- Historic Sites
Uncle Tom, The Theater And Mrs. Stowe
Brought to the stage without her consent, this enduring American drama did not bring the author a cent—but it gave actors a living for generations
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
Although Purdy publicly labeled this “tamed-down” atrocity the “humbug version,” he was obliged to counteract its impact with some promotional ballyhoo of his own. Barnum’s “Tom” had opened on November 7. Three days later Purdy’s production reached its 100-performance mark, an occasion not to be disregarded. Purdy proclaimed a “Grand Jubilee Festival.” John Schiebel’s National Brass Band, thirty musicians strong, blared out from the street balcony of the theater commencing at 9 A.M. At 2 P.M.: a special performance for ladies, families, and schools; at 6 P.M.: “a grand display of fireworks under the direction of Isaac Edge of Jersey City,” followed by an exhibition of Professor Grant’s Drummond Light on the roof top of the theater.
Just after the Bowery Theater entered the “Tom” running on January 16, 1854, featuring the popular minstrel performer T. D. “Daddy” Rice as Uncle Tom, Purdy prepared another distraction, a “Grand Uncle Tom Jubilee” to celebrate his two-hundredth performance, January 26. Koop’s celebrated National Brass and Clarinet Band was on hand to supply the music, and Professor Grant and Isaac Edge repeated their respective lighting and pyrotechnic displays. In addition, Purdy spent $2,000 on redecorating the theater and improving the scenery.
Just as the novel had found an immediate audience abroad, so did the play. In the fall of 1852, while the Howard company was still performing in Troy, six productions were running in London. The same season, 1852-53, Manchester, Dublin, Edinburgh, and Glasgow each had its own company of “Tommers.” For the rest of the century, the play was a standard fixture of the London theater.
Berlin first saw the play, called in German Negersleben in Nord-Amerika, in December, 1852. The French version, La Case de l’Oncle Tom, was brought out in Paris in January, 1853. A later French treatment, L’Oncle Tom, although claiming to adhere to Mrs. Stowe’s original text, demonstrated a fanciful conception of American geography: the slaves escaped to Canada by sailing down the Ohio, in the course of which miraculous journey they performed the doubly impossible feat of “shooting the falls of Niagara.”
The distinctive theatrical history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, belongs to America. Within two years after the Howards appeared in Troy, the play was performed by the stock companies in Cleveland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Chicago. When the Howards took to the road in 1854, playing Boston, Baltimore, Washington, and St. Louis, they invariably encountered competition from these resident thespians.
If inhabitants of the small towns felt slighted in not getting a look at the new play, they hardly had time to register their complaints. As early as 1854, “Tom” shows under canvas were on the road. The first of these set out from Dayton, Ohio, under the banner of the pioneer barnstormer, “Yankee” Robinson. For no accountable reason, other than that there were actors everywhere, home bases for “Tom” troupes sprang up in Carbondale, Pa., Kalamazoo, Mich., Oneida, N.Y., Williamsport, Ohio, to mention only a handful. No play, before or since, swept across America in such prairie-fire fashion.
Up to the Civil War years, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a stable fixture in theatrical repertoires everywhere. Early in the conflict four New York managers, misjudging the temper of the time, prepared four new productions. Even though one of these included the Howards and another was billed as “the Equestrian Moral Drama”—bringing on the horses ordinarily meant sure-fire success—they all collapsed. The stage drama was eclipsed by the drama of real life.
Not until the Seventies did “Tomming” begin again in earnest, but it was then more earnest than ever. In 1879, the New York Dramatic Mirror recorded the routes of 49 “Tom” companies. Twenty years later such a timetable would have to list some five hundred. These companies were of all shapes, sizes, and descriptions. Some were family affairs. It was not at all uncommon for an actor to spend his entire life as a “Tommer,” never playing in, nor even seeing, any other play. Many troupes were ridiculously limited in their acting resources. An actor often played two or three different parts. One group, in 1885, is reported to have performed the entire text with only three players. There was, however, no hint of these inadequacies in the broadsides and streamers which announced: “The McFadden Famous Original Boston Ideal Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company,” or the “Chicago Ideal Uncle Tom Cabin Combination,” or “Hyers Sisters’ Ideal Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company.” Some local critics were not taken in by this “ideal” ballyhoo, as the following poison-pen comments demonstrate: