The New York Times Magazine
New York: 12 July 1931

Last Days for "Uncle Tom"

A Mainstay for Decade After Decade, the Play Has Given Way Before Modernity

  THE number of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" road shows is dwindling. Before the invasion of the motion picture, they traveled the length and breadth of the land, serving multitudes as dramatic fare from childhood to old age. Many and various were the troupes that produced this play, altogether forming an institution of a less sophisticated America.

  Old-time troupers tell endless tales, all strange to the modern theatre-goer's ear, of experiences with these shows. They were of two types: those that were technically called "Tom" shows and those familiarly known as "rep." The "Tom" shows stuck to their appellation. They toured the country, or their section of it, doing nothing but this play, year in and year out. Players did the same roles for years. They were born in "Tom" shows and sometimes died in them.

  The "rep" or repertory shows were themselves divided into two classes, the "house rep" shows that were quartered in theatres and the "tent rep" outfits which played under canvas. Besides these outfits, medicine shows, always a glamorous phase of the American theatre, also did "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

  The repertoire of a "rep" show might include, in addition to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," such happy thrillers and "tear jerkers" as "East Lynne," "Ten Nights in a Bar Room," "The Spy," "The Black Flag," "'49," "Bertha the Sewing Machine Girl" and "Jim the Penman." Villains of extra blackness and fair, ever so fair, heroines caused, nightly, righteous hisses and equally righteous applause.

   Theatre-going in those happy days was a different thing from the present scramble of box offices and agencies. Many shows charged not one, but three admissions. First, one paid a general admission. Then, inside, one could obtain a reserved seat upon payment of an additional fee. And after the performance was over one could, by a third payment, stay for the "concert."

  Informality was often the rule, at least in contrast with the present-day custom in those few cities harboring the living theatre. When the queues were long, the players might assist the "front of the house" (the box office attendants) by herding into line eager children-eager to get in to see Eva and Tom and all the rest. Inside, the players "doubled," not only portraying one or more roles but often tooting horns or playing fiddles in the band or orchestra.

  The curtain lifted. The play progressed. Audiences might know as well as players what came next, but they still continued to go to see "Tom." Between acts, players in make-up and costumes went among the playgoers, vending candies and other confections.

   And the show went on, until it was all over and little Eva was safe in heaven.

  Players knew the lines as they knew their own names. Audiences—that is, real "Tom" audiences—knew the same lines nearly as well. Although there were only two accepted versions, one produced in England and considered the better by some, and the other produced in this country, both in 1853, changes were often made to fit conditions or a director's whim. Simon Legree might sprout a mustache of villainous black in one town and of fierce tomato red in the next. But this was all part of the show. One understood such things. It was almost a rite, this "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

   Its remarkable life would put to shame "Abie's Irish Rose" and other productions that carried the years merrily and profitably on their shoulders. It has been done continuously since the Civil War period and was even more popular after the war than during it.

  But the play lost its grip when American went "modern." Only a few companies now produce it. Some follow their itineraries by motor car instead of by the wagon of yesterday. Attempts to hold interest by adding to the cast have failed. When "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is produced at all, it is little changed from the way it was presented years ago.