How ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ took over US stages

U. VIRGINIA (US) — The best-selling novel of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, morphed into live performances across the US, which ranged from moral dramas to racist spectacles.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel, which takes the immorality of slavery as its theme, outsold every other book except the Bible.

In his new book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American Stage and Screen (Palgrave 2012), University of Virginia drama professor and theater historian John Frick chronicles how Stowe’s novel was adapted to theater and film. He details how, by the beginning of the 20th century, more than 400 separate companies traveled and performed some theatrical version of the story.

The “Tom Shows,” as they were known, were “ubiquitous and part of the common culture at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century,” Frick says.

In the 19th century, “Tom Show” troupes criss-crossed the country staging versions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Later, film companies adapted the book for film. (Credit: U. Virginia)


“Tom Shows” were a small industry built on the genre known as moral reform dramas or melodramas, such as “The Drunkard” or “The Gambler,” which were widely received.

Theatrical entrepreneurs, people like P.T. Barnum and Boston showman Moses Kimball, “found there was money to be made in moral drama,” Frick says.

The first major theatrical production was by the George Howard Company, presenting a script developed by Howard’s cousin, George Aiken, that continued the abolitionist message of Stowe’s novel.

Dangerous shows

Frick says that if he had to choose a favorite, the production by Howard and Aiken that traveled from Troy, New York, to New York City is his favorite because of its faithfulness to Stowe’s story.

This collaborative production also traveled to numerous towns, including Washington, DC. When it played in Charlottesville, Va., it was “blasted” by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, Frick says. “In the South, it was dangerous to present a production that was anywhere near Harriet Beecher Stowe’s story.”

Later, productions “quickly went in the opposite direction and became racist,” Frick says. By the end of the 19th century, the “anti-Toms,” as they were known, “erased any abolitionist sentiment and were anti-black productions” that reflected the antebellum society in the South. Post-war legislation regulated where African-Americans could live and work and prohibited them from voting.

Early “Tom Shows” were performed in blackface, but after the Civil War, some African-American actors were included in productions. Ironically, the first instance where an African-American played the title role was in the South—in Kentucky, according to Frick.

The later, “patently racist” shows negatively portrayed the African-American stereotypes of the “pickaninny” black child, the dutiful, long-suffering servant, and the dark-skinned “mammy.” At one point, three dramatic adaptations played simultaneously in New Orleans alone.

Across America, the traveling productions ranged from “ragged and amateurish” to more professional shows with good production values. Each year, “eight to 10 of these productions would come to town” and “people grew up hearing about ‘Uncle Tom,'” Frick says.

The first full-length movie of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a 1903 silent production by film pioneer Edwin S. Porter, a director with Thomas A. Edison’s film company. In 1927, Universal Studios released an epic version, shot on multiple locations at a cost of more than $2 million.

Plots, themes, and characters endured well into the 1930s; even Judy Garland wore blackface in the 1938 movie, Everybody Sing. Character parallels can be found in the 1926 takeoff of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by the comedic group Our Gang and the 1935 comedy drama, The Little Colonel, starring Shirley Temple.

In modern times, a 1987 television adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin starred Avery Brooks, Phylicia Rashad, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Source: University of Virginia