- 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
Theatrical novelty was the stock in trade of the “Tommer.” One innovation, undreamed of by Mrs. Stowe-Eliza pursued by the hounds in her flight across the Ohio—became so firmly identified with the play that audiences of the Eighties and Nineties would have throttled the manager who dared to tamper with the original and omit this exciting episode. Oftentimes the dogs practically took over the show. Wellesley and Sterling’s troupe advertised: “The wonderful dogs, Sultan, Caesar, and Monarch, for which Buffalo Bill makes a standing offer of $5000 or $3000 for Sultan alone, take part in the play.” Stage managers adopted all sorts of dodges to entice the dogs across the ice in pursuit of Eliza. Foxy-smelling cords were stretched across the stage. A more successful scheme required Eliza to feed the dogs regularly from her “prop child” bundle; then, when she skipped across the ice, her baby clutched tightly against her, the dogs willingly pursued their prey jumping at her throat.
Twentieth-Century “Tomming” followed the established tradition, if on a somewhat reduced scale. Early in the spring the troupes came out of winter hiding and took to the road. A dozen companies were still at it in 1927: Mason Brothers in their fifty-seventh season, and the Harvalls in their fortieth. Even today there are a few stragglers in the field every summer, and an Ohio college group recently put Eliza on the Ohio with a showboat production on the river. In recent years there have been two striking, if diverse, demonstrations of the theatrical vitality of the “Tom” drama: The Players Club revival at the Alvin Theater in New York on May 29, 1933, with a revised Aiken text by A. E. Thomas, starred Otis Skinner as Uncle Tom and Fay Bainter as Topsy, both of whom had made their debuts in “Tom” shows. Originally scheduled for a week’s engagement, standard for Players’ revivals, it played to capacity for four weeks. Then it took to the road, and in Boston was witnessed by Cordelia Howard, the first little Eva. The old story made its most recent hit with the ballet sequence, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” in The King and I. In its ingenuous, primitive-like quality this dance narrative probably approximates, at least in spirit, the Nineteenth-Century renderings.
The movies, of course, took their fling as “Tommers.” At least a dozen full movie treatments have been released since Edwin S. Porter’s first for the Edison Company in 1903, and innumerable movie potpourris have drawn episodes from the “Uncle Tom” reservoir. The “super” spectacle in movie “Tom” history was produced by Carl Laemmle in the early Twenties. With a budget of two million, technicians scoured the country for authentic scenes and details which could then be duplicated in the Hollywood factory. Laemmle’s film took nineteen months to shoot, used 977,000 feet of film, 65 different sets, 5,000 players, and 10,000 artificial magnolias.
Mrs. Stowe’s, and thus Aiken’s, dramatic narrative may not bear up even under the tamest critical scrutiny. The writing is undistinguished, much of it even careless. No matter. With Uncle Tom, Legree, little Eva, Eliza, and Topsy thrown together in a succession of laugh-provoking, hair-raising, and tear-jerking scenes, and with a precise and simple alignment of the forces of good and evil on the slavery issue—not the struggle between North and South—the American theater had the magic ingredients for an enduring drama. Actors could get their teeth into these parts and play them for all they were worth, the stage managers and scene painters could give their theatrical imagination full reign, and the managers discovered exploitation unconfined; and all of this without destroying the tender essence of the moral drama. Bloodhounds, donkeys, jubilee singers, and transformations supplied a theatrical vitality to the burning issues of the story. Awkward and blundering as much of the staging must have been, and primitive as it may sound in the reading, there were probably few spectators unmoved by the glorious final transformation. One “prompt” book described it as follows: