October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
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
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.”
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:
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.
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.”
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:
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: