The American Legacy
220 East Fourth Street ~ New York, New York 10009
Office: 212 995 8410 ~ Tickets: 212 995 5302
"One of my favorite downtown theaters" ~ Martin Denton, nytheatre.com
Written by James A. Herne
The story of Margaret Fleming is a case study in a great work of art born well before its time. It is also an illustration of the subtle power of a fine play that, like its titular character, is far mightier than its unassuming appearance suggests.
Written in 1890, when the popular fare was sensational potboilers and sentimental melodramas, Herne’s play was something new. In a contemporary critic’s words, it was “A simple, veracious, sincere picture of life.”*
Unfortunately, the public did not want simple sincerity, and Margaret Fleming failed at the box office. New York reviews were particularly excoriating, and Herne lost his substantial investment in the play. He recovered by producing more pleasing works, but Margaret Fleming did not find her stride until a Chicago triumph five years after the author’s death, when it was hailed as “one of the strongest, best plays yet written by any American .... a creation to which we as a literary and a stage-possessing nation may point with justifiable pride.”**
With such adulation, could if have merely been novelty that earned its earlier condemnation? We suspect that its early failure owed not merely to its being truthful, but revelatory in its colloquial form. It is so moving, funny, and provocative a play in its simple sincerity that it was unsettling to its first audiences. In their very humanity, its characters strike deeply as more sensational characters could not.
Margaret is the dutiful, devoted, and comme il faut wife of small city mill owner, Philip Fleming. Entitled son of the industrious founder of the mill, “Live and let live’s my motto,” he says, but he has been living too carelessly. The play begins when he is confronted with the child just born to his working class mistress. His solution is to conceal his predicament with cash and winks, but fate will not have it so: Margaret discovers the child and the affair. Her response drew affronted gasps and censure from an 1890 audience, and it is as surprising today. Suffice to say, it defies conventions! And in it, an unassuming young wife discovers the power of her independence and love.Here, then, is the power of the play: it is the same as its heroine’s. She is wrenched from a sheltered and naïve life, which she lives according to Victorian social rules, and she realizes her strength and potential simply by being true to herself. Equally, the play subverted the prevailing theatrical “rules”, and revealed how powerful the stage can be when it aspires to truth.
With that power, Margaret Fleming probed deeply into the injustices of its day. The “evils” in the play’s world are not such melodramatic standards as lust, inebriety, or greed—though all are present—but rather the arrogance of the privileged, the inhumanity of the moralistic, and the double standards of a “man’s” world.At the end of the gilded age, waning industrial profits inspired heated protectionist debates in Washington, great surges of immigration led to increasingly miserable conditions for poor industrial workers, and women were still struggling for the vote. Each of these concerns colors Margaret Fleming, yet its “big” issues are tied to its human characters, so they are matters of personal compassion, not social justice. As such, they touch us more personally.
That the issues of 1890 are not so far from our own in 2007 is one more delight in reviving this under-appreciated work. Seen through a hundred twenty year old drama of artful fidelity to commonplace people, these concerns take on a new and meaningful life. Indeed, the very qualities that earned its censure in the 19th century are what make it so powerful today. It is simply, sincerely, human. And nowhere could that humanity be more present than on Metropolitan’s intimate stage.
We are honored to give a new life to an important play, inaugurating Metropolitan’s 16th season: the Season of Virtue.
Top: Margaret Loesser Robinson* and Sidney Fortner*, Photo by Michelle DeBlasi
Middle:Scott Sortman, Photo by Roe Bianculli
Bottom: Teresa Kelsey*, Photo by Martin Fahrer