- Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American Stage and Screen by John W. Frick
Unlike Sarah Meer’s Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s (2006), John W. Frick’s recent study focuses squarely on dramatic adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin produced in the United States from the novel’s publication as a book in 1852 to roughly 1932. The first and more compelling half of his study analyzes the two most influential adaptations of Stowe’s novel (the 1852 George Aiken and H. J. Conway productions) and offers a wealth of historical and biographical detail regarding the many theatre venues, entrepreneurs (including P. T. Barnum), stage managers, playwrights, and actors who brought Stowe’s novel to life for antebellum audiences. For literary scholars, the primary benefit of this section is how clearly it contextualizes the intersection between Uncle Tom’s Cabin and an ascendant theatre genre: the moral reform drama. Drawing upon David S. Reynolds’s notion of a “mixed” text (one that articulates contradictory messages and ideological tendencies), Frick shows how the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin “on both page and stage” (18) derived from its investment in such popular entertainments as minstrelsy (the legendary T. D. Rice performed the role of Uncle Tom on more than one occasion) even as it helped to re-gender and recreate the theatre as a bourgeois social space. (Oddly, in this regard, Frick doesn’t incorporate Lawrence Levine’s important discussion of the theatrical “sacralization of culture” in Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America ).
Within this cultural context, though, Frick persuasively argues that even the Aiken script—the one that hewed most closely to Stowe’s antislavery message—significantly undercut her Christian and sentimental rhetoric by “excising abolitionist characters that appeared in the novel” and “simplifying those remaining characters most closely associated with the indictment of slavery” and by “treating clinically scenes of great emotion” (59). Furthermore, Aiken and subsequently many other playwrights foregrounded the male characters of the novel and minimalized the stories of Eliza, Tom, Eva, Ophelia, Topsy, and Cassy (reducing Ophelia, for example, to the clichéd “old maid” and Topsy to “the butt of ridicule in the play” ). The cumulative result, Frick concludes, is that Stowe’s novel was masculinized on the antebellum stage even as the moral reform drama movement made it respectable for genteel women to attend the theatre. Frick helpfully clarifies that house playwrights like Aiken and Conway weren’t usually regarded as theatre professionals and how the ideological slant and melodramatic devices in their scripts were often byproducts of theatre managers, directors, and even actors.
The second half of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American Stage and Screen continues this devolutionary narrative, with several exceptions, by tracing the rise of spectacle in the enormously popular “Tom shows” that traveled the country until about 1930. Frick describes well how the shows were (extra)ordinary events in small town America, and he documents how the spine of Stowe’s novel was retained in a half dozen or so obligatory scenes but also how other scenes and characters were freely dropped and new ones added for the sake of success. Other innovations included increasingly sophisticated special effects, dogs (the better to chase Eliza over the Ohio River), double characters, and “Jubilee Singers—choruses of African American singers who specialized in negro spirituals” (127). Unfortunately, given the documentary rather than analytical nature of the study, Frick spends more time discussing the introduction of dogs in the Tom shows than he does the inclusion of African American singers or the slow emergence of interracial casts. This loss is somewhat allayed by the inclusion of historical gems [End Page 516] such as the playbill for an 1854 production in New Orleans which “indicated that the play had been penned by Mrs. Harriet Screecher Blow (just one of many [Southern] bastardizations of Stowe’s name)” (138).
Frick concludes with a review of film adaptations of Uncle Tom’s...