- “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the American Stage and Screen by John W. Frick
Sales of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (serialized 1851; published as a novel 1852) were eclipsed in the nineteenth century only by sales of the Bible. The phenomenal social no less than financial success of Stowe’s novel has subjected it to more scholarly scrutiny than the dramatizations of it, even though more people encountered and were influenced by Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a play or film than ever read it.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the American Stage and Screen is the first book-length updating of the novel’s stage and screen history since Harry Birdoff’s 1947 The World’s Greatest Hit, extended and supported here by recent research and John W. Frick’s own rigorous scholarship. Taken together with Heather Nathans’s Slavery and Sentiment on the American Stage, 1787–1861 (Cambridge 2009), scholars can now consider the range and impact of antislavery dramas during the postcolonial and antebellum eras and can trace the history of its most famous exemplar, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, down even to our own times.
Frick, who established his bona fides as an expert in reform drama with Theatre, Culture, and Temperance Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge 2003), is well equipped to undertake a cultural and social history of dramatizations of Stowe’s novel from 1851 to modern stage and screen versions, and to resituate Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its stage history (xii–xiii). Frick’s book devotes a chapter to each of the following topics: the novel; the Aiken/Howard dramatization of it; the Conway/Kimball/Barnum dramatization (known as “the [Missouri] Compromise version”); spin-offs of the play from 1865 to 1900, including the development of “Tom Shows” (the general term used for stage adaptations [End Page 251] of Uncle Tom’s Cabin); a typical “Tom Show” in the twentieth century and professional revivals of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on and off Broadway; and filmed versions between 1903 and 1965, plus an adaptation for television in 1987. The six chapters conclude in a brief epilogue, aptly titled “The Story that Won’t Stay Dead,” which carries us into the twenty-first century and the most recent, but likely not the last, professional production (in 2010) of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Generous notes accompany the text, and there is a substantial bibliography, including (teachers beware—potential plagiarism) the address of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin website (xiv).
The first three chapters of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the American Stage and Screen offer few surprises to students of theatre in the antebellum era, though Frick’s treatment of the Aiken and Conway plays and early productions of and research concerning them is thorough. Chapters 4 through 6, however, restore the “Tom Show” to its rightful place as a historical phenomenon and illustrate both the dramatic variants of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and their power after the Civil War (an estimated four to five hundred “Tom” companies were on tour throughout the United States in 1900).
The great benefit of a book like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the American Stage and Screen is to demonstrate in detail why dramatizations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin continued to draw audiences long after slavery had been abolished in America. Economically, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an established brand that promised heart-wrenching emotion, thrilling action, and spectacular situations. Theatrically, Stowe’s material was flexible enough that whatever was popular elsewhere in the theatre could be accommodated by Tom Shows, including dog acts, horse chases, spectacular scenes and devices, jubilee singers, musical acts, minstrel players and formats, double character productions (two Toms, two Topsys, two Legrees), and “mammoth” Tom Shows with the traveling weight of a circus. Dramatically, Stowe’s novel offered enough material to serve adaptations that erased George Harris as well as versions that made him the play’s hero, dramas that focused on Eliza rather than...