitting-room and library.

That first evening with them, filled with cordial explanations and tumultuous argument, is still vivid in my mind. It was in effect a session of congress, a religious revival, and a swift Irish comedy. Our clamor lasted far into the night, and I went away at last with a feeling that these people were my kind. I had never met such instant and warm-hearted understanding and sympathy. My head rang with their piquant phrases, their earnest and changeful voices.

At this time I was an active, I fear a pestiferous, advocate of Henry George's land theories, and at our next meeting, after we had discussed the drama and the newer forms of acting to the dregs, I switched the conversation to the single tax. In the end I converted them both. Then we examined into the constitution of matter and Spencer's theories of evolution, and Mrs. Herne, who was not only a genuine humorist, but a thinker of intuitive subtlety and a lover of science, took the fullest part in all these excited debates. We beat our chairs and warred over the nebular hypothesis with entire unconsciousness of time.

This extraordinary family brought to me a wholly new world—a world of swift and pulsating emotion, a world of aspiration, of brave battle for an art. It is difficult for me to express in a few words how much they and their lovely children meant to me during the years which followed. They were at once a puzzle and an inspiration.

Herne, I soon discovered, was half-way on the road toward a truer, finer form of dramatic art, and the tragic result of his aspiration seemed to be that just in proportion as his writing increased in truth and his acting gained in subtlety he ceased to please the public, even the public he had already won in other plays. He confessed that he was sinking deeper and deeper into debt day by day, and my influence was not particularly helpful at this moment; for my criticism rendered him discontented with the plays which had hitherto given him comfort and a sense of security, and did not materially aid him in his effort to do something higher and finer.

He had made a great deal of money with "Hearts of Oak," his first play, which was part English and part American, but had lost heavily on his second play, "The Minute-Men," a picturesque study of colonial times, and was steadily dropping money on "Drifting Apart." Naturally he was discouraged, though never embittered.

"The managers all admit the good points of my play," he explained to me. "In fact, they say it is too good. 'The public does n't want a good play,' they say. 'It wants bad plays. Write a bad play, Jim. Not too bad, but just bad enough,' is their advice. Meanwhile I must play in theaters which are not suited to my way of doing things, and am obliged to insert into my play tricks and turns which I despise."

He related these experiences with a smile, but admitted that he was disheartened, and I at once offered to assist him in finding an audience and a better theater. I assured him that there was a public for his plays if he could but reach it, and bluntly added that he could do better work than he had done, and that no play could be too good. "I want you to write a play," I said to him, "in which there are no compromises at all."

Under the influence of my optimism he took heart, and began to revise "Drifting Apart" for the third time. It was supposed at one time that I worked with him on this play, but as a matter of fact I never suggested a line in any of his plays, although he read them to me scene by scene. In this case I followed his revisions almost day by day, encouraging him to cut out the very parts which his theatric advisers considered the most vital parts of the piece. As he wrote me afterward, I upheld his elbow.

"I never was as much encouraged to proceed in the work I have laid out to accomplish as I have been by you," he wrote. "You have, as it were, indorsed my judgment and showed me that it is possible to succeed and to force acknowledgment in spite of the opposition I have met with and the obstacles I have yet to overcome."

My admiration for Mrs. Herne's art was almost unbounded. I felt that she could play other and much more important parts than Mary Miller. There was in "Drifting Apart" a scene—in the dream—wherein a poor little mother sits holding her child in her lap while it dies of cold and hunger, and the exquisite restraint and the marvelous fidelity to nature with which Katharine Herne played this tragic episode convinced me that she was one of the great actresses of America. The music which accompanied this scene, a wailing little melody, came to embody for me all the pathos and defeat which lay in the failure of the play.

My happiest days in Boston were associated with this house. I loved the children, those three vivid and dramatic little tow-haired girls, and their mother's lambent wit and sudden, outflashing humor enthralled me. I had never known such people, for they were subject to all that is most typical of Celtic extravagances and change of mood. They brought me to know many other famous figures in their strange world. They introduced me to William Gillette, Harry Pitt, Mary Shaw, Robson and Crane, Maud Banks, and many others of their friends, and before long I was not only thinking of writing plays, but planning a general reform of the stage through the formation of the first Independent Theater Society in America.

Having "discovered" the Hernes, I was eager to let all my friends know how fine, how important, they were. I dragged Mr. Howells down into the South End to see the play, and I insisted that Clement of the "Transcript" and Flower of the "Arena" should report upon it. Flower at once became quite as enthusiastic as I, and not only commented upon the Hernes editorially, but commissioned me to write an article for an early number of the magazine.

Soon all my literary friends knew what the Hernes were trying to do. As a publicity agent, without pay, I was indefatigable, I suspect, a nuisance, and yet my efforts proved to be of no financial value. The Hernes left the South End theater discouraged, but not defeated. Herne had in fact the most marvelous staying powers. He always bobbed up like the traditional cork. Just when I thought he was beaten to earth, he rose with a chuckle and went at it again.

My brother Franklin joined the company in the autumn, and during the next year we both shared the amazing dramatic ups and downs of "the road." I was present at the opening of the season in Troy, and met them again in Brooklyn. I suffered with them when the houses were small, and exulted with them when the sales were large. I traveled with them, spending long hours on the train discussing why the play did not appeal, and forecasting its chances of success in the next "stand." I know the desolating effect of the slow dropping of seats in a half-filled auditorium.

In after years, when the skies were fair, we were all able to laugh over these miserable experiences; but they were not funny at the time, or, at least, if they were funny, it was because Herne's irrepressible humor made them so. I suffered apparently more than he, for I was wholly unaccustomed to the abrupt changes of mood which mark theatrical life, or perhaps I was deceived by the readiness with which they both rose from depression.

Often I took their depressions, which always had in them a touch of exaggeration, to be despairs, while, on the contrary, their humorous sallies often concealed from me the more poignant of their griefs. Altogether this was a very sorrowful as well as a most beautiful friendship, and gave me deeper insight into the singular and passionate world of the stage in which they lived and had their being.

In the summer of 1890, James A., as I called him, decided to give up "Drifting Apart" and produce a new play upon which he had been working, called "Margaret Fleming." In this I was instantly and profoundly interested. A volume of Ibsen's plays had just been translated. "A Doll's House" had been produced at a matinée by Mrs. Richard Mansfield, and the discussion of an independent theater was in full swing. I told every one I met of Herne's new play, and did everything I could to get it put on; but all to no purpose. The managers of Boston as well as those of New York would not consider it for a moment, although up to that time it was by all odds the most original of Herne's plays.

One day at a luncheon given to Herne by Mr. Howells, the dramatic situation was thoroughly gone into, and James A., with boyish frankness, confessed that he was at his wits' end. "Every theater in Boston and most of those in New York have refused to consider my new play," he said. And to this I was able to bear corroborative testimony, for I had been personally rebuffed by five Boston managers.

Mr. Howells then spoke of a like case in Berlin, and related how Sudermann and his associates had secured a hall on a side street, and made production of their plays, then, "They brought the public to them by sheer force of their dramatic novelty," said Howells. "Why don't you do as they did—hire a sail-loft or a stable somewhere, and produce your play in simplest fashion? The people will come to see it if it is new and vital."

Poor Herne did not take fire at this suggestion, for he had reached almost the last ounce of his courage and pretty nearly the last dollar of his savings. But he went away with the idea revolving in his head, and after using every argument to get the play produced on the regular stage, came at last to the plan of leasing Chickering Hall, a small music auditorium on Tremont Street, and set about remodeling it.

It seated hardly more than five hundred people, counting its small balcony, but it was the first of the so-called "Little Theaters" in America, and we all looked forward to the experiment with intense eagerness, for the reason that in this small hall Herne had determined to produce effects of intimate realism hitherto unknown on our stage. In all of the rehearsals of the play he and Katharine had this in mind. They always and everywhere schooled their actors in that colloquialism which, while not precisely the way in which persons would speak in a small room, nevertheless produces that effect upon the auditors.

To give up my work and serve as press-agent, without pay, of course, was my joy, and while Herne attended to the rehearsals and to the construction of the stage and the raising of the floor, I bustled about the city, interesting the young men of the press as well as all my friends in the new venture. Complimentary seats were sent to all of the most distinguished literary and artistic men and women of the city, and when one night in the early autumn the curtain rose, the Hernes had one of the most notable audiences ever drawn together for a dramatic entertainment in Boston.

The performance was worthy of the audience. Not merely Herne and Mrs. Herne, but every one of the actors seemed to be actually presenting the unexaggerated gestures and accent of life. Mrs. Herne was specially marvelous in the title-part, and the close of the play had a touch of art which up to that time had never had its equal on our stage. After having refused reconciliation with her husband Philip Fleming, Margaret was left standing in tragic isolation in the middle of the stage, and as the lights were turned out one by one, her figure gradually disappeared in blackness, and the heavy, soft curtains, dropping together noiselessly, shut in the poignant action of the drama and permitted a silent return of the actual world in which we lived.

Photograph by Gilbert and Bacon, Philadelphia

There was a little pause, a considerable pause, before the applause came, and then the audience rose and slowly filed out. I saw Mr. and Mrs. Howells, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Mr. and Mrs. Deland, Mrs. James T. Fields, Sarah Orne Jewett, William Lloyd Garrison, Mary E. Wilkins, John J. Enneking, and many others of the literary and artistic personalities of the day, and as they passed through the doorway several of them who knew me spoke to me of the "wonderful play" and of the "marvelous acting," and to my inexperienced mind Herne had won. It seemed to me that the city, must ring with applause of this courageous and distinguished performance.

Without question it was the most naturalistic, the most colloquial, and the most truthful presentation of a domestic drama ever seen on the American stage up to that time, and I am free to say I do not think it has been surpassed since. But, alas! while some of our most distinguished auditors came night by night, the general public could not be induced to flock in sufficient numbers to pay expenses, and at last, after four weeks of losing business, poor Herne was obliged to leave the cast and go back to New York under contract with a big commercial manager to produce a commercial success, "The Country Circus."

All seemed at an end, but Mr. Flower, who had become quite as vitally interested as I, joined me in an agreement to look after the interests of the play during Herne's absence, and together we helped Mrs. Herne extend the run another month.


Naturally the play was vigorously discussed. There were those who could see no virtue in it, and there were those who felt that it was the beginning of a new and higher type of drama.

Concerning Mrs. Herne's art there was no division. Praise was general. We could not then foresee the effect of it all, but we were satisfied. The experiment was worth while. It cost the Hernes several thousand dollars, but it lifted them into the honorable position they deserved.

Herne spent the winter in New York, working for a producing firm, and the following summer returned to Ashmont. For several seasons he had been in the habit of spending July and August at East Lemoyne, on the coast of Maine, and being a close observer, had become keenly interested in his gnarly neighbors. He had already begun to think of putting them into a play. In a letter to me I find this sentence, "I shall also try to do something more on 'The Hawthornes.' " And in all of his letters, as well as in those of Mrs. Herne, are humorous references to the curious and interesting characters they met along the coast.

On his return sometime in September he read to me the first act of "The Hawthornes." Later he spoke of it as "Uncle Nat," and finally as "Shore Acres." But the plot under all of these names remained the same. The action concerned two brothers, one, the elder, sweet, patient, self-sacrificing; the other, discontented, sullen, and resentful, eager to make money without labor. The play was in fact a bitter struggle over the question of "cuttin' the old farm up into buildin'-lots," and as he read it to me scene by scene the lines appealed to me strongly. It had something of the quality that made Mary E. Wilkins's stories vital and amusing.

It was by far the best play Herne had ever done, for it was written out of love for the scenery of New England united to a thorough knowledge of coast characters. Yet Herne tried all winter to get his new play produced, and it was not until the following spring that the manager of the Boston Museum, being in sore need of something to fill out the tag-end of the season, yielded to Herne's plea and put "Shore Acres" on for two weeks.

Of course I was on hand as unofficial "man in front." The piece was an instantaneous success. It drew enormous audiences from the start, and before the end of the first week half the managers in New York City had written, offering their theaters.

Among the managers who anxiously wired for the play was Harry Miner, a well-known New York theater-owner, one of Herne's old acquaintances, and with him James A. signed a contract for the production of "Shore Acres" at the Broadway Theater the following autumn. Herne told me that in making out this contract he had insisted that the play should be kept on at least four weeks, no matter what the receipts were. "This is a most important proviso," he said, "for 'Shore Acres' must have time for the people to find out what sort of play it is."

She designed the gown herself—1892.

Naturally, I was in New York to see the opening, for my brother was again in the cast. The play was greeted by a good house, of course, but fell off as usual the second and third nights, and as I was behind the scenes a great deal of the time I found Mr. Miner a very interesting study. The first night he was jubilant. He stood in front, glorious in evening dress, a shining figure. "We 've got 'em coming, Jimmy my boy," he said to Herne after the first act. But James A., whose face remained an impenetrable mask while Miner was looking at him, winked at me with full understanding of the situation. "Watch him to-morrow night," said he to me later.

Tuesday's house was light, and Wednesday's still lighter, and the big manager fell into the dumps. "We 've got to take it off, Jim," he mournfully announced.

"You 'll do nothing of the kind," retorted Herne. "You 'll keep it on four weeks, according to contract, if it does n't bring in a cent."

Miner was furious. He stormed about, declaring himself on the verge of ruin; but all to no effect. Herne's face was like a New England granite boulder. "You 'll keep your contract," he calmly repeated.

Miner's attitude at last grew comical. He became sullen. For days he strode about the wings in gloomy silence. He was seen no more in the lobby, and he brooded over the contract as though Herne had done him a grievous wrong. All his employees ultimately shared his attitude toward the company. The house became dank, depressing, tragic; and then, presto! the change.

At the end of the second week business began to increase. The house lighted up. Miner resumed his evening dress. He appeared in the lobby once more in dazzling splendor. He expanded. He seemed to be taller, larger. He stepped out confidently on his heels. He clapped Herne on the back.

"They 're coming back, Jimmy my boy," he shouted, forgetting all his resentment, all his hard words, all his tragical gloom. "We 'll be turning 'em into the street next week," he exultingly ended.

This was almost literally true. The play ran the remainder of the season at the Broadway Theater, and all the next year at Daly's, which was a phenomenal run in those days. This put Herne on his feet financially, as "Margaret Fleming" had established him artistically. He was now in the forefront of stage realists, quite independent of cheap theaters and cheap managers.

Meanwhile Katharine had bought a handsome house on Convent Avenue, Harlem, and my brother and I often were there of a Sunday, and when we all came together in those days the walls resounded with our clamor. Herne was a great wag and story-teller, one of the most marvelous masters of dialect I have ever known. He could imitate almost any nationality, and could dramatize at a moment's notice any scene or dialogue his wife demanded of him. He was also in deadly earnest as a reformer, and was always ready to speak on the George theory or the modern drama. He took his art very seriously, and was one of the best stage-directors of his day, though some of his methods were so far in advance of his time that they puzzled or disgusted many of his subordinates. He profoundly influenced the art of acting. There is no doubt of that.

He was not only a good father in the ordinary sense, but he was an accepted comrade to his children. He played with them as if he were of their own age, and was forever planning some new joke, some surprise for their amusement. And yet with all his apparent simplicity and humor he was a very complex and essentially a very sad man. In other words, he was a Celt. One of my friends, upon seeing him for the first time in private life, said, "His face is one of the saddest and sweetest I have ever seen." He was the Irish bard whose songs are compounded of laughter and the wailing keen.

Katharine Herne is not merely Irish, she is Irish born, and her laugh is one of the most infectious I have ever heard. Her speaking voice is very musical and expressive, and her face can pass instantly from gay to grave like a sunny field over which the cloud shadows swiftly pass. Mr. Howells once said of her art, "I have never seen so many subtle expressions appearing in the lines of a woman's countenance."

"The both of them," as an Irishman would say, were capable of enthralling spontaneous comedy, and they were forever guying each other at home and on the stage. Jim could not be trusted for a moment, but "K. C." usually gave him as good as he sent. Indeed, he was a little afraid of her keen wit, and often, when the verbal arrows flew a little too swiftly, quite frankly dodged.

He admired her profoundly, and generally remained silent during the call of a chance acquaintance or a stranger. It was only when in the presence of old comrades or very intimate friends that he gave up his attitude of smiling and interested reticence. At the same time his love and admiration for her did not prevent him from observing every peculiarity which could be turned into account against her, and one of his tricks was to rise quietly, solemnly at the moment when she was in the midst of an eloquent period, and gravely pretend to reverse a little switch at the top of her shoulder.

Sometimes she frowned for an instant at this, but usually she acknowledged the justice of the rebuke, and broke into a gurgle of laughter in full appreciation of the fact that she had been "going it again."

They both held from the first an exaggerated notion of my importance in the world of letters, and listened to me with a respect, a fellowship, and an appreciation which inspired me to better work. They called me "the dean," on account of my supposed learning, and often on Sundays after dinner Herne would say,

"Now, dean, for the salt-cellar." In this way he always referred to a discussion in which I used a salt-cellar to illustrate my theory of the constitution of matter: "Now, as a matter of fact, we do not know what matter is. We cannot say it is solid, neither can we say it is made up of molecules," etc.

We often talked till long after midnight, and as I stumbled down the long hill on my way to the elevated railway, my mind boiling with new conceptions, new ambitions, I hardly knew my way. Sometimes my brother was with me, sometimes not. We were all flaming with hatred of land monopoly in those days, and when we were not discussing realism in fiction or impressionism in poetry, we were declaring the merits of the single tax. Those were beautiful days to me and very successful days to the Hernes, and Katharine still: refers to them as "the good Convent Avenue days. But dearest of all we hold the little home in Ashmont."

In a letter from Herne I find the following references to our first meetings:

Yes, those Ashmont days were indeed glorious days. They laid the foundation of what success we have since achieved, by strengthening and encouraging us in our work, and making us steadfast to a purpose that we felt was the true one. And we believe that you, too, got something in your work and for your future out of them. They are gone, but not forgotten. They change, but cannot die.

In brief, this writing is an acknowledgment of the inspiration I drew from the home of Katharine and James A. Herne.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.