Uncle Tom, The Theater And Mrs. Stowe


This was not the Howards’ first encounter with a theatrical success. They, and the Germons also, had been in the original cast of The Drunkard at the Boston Museum in 1844. In fact, the Howards had met and married while playing in The Drunkard; but now and for the rest of their theatrical days, they and daughter Cordelia were firmly and faithfully joined to Uncle Tom. The Troy venture had really been a Howard family affair: little Cordelia’s mother had played Topsy; her grandmother (Mrs. Fox), Aunt Ophelia; her father, St. Claire; her uncle (Charles Fox), Fletcher and Cute; and her father’s cousin (Aiken), George Harris. For 35 years, until Howard’s death in 1887, the Howard trio devoted themselves to “Tomming.”

In 1854, Mrs. Stowe saw the Howards perform the play at the National Theater in Boston. Francis R. Underwood, then managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who accompanied her, described the occasion for his readers: “I asked Mrs. Stowe to go with me to see the play. She had some natural reluctance, considering the position of her husband as a preacher; but she also had some curiosity as a woman and as an author to see in the flesh and blood the creations of her imagination. I think she told me she had never been in a theater in her life. I procured the manager’s box, and we entered privately, she being well muffled. She sat in the shade of the curtains of our box, and watched the play attentively. I never saw such delight upon a human face as she displayed when she first comprehended the full power of Mrs. Howard’s ‘Topsy.’ She scarcely spoke during the evening; but her expression was eloquent—smiles and tears succeeding each other through the whole.” Mrs. Stowe never recorded her reactions to this adventure, but surely she must have realized she could not stem the theatrical tide of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Although the Howards had given a relatively straight rendering of the play in Troy, even they had introduced an orchestral accompaniment for Eliza’s flight, crashing chord accents for Legree’s whip lashes, and Mrs. Howard had performed a kind of Topsy “breakdown.” But the all-out competition for more striking spectacular effects in acting, scenery, and music began with the New York opening the following season. Captain Purdy, the National Theater manager who had sponsored the unsuccessful Taylor version the year before, engaged the Troy company: “Six acts, eight tableaux, and thirty scenes, embracing the whole work,” for a grand opening on July 18, 1853. For the first time in a New York theater, a single play constituted the entire evening’s entertainment. Contrary to custom, there would be no “curtain-raiser,” no “after-piece.” This was Howard’s idea. Straight-laced puritans could he lured into the theater if they were assured no unpalatable and sinful theatrical exhibitions would soil their souls.

By the end of July, Purdy was assured his initial investment was secure. Against his better judgment he had been persuaded to pay the staggering sum of $100 per week to Mrs. Howard for the services of herself and little Cordelia. But when he was obliged to schedule anywhere from twelve to eighteen performances per week to meet the demand, Purely freely admitted his “better judgment” had been wrong. He ripped out the orchestral boxes and replaced them with 300 additional cushioned armchairs for which he charged 50 cents; excepting for the price, not unlike the divans in some of the present-day Broadway theaters. The play was on its way to a 300-performance run at the National, the first leg of its long and gaudy career.

While Purdy’s performances were still in progress, four other versions were brought out in New York: at the Bowery Theater, at Barnum’s American Museum, at the Franklin Museum, and finally in a burlesque concoction by Christy’s Minstrels. Purdy sailed along untroubled by three of these invasions, but Barnum’s offering worried him. Barnum was a showman to be feared, and his splashy advertising attracted customers.

The dramatization by Henry J. Conway, which Barnum had acquired, was proclaimed as, “The only just and sensible dramatic version of Mrs. Stowe’s book.” Furthermore: “It does not foolishly and unjustly elevate the Negro above the white man in intellect or morals. It exhibits a true picture of Negro life in the South, instead of absurdly representing the ignorant slave as possessed of all the polish of the drawing room, and the refinement of the educated whites. And instead of turning away the audience in tears, the author has wisely consulted dramatic taste by having Virtue triumphant at last, and after all its unjust sufferings, miseries and deprivations, conducted to happiness by the hand of Him who watches over all.”