Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Other versions Edition: 1, Printing: 1 (1851)

Norman Maurice; or, The Man of the People. An American Drama.

Drama | Walker and Richards | 1852

                Throughout his long career, Simms was regularly concerned with theatre, though drama would always be the genre with which he had the least commercial and critical success.  Norman Maurice; or,The Man of the the People is perhaps Simms’s best dramatic work, though its failings are typical of his theatrical frustrations.  Norman Maurice was a lofty experiment, mixing contemporary politics with common language presented in the format of the Elizabethan tragedy.  Written in strict blank verse, Norman Maurice is a play in which the Constitutional and slavery questions that continued to persist after the Missouri Compromise and Nullification Crisis are discussed in detail.  Yet, the blank verse Simms used was not poetic, Shakespearean language; rather, Simms presented mid-nineteenth century American vernacular in blank verse.  In presenting the political, philosophical, and moral questions of the day as essentially tragic, Simms created a powerful and moving play.  Nevertheless, Norman Maurice was not performed in the author’s lifetime, perhaps because the odd pairing of vernacular with blank verse made performance difficult, and also because of the political risks associated with staging such a work.

                Simms began work on Norman Maurice in 1847, though  he likely had conceived  the idea of the play earlier; in reporting the events of some travels to James Lawson in a July 1847 letter, Simms notes that “I hope as soon as I reach our point of destination to sit down to the Tragedy,” providing the first mention of Norman Maurice’s composition in the Letters.[1]  His design for the play soon became apparent in September of that year when he wrote Lawson,  “I hope to finish the play for [Edwin] Forrest, of which I have sent him one act already.”[2]  An October letter to Lawson notes the completion of the drama.[3]  However, just like in all the other dramas he ever sent to Forrest, Simms was politely rebuffed.  His reading of Forrest’s refusal provides an interesting perspective on what it was he was trying to accomplish with the work; he told Lawson that “I infer, from what [Forrest] writes me after perusal of the first act, that the thing does not suit him.  In his note he speaks of it as not being as ‘carefully elaborated’ as it should be.  It is not improbable that he draws this inference from the fact that the style is not greatly elevated above that of ordinary conversation.  But this moderation of tone was deliberately determined on, in consequence of my wish to make the piece strictly a domestic drama.”[4]  Simms’s desire, then, seemed to be to write a play that spoke to the particular concerns of the time and place in which it was written; Forrest’s conception of the purposes of dramatic art seemed to differ significantly.  While Simms suggests at several points in the letters that he might be open to making alterations to the work, neither Forrest nor any other actor or producer ever accepted the play. 

While not appearing on the stage, Norman Maurice did have some success as a published work.  Simms’s initial publication of the play was in six installments in the Southern Literary Messenger, from April-August 1851.  Later that year, it was published in pamphlet form by John R. Thompson of Richmond as Norman Maurice; or, The Man of the People, A Drama in Five Acts.  In 1852, Walker and Richards of Charleston published it as Norman Maurice; or, The Man of the People.  An American Drama.  The 1852 publication included three additional one-act plays: “Caius Marius; An Historical Legend,” “Betram; An Italian Sketch,” and “The Death of Cleopatra.”  These three small works and Norman Maurice would reappear together in 1853, as part of Redfield’s collection of Simms’s poetic and dramatic works called Poems: Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary and Contemplative.  The printed version of Norman Maurice fared relatively well, receiving high praise from Simms’s literary circle, as well as in periodicals from various parts of the United States.[5]The mixed success of Norman Maurice was likely a result of its mixed use of language and its politics.  Simms biographer John C. Guilds notes that what “Simms attempted to accomplish in Norman Maurice may have been impossible.  In 1851 his combination of vernacular dialogue and what has been termed ‘bald’ Elizabethan blank verse was a theatrical experiment in advance of its time; and his portrayal of Norman Maurice as the loyal, brave, honest, articulate ‘man of the people’ who championed the Constitution addressed a political problem certain to polarize readers.”[6]

The Simms Initiatives’ copies of both the 1851 and 1852 Norman Maurice are drawn from the South Carolinana Library.  The 1851 edition features a modern binding with plain red boards and ared spine with gilt stamp, reading horizontally:  [rule] | NORMAN MAURICE | SIMMS | [rule].  Its title page reads: NORMAN MAURICE; | OR, | THE MAN OF THE PEOPLE. | AN AMERICAN DRAMA. | [rule] | IN FIVE ACTS. | [rule] | BY W. GILMORE SIMMS, | AUTHOR OF "THE YEMASSEE," &c. | [rule] | COPY RIGHT SECURED. | [rule] | RICHMOND: | JNO. R. THOMPSON, PUBLISHER. | MACFARLANE & FERGUSSON, PRINTERS. | 1851.  The 1852 edition features brown front and back boards, both with honeycomb stamp, with triple frame surrounding ovular, ornate frame.  Heavily worn spine.  Its title page reads:  NORMAN MAURICE; | OR, | THE MAN OF THE PEOPLE. | An American Drama. | BY | W. GILMORE, ESQ. | AUTHOR OF "THE YEMASSEE," "KATHERINE WALTON," ETC. | [rule] | FOURTH EDITION, REVISED AND CORRECTED | [rule] | CHARLESTON: | WALKER AND RICHARDS. | 1852.

 

W. Matthew J. Simmons



[1] Letters, 2:341

[2] Ibid., 2:346.  Throughout his career as a dramatist, Simms’s greatest wish seemed to be that the great Forrest would perform one of his plays; very often, Simms would write plays and parts exclusively for Forrest.  Though Simms and Forrest remained friends throughout their lives, Forrest never performed any of the plays Simms wrote for the actor.

[3] Ibid., 2:350

[4] Ibid., 2:356.

[5] For a useful overview of the positive criticism Simms received for Norman Maurice, see John C. Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville, The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 199-200.

[6] Guilds, Simms, 200.

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