Uncle Tom, The Theater And Mrs. Stowe

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin became one of the all-time sensations of book publishing history. By 1878, the British Museum had shelved copies of the book in twenty different languages, including Bohemian, Modern Greek, Russian, Siamese, and Servian. Uncle Tom’s Cabin covered the globe. In 1856, Thomas Macaulay, having just returned from Italy, wrote to Mrs. Stowe, “There is no place where ‘Uncle Tom’ is not to be found.”

Mrs. Stowe was not prepared for the fervor with which the abolitionists took up her book. She had thought it too mild for them, and in a way had even hoped that it might help to unite the North and South. When she met Lincoln after the war had begun, she must have been deeply grieved at his response to the introduction. He is reported to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

Mrs. Stowe’s Christian object, as already noted, did not admit a transfer of her story to the stage. But with the enthusiasm of the reading public so abundantly clear, an early dramatization was inevitable. Theater managers of the 1850’s skimmed the cream from the best-seller list just as the movie producers do today. The first stage version, The Southern Uncle Tom, was performed at the Baltimore Museum on January 5, 1852, almost three months before the serialization in the National Era was completed. After another performance or two at the Marshall Theater in Richmond, Virginia, nothing more was heard of it. The second try was at Purdy’s National Theater in New York with an hour-long “catch-house” adaptation by C. W. Taylor. All the St. Claire, Eva, and Topsy episodes were omitted and numerous songs and tableaux were added. Although it ran for eleven performances, from August 23, 1852, to September 4, and provoked a good deal of comment, it did not really catch on.

These two early productions provided the prelude. The phenomenal stage history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin really began at the Troy Museum in Troy, New York, on September 27, 1852. G. C. Howard, manager of the Troy company, had commissioned his 22-year-old cousin, George L. Aiken, to prepare a dramatization that would display the talents of Howard’s four-year-old daughter, Cordelia. Although Aiken was regularly employed as resident playwright and “juvenile” of the company, Howard gave him a bonus of $40 and a gold watch for his week’s work on Uncle Tom. To concoct a three-and-a-half-hour drama in one week, even though he lifted most of his dialogue directly from the novel, must have demanded considerable facility with the pen and entitled him to the extra reward.

 

The play opened on the twenty-seventh of September, but not without some difficulties. Green Germon, the leading man of the company, had rebelled at playing a “blacked-up” character. Even if he didn’t carry a “tambo” or “bones,” Germon insisted, audiences would expect a minstrel “breakdown” or a chorus or two of “Jim Crow.” Howard finally convinced him that Uncle Tom was a new type of stage Negro. If the play caught on, Germon could advertise himself as the original Uncle Tom.

The fourth and final act of this first Aiken drama, subtitled Life Among the Lowly, concluded with the death of Eva. By the end of October—the play had been running continuously—the citizens of Troy clamored to see the remaining episodes of the novel. Aiken obliged with a sequel, The Death of Uncle Tom, or The Religion of the Lowly. On November 15, after the sequel had been playing for two weeks, Howard announced in the Troy newspapers:

Grand Combination of the two dramas [six acts] on the same evening. . . . The desire of the entire community being to see the work from beginning to end, and the manager wishing to gratify all patrons, is why this immense work is undertaken in one evening. Owing to the length of the drama, no other piece will be played. Change of time, doors open at 7, to commence at ¼ to 8.

The curtain was finally rung down on this sequence of Aiken dramatizations on December 1, after the hundredth performance. No play in Troy has yet broken this record, and, as Howard explained, it was “equal to seven years run in New York, when the population of the cities is considered.” The press repeatedly echoed the enthusiasm of the Troy citizenry: “The Museum is thronged nightly with the most respectable audiences. . . . This play has brought out our first citizens, many of whom have never before entered the Museum. . . . Its performance had been witnessed by over 25,000 people and the cry is still they come!” Troy then had a population of 30,000.