Theatrical Adaptions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Two of the most popular forms of 19th century entertainment were reading novels and attending the theater, so it is no surprise that best-selling novels were often adapted to stage plays. In an earlier post on domestic dramas, I mentioned the theater’s bad reputation in the early 19th century, but the stigma attached to the playhouse dissipated over time. Theater attendance gradually became more socially acceptable and even fashionable among the middle class by the 1840s and ’50s, partly due to  theater managers and playwrights’s deliberate efforts to appeal to middle class values and moral standards, and partly due to the Victorian era reverence for Shakespeare, which resulted in higher regard for the theater. By the 1850s, theaters were central to the developing culture of American cities.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the best-selling novels of the century and spawned many stage adaptations. As popular as the novel was, many Americans were first exposed to the story at the playhouse. Copyright laws did not prevent dramatizations of novels and other printed fiction, so the first stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin actually debuted before the final installation of the novel was published. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is remembered as an important text in turning northern sentiments more toward abolitionism, and one would expect that the theatrical productions would have served the same purpose, moving audiences to oppose slavery as immoral and inhuman. However, the dramatizations differed significantly from each other and from the original novel, often resulting in completely divergent political messages and tones. Some productions made their own additions to “finish the story”; manager G.C. Howard and actor George Aiken’s 6-act production ended with Uncle Tom’s death and ascension to heaven (Frick). Other adaptations changed the tone of Stowe’s text, undermined Stowe’s overtly abolitionist politics to promote compromise between the North and South, and, worst of all, some of the most popular adaptations reinforced racial stereotypes and the dehumanization of slaves.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is notable as an instigating force in tensions between the North and South over slavery; Abraham Lincoln referred to Stowe as the “little woman who started this war.” Stowe’s story moved some sympathetic viewers and readers to support the abolitionist movement and view slavery as an immoral instution. However, the theatrical productions were deeply problematic with regard to representing race on the stage. It was relatively easy for white readers to sympathize with the Black characters; Stowe heavily emphasized the morality of Eliza and Tom as humans and Christians in spite of their race, and there is the fact of Eliza’s light skin and her ability to “pass” as white. Scholarship on the problems of racial stereotypes and representation in Stowe’s novel is extensive, so I will not analyze that here. On the stage, audiences were confronted with the characters’ physicality in a more direct way, and many productions fell back on the established stereotypes of Black characters. This was especially true of the “Tom Show” adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, short comedic pieces that were loosely based on the novel, but which often resembled blackface minstrels. For example, C.W. Taylor’s production was presented as an afterpiece, so he cut several key episodes, two major characters, and added several musical numbers; the result was a play mocking the South and side-stepping many of the controversial and overtly abolitionist material in Stowe’s novel. Other Tom Shows were sensationalized melodramas that greatly expanded the roles of white characters and eliminated secondary Black characters like Topsy. Tom Shows often reduced the characters to racist caricatures and often turned the text into slapstick comedy.  Unfortunately, the Tom Shows were exceedingly popular throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century (with most references to slavery erased from the text after the Civil War), and perpetuated the racist genre of the minstrel show.

Even among the dramatizations that stayed close to the original novel’s text, racial representation on stage was still a problem. Nineteenth century productions typically had all-white casts, so there is the significant issue of the erasure of Black characters by virtue of their representation by white actors. As mentioned earlier, Eliza’s race is ambiguous, and Stowe emphasizes the lightness of her skin, the fact that she didn’t “look like a slave,” so one may expect a white actress to fill this role. However, Tom and his family are clearly described with dark skin, a fact that no production could avoid. Although the theater often attracted individuals from more marginalized sectors of society, including immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and individuals with Gypsy and Jewish heritage, the vast majority of actors in major theaters were white. Resultantly, actors used make-up to play characters of different races. Acting manuals from the era include detailed instructions for playing characters of different races, especially Native Americans and African Americans, because these were popular stock characters in American plays. These instructions are rife with racial stereotypes that were typical in dehumanizing minstrel shows, and likely informed the way actors played the minor characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even in the more faithful adaptations of Stowe’s text. The audience expected particular portrayals of minority characters and theater managers and star actors were all too willing to cater to those expectations.

Works Cited

Frick, John. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Antebellum Stage.” http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/interpret/exhibits/frick/frick.html

http://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/utc/american_culture.shtml

Native Americans on the Stage

In the last couple of years, certain elements of various Native American cultures have been used as fashion statements; a Paul Frank fashion show last fall featured models wearing war bonnets and war paint, and it has apparently become trendy to claim celebrities and cartoon characters as one’s “spirit animal.” These are all instances of cultural appropriation and stereotyping, though many participants in these trends believe that they are honoring Native American culture.

This post will  focus on the history of portrayals of Native Americans in popular culture. I want to be clear that this is not exactly my story to tell; I am not Native American. I do not presume to speak for Native Americans or to know their experience of living in a white-dominated culture when I am part of the privileged majority. I have learned considerably more about Native American culture and history through my work with a professor of social work who specializes in Native American wellness and education, and I make an effort to be conscious and to educate myself.

In the 19th century, Native Americans were forced to assimilate to white culture, via boarding schools, loss of tribal lands, among other oppressive institutions. Yet American Indian characters were a constant presence on the stage in 19th century American theater, even as the American government forced tribes from their homes and demanded assimilation to white culture. Several acting manuals from the 1820s and 1830s include instructions for “red face” make-up and how to play Native American characters. Ironically, white playwrights relied on oppressed minority groups to distinguish their plays as American. American playwrights used stock figures like the American Indian and the black slave to differentiate themselves from their European counterparts. Both of these character tropes are frequently victims of violence, and thus objects of pity, on the stage. White American theater transformed the American Indian into a symbol of America’s heritage and past, a mythological figure that perpetuated a false history that justified the contemporary wars waged against indigenous peoples.

Sympathetic American Indian characters were almost always tragic heroes entailed in a narrative of death and loss. The 1829 play Metamora makes this narrative of the death of the Indian clear in its subtitle: The Last of the Wampanoags. The play is a five-act tragedy of the downfall of the chief of the Wampanoags upon the arrival of Puritan English settlers. Metamora has an unusual history; actor Edwin Forrest commissioned the play after he spent two months with the Choctaw Indians in southwestern Missouri (at that time, this area of the state had few white settlers). Forrest returned to the theater and offered a $500 prize for the best five act tragedy “in which the hero, or principal character, shall be an aboriginal of this country” (Old Sturbridge Visitor, Summer 2003). John Augustus Stone won the contest and his play, based loosely on the life of Metacomet (also known as King Philip to Puritan settlers), became an instant success and remained in nearly constant production for decades.

Although Forrest intended for the play to be a tribute to the Choctaw tribe he so admired, the play exemplifies many problems in white culture’s portrayal and use of American Indians. The play ends with Metamora’s death and the marriage of a Wampanoag woman to a Puritan man. The play assumes that indigenous culture is firmly situated in the past, that the Wampanoags ended with Metacomet’s death in 1675.  Plays like Metamora and the popular “historical” reenactments performed by traveling troupes of American Indian actors reinforced the existing cultural narrative that American Indians were doomed by fate. This theme of foretold extinction is overwhelmingly present in Metamora. Of course, the hero’s fatal tragic flaw is part of the traditional structure of a five-act tragedy, but the fact that Forrest requested a tragedy indicates how Anglo-Americans typically viewed American Indians. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Metacomet was seen as a cruel villain, but the narrative changed through the 19th century to erase the history of war between American Indians and white settlers; instead, the narrative was framed as a tragedy. The fatalism in 19th century popular entertainment erases white America’s culpability in the past wars, and more importantly, it overshadowed the violence of the Indian Removal Act.  Such a narrative removed any hint of white guilt over the increasingly violent policies against indigenous peoples throughout the 19th century; as Metamora soared in popularity through the 1830s, millions of Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscagee Creek, Seminole and other indigenous people were dying of starvation, frostbite and smallpox on the Trail of Tears. The present tragedy was ignored, the outrage was tacitly accepted, while audiences lamented a fictionalized tragedy set well over a hundred years in the past.

 

This post draws from the information available from Old Sturbridge Village’s document collection. See the website for more details (or better yet, visit Old Sturbridge Village!): http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/document_viewer.php?DocID=2068

Domestic Dramas

Theater became a popular and socially acceptable middle class pastime around the 1840s, but before then, playhouses had quite the reputation. It was often portrayed as a symbol of the temptations and dangers of urban life as American cities grew in population and young people moved away from small, family-based rural communities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Theater has historically been associated with the bodily passions; early 19th century sermons warned against the intoxicating effects of viewing the passions played out on stage. The most condemning argument against theater-going as a respectable pastime were the prostitutes known to work the third tiers (the cheap seats). Theaters’ location in urban centers, the melodramatic and often suggestive content of the plays, the presence of prostitutes, and the cultural imperative for feminine domesticity and privacy influenced perceptions of the theater as improper and morally questionable.

Performances were very common forms of domestic entertainment, however, particularly music and dance; fiddles, whistles and other musical instruments were available for even poor families, and the piano grew in popularity among wealthier families. Dramatic readings and play-acting were also popular parlor games and evening pastimes. For instance, Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women includes several references to domestic dramas; the four March sisters act out the Pilgrim’s Progress, and Marmee uses their play-acting as an educational opportunity. Alcott was an amateur actress, and though she had a very unconventional childhood influenced by her father’s Transcendentalist philosophy, the use of dramatic sketches in education was well-established. The Revolutionary-era author, actress, and educator Susanna Rowson composed textbooks for her Academy for Young Ladies in Boston. Her 1811 textbook, A Present for Young Ladies, included several short dramatic sketches for her young female students to perform for their classes and at semi-public assemblies. Rowson’s school book dramas were always overtly didactic; they presented the students with an ethical dilemma that the characters solved through the virtues she intended to instill in her students: compromise, wisdom, generosity, moderation.

These school assembly performances also prepared Rowson’s students for the type of speech they would likely encounter in social gatherings at the time. Early American culture was quite theatrical, even if it condemned the theater as an institution; the preachers of the Great Awakening were overtly dramatic, students of both sexes were taught rhetoric and oratory in the decades immediately following the Revolution, and exhibitions of oratory and debates were often part of social gatherings. So it is unsurpising that domestic dramas and plays, put on in family parlors, were a popular form of entertainment in early American social life. Situating theater firmly within the domestic sphere bypassed many of the objections to the stage, especially the growing objections to female public speech. Rhetoric and argumentation were highly valued aspects of post-Revolutionary society, especially in the upper and middle classes, and a proper young lady would be expected to exhibit good diction, witty replies, and above all, excellent reasoning. This mode of socialization fell away as the 19th century progressed, however, and notions of femininity shifted to value silence, tranquility, and angelic “niceness,” which would forbid any argumentation.

For further reading on early American theatricality, see:

Carolyn Eastman, “The Female Cicero: Young Women’s Oratory and Gendered Public Participation in the Early American Republic.” Gender & History 19.2 (2007)

Jeffrey H. Richards, “Susanna and the Stage: or, Rowson Family Theater.” Studies in American Fiction 38.1 & 2 (Spring and Fall 2011)