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

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Inventing Tradition: Valentine’s Day

For most of the 19th century, Americans did not celebrate Valentine’s Day; it was a saint’s day that was marked by some folk traditions that were largely left behind in the Old World. However, by 1849, Valentine’s Day was enormously popular and uniquely American. Medieval (or rather, 19th century imaginings of medieval) traditions mingled with new commodities, fashions, and Victorian sentimentalism to create a new cultural ritual.

In the early church and medieval period, Saint Valentine was only renowned as a martyr and had no connection with lovers or romance. The source of this legend is poetry, not church doctrine; Geoffrey Chaucer and other 14th century poets mention Saint Valentine as the divine overseer of lovers, matchmaking, and courtship; presumably, this was not the martyr Valentine celebrated on February 14, but a lesser-known saint from Genoa, whose feast day is celebrated in early May, thus explaining the link to themes of blossoming romance and spring. By the 15th century, the connection between Valentine and love was an established literary convention, and the two Valentines were conflated, so that February 14 became a celebration of love and Saint Valentine an intermediary between lovers. The popular story of lovers sending valentines to one another in homage to the saint, supposedly renowned as an example of Christian love, attempted to join the two narratives of Christian martyrdom and romance, but the emphasis on matchmaking eventually overshadowed the austere religious narrative. In 17th century England, valentines were chosen by chance at parties, following a tradition of nuptial prediction games. The lovelorn Ophelia mentions St. Valentine’s Day in Hamlet, just before she commits suicide, evincing the established associations between the holiday and lovers. She sings, “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s Day, / All in the morning betime, / And I a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine. / Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, / And dupp’d the chamber door; / Let in the maid, that out a maid / Never departed more.”

In the mid-19th century, valentines were so popular that many paper companies began selling pre-made valentines. The first mass-produced, lace-embossed valentines were made in Worcester, MA in 1847, and a new industry was born, the greeting card business. These pre-made, mass-produced valentines quickly replaced the earlier hand-written versions. The holiday also became more elaborate and highly sentimentalized through the late 19th century.

In the 19th century there was a lot of hand-wringing over emotional excess, public crazes and spectacle, and Valentine’s Day was an object of criticism. Some newspapers described Valentine’s Day as a “social disease,” and saw it as an indicator of moral deterioration and loss of sincerity, especially in matters of love (Schmidt). The excessive sentimentlity of the Victorian era coupled with increased commercialism caused many people to worry that love was eroding into frivolity and courtship was morphing into a flirtacious and ephemeral game. Victorian-era Americans were concerned that society was becoming disingenuous, and Valentine’s Day with all its associations with commercialism, the focus on fashion, and the loss of religious fervor, was an apt symbol of the falseness that threatened to break down social bonds.

The February 1856 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine includes a full-page comic of “Valentines Delievered in Our Street,” which lampoons the sentimentalism that surrounded the holiday by exposing the crass, self-indulgent undertones.

valentine 1856

This comic exaggerates the breakdown of propriety in Valentine’s Day through brutally honest, occasionally crass, letters. For instance, the fourth cell depicts Peter Squeezum, Esq.’s peculiar valentine of a devil with the text “How are you old boy.” While Squeezum wonders “What can it mean?” the reader would easily recognize the insinuation of greed and dishonesty. Similarly, Doctor Pergeum’s valentine is an accusation of quackery and Rev. Narcissus Violet receives a $500 check from his parishioners, suggesting his greed and hypocrisy. Miss Wigsby’s valentine is rude and hints at the criticisms of Valentine’s Day that the holiday disrupts the usual restraints on courtship and standards of propriety between the sexes.

The commercialization of mass-produced cards with pre-written messages, elaborate gift-giving of jewelry in the late 19th century (as the jewelry industry expanded due to mining of precious gems in Africa), and advertisements meant to hype up the holiday and expectations led to criticism of the holiday for its insincerity and exaggerated sentimentality and sensualism. Although Valentine’s Day is not exactly a “Hallmark holiday” when we examine its beginnings, in the 19th century, it became the occasion for Hallmark to even exist.

References:

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 12.69 (February 1856)

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day 1840-1870.” Winterthur Portfolio 28.4 (1993): 209-2445