James A. Herne started as an actor in the prevalent melodramas of the 1850’s. Even as a young man, he liked playing character roles. He was especially fond of some of the characters in the dramatic adaptations of Charles Dickens’s novels. He shocked audiences with his fierce intensity as Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist (1837-1839) and charmed them with his characterization of Daniel Peggotty in David Copperfield (1849-1850). Herne later paid tribute to the influence Dickens had on his writing. When Herne started writing and adapting plays, he started with melodrama, but he gradually began to do away with some of the melodramatic devices and tried to make the characters and the plots more realistic. After he married a young Irish actress, Katherine Corcoran, he began writing believable characters for her roles as well as for his own work.
In 1889 the Hernes were acting in Herne’s original temperance drama, Drifting Apart (pr. 1888), at a second-rate theater in Boston. Hamlin Garland, a young writer from the Midwest who had recently moved to Boston, was told by the literary editor of the Boston Evening Transcript to go see the Hernes in Drifting Apart. Garland was overwhelmed by the quiet realism in the play. William Dean Howells, the outstanding writer and advocate of literary realism at the time, also praised Drifting Apart as a play very simple and honest in method. At the time, Herne was writing Margaret Fleming. Encouraged by the praise of the...
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