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Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American Stage and Screen by John W. Frick (review)
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John Frick’s comprehensive study of the myriad theatrical and movie interpretations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin should be required reading for all scholars of American culture and theatre. As Frick explains, Uncle Tom’s Cabin wasn’t simply an abolitionist novel, it was a “full-scale phenomenon—a cultural, commercial, ideological, and theatrical phenomenon” (xi). Indeed, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a singular American theatrical phenomenon; the longevity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s popular appeal and the variety of its adaptations are unmatched. Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American Stage and Screen is the first full-length work devoted exclusively to the topic in over 50 years, since The World’s Greatest Hit (1947), by Harry Birdoff. Frick deftly summarizes and contextualizes the wealth of archival data and scholarship on performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from 1852 through 1987, making this new book the perfect introduction to the Uncle Tom’s Cabin phenomenon, as well as to the larger topics of abolitionism, sentimentalism, moral-reform melodrama, racial and gender ideology of the nineteenth century, and the intertwined forces of market capitalism and slavery. Frick structures this study with the goal of repositioning “the stage and film Uncle Toms squarely within the theatre history of the era in which they were produced,” particularly focusing on “the men and women who made that history—the performers and entrepreneurs who brought the Uncle Tom story to the country’s theatres and movie houses—and the venues where they appeared” (xii-xiii). In addition to this contextualization, Frick’s new book comes with a magnificent companion website, American Theatre & Uncle Tom’s Cabin (part of the larger Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture website, hosted by the University of Virginia). The website holds a treasure trove of primary documents including extant play scripts, promptbooks, playbills, and advertising images. Indeed, the pairing of the website with Frick’s book provides an innovative model for scholarship that invites the reader deeper into the material than any stand-alone book can.

As the title indicates, Frick traces the major, professional theatrical and cinematic productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however the majority of the book is focused on theatre. Only the final chapter focuses on the eleven film versions. One of the fascinating similarities between the theatre and movie history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the pattern of two major productions coming out at the same time. This pattern of doubling began in 1853 with the famous theatre war in New York City between the Aiken/Howard adaptation and the Conway/Kimball/Barnum adaptation. Each of these adaptations has a dedicated chapter tracing the stages of the scripts’ development and profiling the key actors and managers involved in this first wave of American theatrical adaptation.

The fourth chapter, “Uncle Tom Hits the Road,” covers the period from the Civil War to the beginning of the twentieth century. Here Frick discusses the second wave of Uncle Tom shows that proliferated in New York City in 1853–1854, including the development of minstrel show interpretations and touring Tom shows. Frick tells the fascinating story of the actress Mrs. Howard, who became “practically a one woman Uncle Tom’s Cabin industry” (110). Frick discusses productions in San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans, the anti-Tom scripts developed for Southern audiences, as well as a general trend of erasing abolitionist sentiment. Other innovations Frick traces include the casting of the first African-American man in the role of Tom and the additions of the Jubilee Singers (choruses of African-American singers who specialized in negro spirituals) and of dogs to chase Eliza across the ice. The most curious development, however, was the innovation of double companies, where two actors played the major roles of Topsy, Tom, Eliza, Legree, etc, as well as two brass bands and two orchestras, and sometimes two packs of dogs.

In chapters five and six Frick demonstrates how popular the story remained in the first half of the twentieth century, with multiple lavish productions on stage, a half dozen movies, and the continued flourishing of traveling Tom shows. Frick traces twentieth-century modernizations, particularly more expensive and realistic scenery and more...

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