The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Margaret Fleming opens in Philip Fleming’s private office at his mill. Philip enters and goes through the morning’s mail. He confers briefly with his manager and his foreman and then smiles when his office boy brings in a soiled calling card. It is from Joe Fletcher, who used to work at the mill for Philip’s father. Joe is now a traveling salesman who sells medicines and household articles. Joe is tired and thirsty. He eagerly takes a drink from Philip’s liquor cabinet and asks Philip if he still drinks as he used to do. Philip responds that he has now married and settled down. He proudly shows Joe the picture on his desk of Margaret, his wife, and their small child, Lucy. Joe’s visit is interrupted by Dr. Larkin, who has come to see Philip. Dr. Larkin has just learned that Philip is the father of a baby born during the night to Lena Schmidt, a girl who used to work at the mill. He angrily reprimands Philip, who says he has done all he can for Lena, but Dr. Larkin insists that Philip go to see her because she should not have to die alone. Philip reluctantly calls Margaret to say he will be late coming home.

The second scene of the first act takes place in Margaret and Philip’s living room. Margaret sits by the fireplace getting Lucy, the baby, ready for bed. Maria Bindley, the German nursemaid, is gathering up the baby’s clothes and quietly crying. Margaret tells Maria not to cry. Maria says that she has had a hard life. Her second husband was Joe Fletcher, the man who came by the house that morning. He left her, she says, and now her younger sister, Lena, is dying. Margaret tells Maria to go to her sister.

Margaret finally gets the baby to sleep and puts her in the adjoining room. Philip comes in, tired and wet. Margaret scolds him for being so late, but then she sees how weary he looks. Philip presents Margaret with a bank book and some legal papers, including a deed to the house. Margaret asks Philip if he knew that the tramp who came by the house this morning was Maria’s husband, who robbed her and left her. Maria swore at him in German and threw him down the stairs, Margaret says, laughing. Seeing how pale and tired Philip looks, Margaret insists he go to bed.

The second act takes place in the same room. It is the next morning, and the sun is shining. Dr. Larkin is putting out some medicines for Margaret, who has been having trouble with her eyes. When Margaret leaves the room, Dr. Larkin tells Philip that Margaret has a tendency toward an eye condition called glaucoma and that she must not undergo any great emotional strain. After...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Margaret Fleming was much too realistic for audiences and many of the critics of the 1890’s. There were no big climactic scenes. Both the audiences and critics were shocked by the nursing scene. Most important, the general public did not like the ending. They expected a sentimental reunion of Margaret and Philip, a sudden revelation that Philip was innocent, or a noble death to atone for Philip’s guilt. James A. Herne denied the audience such a melodramatic ending. He instead left Philip to acknowledge his guilt and live with the consequences. One critic called Margaret “a monster of morality” for not taking Philip back.

Margaret Fleming still has some touches of melodrama. Joe is the comic character. There are also several unexplained coincidences. The Flemings’ maid is Joe’s former wife, and she is Lena’s sister. Dr. Larkin is called in as a consultant when Lena is about to deliver her child. It is melodramatic when Maria pulls a revolver out of her pocket and threatens to kill Philip. Margaret’s failing eyesight and subsequent blindness are a sentimental touch to gain sympathy for her.

However, there are some very realistic scenes that had not been seen before in original American plays. The first scene, portraying the day-to-day routine in a work environment, Philip’s office, is very realistic until the doctor arrives. The domestic scenes with Margaret and the baby in front of the fireplace are quiet and real. The quiet ending of the play was an innovation in American drama.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Edwards, Herbert J., and Julie A. Herne. James A. Herne: The Rise of Realism in the American Drama. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1964.

Matlaw, Myron. Nineteenth Century American Plays. New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1985.

Perry, John. James A. Herne: The American Ibsen. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1978.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Representative American Plays from 1767 to the Present Day. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953.

Robinson, Alice M. “James A. Herne and His ‘Theatre Libre’ in Boston.” Players Magazine 48, nos. 5/6 (Summer, 1973).

Wilson, Garff B. Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.