Friday, August 24, 2012

This Day in Theater History (‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ Adapted for Stage)

August 24, 1852—Theater producers, in the 19th century, as much as now, knew a good property when they saw one, and by the summer of 1852 there may few as hot as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. With Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel about slavery causing a firestorm of controversy, interest would soar if the audience could see a play based on it.

And so, Charles Taylor, an English-born actor who had made a specialty of adapting famous novels to the stage, set to work. It was, he later admitted, a pretty hasty job—so much so that two of the novel’s best-loved characters, Topsy and Eva, never made it to the stage at all. Almost as bad, the bloodhounds pursuing Eliza across the ice were not depicted through real canines but, according to 20th century critic George Jean Nathan, "through the howling larnyx of one Joe Mitchell, a stagehand." 

It didn’t matter. The reach of the abolitionist novel was broadened when it was adapted for Purdy’s National Theatre in Chatham Street in New York. It was on its way to becoming the most popular stage play of its era.

Part of the reason the novel was so successful was that everybody took a crack at it--sort of similar to the situation that obtains today around Christmastime, when, it seems, every theater company in the nation stages A Christmas Carol, only in Stowe's case it was all year round.. Not one of these productions was authorized by Mrs. Stowe herself. Indeed, for producers and directors of the time, the thought of authorization or copyright was a joke.  The likes of Charles Dickens (himself almost unsurpassed as a theater buff) may have howled about writers’ royalties, but novelists such as himself and Mrs. Stowe could do little about it—at least, until the United States finally got around to passing a copyright act in 1891.

Taylor became something of an old hand at adapting Stowe, as he would, four years later, adapt another work of hers, Dred: A Tale of the Dismal Swamp. But he would soon be competing with other, more audience-appealing versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The one that won the most acclaim was a six-act version by George L. Aiken that began as a 100-performance run in Troy, N.Y., before coming to Purdy’s, where it made an even bigger splash, with 325 performances.

The impetus for the Aiken play was the desire for a vehicle for a child actress. Four-year-old Cordelia Howard had been stealing the show right from under her parents, Caroline and George C. Howard, in their production of a temperance drama, The Drunkard. Rather than displaying jealousy of their child, the Howard parents decided to milk her box-office appeal for all it was worth, and prevailed upon their cousin Aiken to adapt to the stage a novel in which a child also figured prominently: Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The spotlighting of a child was crucial to the reception of the play. In his excellent novel of New York’s 1863 Draft Riots, Banished Children of Eve, Peter Quinn, through the consciousness of "Eliza," an actress in one of the later shows, demonstrates that, though Stowe’s understanding of African-Americans was extremely limited, she had hit upon a plot element with universal appeal: the death of a child:

“It wasn’t something she learned about through reading or conversation. Here was the central event of the play, the mystical chord that resounded through the audience. Slavery and the black man remained an abstraction for most, a white man in burnt cock serving as a summation. But the dead child was everywhere, in the past, the present, the future, cholera, scarlet fever, typhoid, a continual slaughter of the innocents.”

The Howards would go on to tour with Aiken’s play for 35 years. But it was the New York production that made the biggest impact in how dramas were presented. Before its premiere, no stage property was considered complete without another bit of theatrical entertainment, such as an “afterpiece” or a ballet. But the length of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was such, the Howards insisted, that any other property tacked onto it would only overstrain the audience.

The management of Purdy’s protested, but to no avail. The show’s nearly year-long engagement at the theater proved the Howards were correct. Thus was the concept of one-play entertainment in the United States born.

In the essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in his 1955 collection Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin noted Stowe’s distinct lack of gifts as a fiction writer: “She was not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer; her book was not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong; was, in fact, perfectly horrible. This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel.”

But Stowe’s one-dimensional, over-the-top denunciation of slavery made her novel ideal as melodrama, the predominant American theatrical mode up to the 1920s. The presentation of good and evil in vivid colors, and the inevitable triumph of good, reassured audiences, despite a rapidly changing world, that the values with which they grew up endured, all appearances to the contrary.

The sheer theatricality of the show helped, too. Aiken and the Howards fixed that problem of the bloodhounds very well indeed in their version. Eventually, six real bloodhounds pursued Eliza across the icy floes in their production.

As I wrote, the one person who didn’t make money off  the many theatrical versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Stowe herself. She could have used it. Her husband Calvin was a respected minister who, for all his gifts as a scholar, didn’t make much to support the family. Harriet’s novels helped gain the money to raise their seven children. 

(The accompanying photo from a 1901 stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin features Uncle Tom at the whipping post.)

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