Uncle Tom, The Theater And Mrs. Stowe



In 1893, an itinerant “Tommer” with John Shea’s troupe wrote to a friend back East: “Since we struck Illinois our business has been big. We now have the long green laid aside, whereas when we were at Cairo the silver was easily counted. Bessie and Lulu are doing splendid work in brass, and Mrs. Shea is becoming a good tuba player. Barney, the donkey, is the big attraction on parade; his bucking, kicking, and chasing Marks make the crowd shout every day. We close at Marshalltown, Iowa, October 15, making just one year, four months and nine days without closing the show, and having travelled eight thousand miles by wagon and boat without accident.”

That same year an enterprising theatrical agent proposed a national exchange for “Tom” actors to be established in Chicago, undoubtedly anticipating a rush to his talent auction block from the diverse promoters who were pouring in for the Columbian Exposition. His public notice listed the following quotations:

Uncle Toms, prime, $60; fair, $50; culls, $40.

Little Evas, prime, $50; fair, $45; culls, $40.

Legrees, prime, $50; fair, $40; culls, $35.

Marks, prime, $45; fair, $40; culls, $35.

Primes were the extraordinarily able thespians who could double in brass and take care of the livestock; fair, those who could double in brass; and culls, mere actors.

The decade of the Nineties was the lush era for “Tomming.” Some four to five hundred troupes were barnstorming across the country. Every season the resident companies in Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, St. Louis—every town boasted a stock company in those days—dusted off their cakes of ice, called in the hounds, and painted up Uncle Tom’s heavenly chariot. Eliza was sent skipping across the Ohio with the dogs in hot pursuit. Uncle Tom rode off majestically, if sometimes clumsily, to meet his beloved Eva in the celestial regions, upstage center.

Although the public’s craze for Uncle Tom’s Cabin reached its peak just before the turn of the century, this marked the mid-point in its colorful history. Just after Mrs. Stowe’s novel appeared in the spring of 1852, Asa Hutchinson, a popular temperance singer, requested her permission to prepare a dramatization. Mrs. Stowe replied: “I have considered your application and asked advice of my different friends, and the general sentiment of those whom I have consulted so far agrees with my own, that it would not be advisable to make that use of the work which you propose. It is thought, with the present state of theatrical performances in this country, that any attempt on the part of Christians to identify themselves with them will be productive of danger to the individual character, and to the general cause. It the barrier which now keeps young people of Christian families from theatrical entertainments is once broken down by the introduction of respectable and moral plays, they will then be open to all the temptations of those who are not such, as there will be, as the world now is, five bad plays to one good. . . . The world is not good enough yet for it to succeed.”

The multitude of later dramatizers never bothered to seek Mrs. Stowe’s blessing although they willingly admitted their dependence on her. In fact, most were eager to advertise that theirs was the only “just, sensible, and faithful dramatic version of the original.” Mrs. Stowe never associated herself with any of the dramatizations, nor did she ever receive a single cent from any stage version. The gold mine was wide open, and there were mighty few actors and managers in the United States of the last half of the century who did not scoop up a few nuggets. Mrs. Stowe’s million-dollar theatrical property made millions, but not for her.

The first edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was published on March 20, 1852, although the final installment of its serialized version in the National Era did not appear until April 1. This Washington paper had printed the first segment of the story, “The Death of Uncle Tom,” the previous summer.

During the winter of 1851-52, the National Era was passed from hand to hand more eagerly with each new installment of the story. By the time J. P. Jewett, the Boston publisher, undertook the first book publication, the fervor was still building. Three thousand copies were sold the first day, 10,000 inside the first week—the complete stock of the first edition. Jewett printed again immediately, and then again. Within the first year he sold 300,000 copies. But this was less astonishing than the spectacular first-year history of the novel in England. Published in London in May, 1852, by the following May it had appeared in 23 different editions and sold well over a million copies. On September 3, 1852, the London Times wrote: “Mrs. Stowe has received $10,000 as her copyright premium on three months’ sales of the work—we believe the largest sum of money ever received by any author, either American or European, from the sale of a single work in so short a period of time.”