"Uncle Tom" at the Triangle—And Other of Its Revivals
AFTER two decades "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is being revived in New York. This drama held an honorable place in American hearts for more than fifty years, a position achieved by no other play, and the performance which is given by the Triangle Players very carefully preserves the dignity of this one-time favorite.
Young New York, which vaguely remembers hearing about it in grammar school days, will probably regard it with a supercilious smile, but those who knew the days when the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" companies were in the heyday of their glory, will remember it as a poignant drama that had rendered splendid service in one of America's greatest causes. More particularly, perhaps, will they remember the copious tears they shed at the famous climax of the third act, where Eva coughed and perished to the accompaniment of sacred music.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author, who had suffered years of privation, achieved through this story international fame. Having lived for seventeen years on the border of a slave State, she beheld all the horror of the slave evil. Although at odd times she wrote, she had never written anything for the cause of the slaves until her sister-in-law began to urge her. "If I could use a pen as you can," she said, "I would write something that would make the whole Nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is." From that moment Mrs. Stowe was determined to write something that would arouse national consciousness of this great evil.
One day, after returning home from church, she began, with sudden inspiration, the story of Uncle Tom. As soon as it was published in France, George Sand wrote of it: "Everybody devours it and covers it with tears. No one who can read is permitted to go without reading it. * * * This work may be badly constructed if brought up to the laws of modern romances as they are accepted in France, but it has nevertheless triumphed over criticism. I do not know if Mrs. Stowe has talent as it is understood in the world of letters, but she has the genius which humanity has the most need of—the genius of good. This book overturns us, chokes the throat, melts the spirit and fills us with strange sentiments of tenderness."
The book stirred the imagination of playwrights, poets and artists, and each tried to translate it through his medium.
The first dramatic version was made by C. W. Taylor, and was produced in New York at Purdy's National Theatre in 1852. It was a complete failure, running only eleven nights. Mrs. Stowe could not protect her dramatic rights, so that any one who could write began taking a hand at his own version. Of these George L. Aiken's, which was first produced in 1853 at the Museum in Troy, was the most successful.
Purdy decided to try Aiken's version, and the play was produced for a second time at the National Theatre in July, 1853. It met with instantaneous success and ran for more than a year. Prior to its opening, we find the following notice in the New York Herald of July 17, 1853, under Theatre and Music Items.
"The National Theatre. This neat little establishment is doing a very respectable business. Purdy is very active, and is consequently making money fast. The piece presented for to-morrow's entertainment is a new one called Uncle Tom's Cabin. This version has played over one hundred nights in Troy to crowded houses. Purdy has spared neither pains nor expense in putting it on the stage in first rate style. It is in six acts, eight tableaus and thirty scenes. Miss Cordelia Howard, the child wonder, Mrs. Howard and Messrs. Germon and Fox appear in the leading characters. The curtain rises at 7 1/2 o'clock."
The only notice that appears in the next day's papers is the following:
The National Theatre—The new dramatic version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has attracted dense crowds to the National. The great success which has attended the production of this piece induces the manager to continue its representation until further notice.
And a few days later: "The increase of visitors to this theatre has compelled the manager to throw the orchestral department into select seats for visitors."
The success of this piece was the dramatic event of the season. During part of the time that it was given twelve performances a week were necessary, and finally eighteen, the company eating their meals in costume behind the scenes.
The ministry was greatly attracted to the play, and came in such great numbers that Purdy conceived the idea of hanging the lobby with scriptural texts. Other managers were quick to realize the fortune to be made in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and different versions of it appeared in Philadelphia (with Joseph Jefferson playing Gumption Cute), Detroit, Boston and London. Stock and tent companies soon began playing it in every village and hamlet of the country, and the newspapers found it convenient to economize in space by referring to them merely as the "U.T.C." and to the actors as "Tommers."
The street bills used in advertising the play are quite picturesque and amusing. "A great and moral play, coming with all the grandeur and magnitude that the mind of man ever conceived," they read.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the only performances given were those of the stock companies, William A. Brady tapped its vein again. In 1901 he staged an elaborate revival at the Academy of Music, with Wilton Lackaye superbly natural as Uncle Tom and Theodore Roberts duly savage as Legree. The play was eagerly greeted, although by then "it was beginning to hit the air."
One newspaper in its dramatic review of it said that "Uncle Tom's Cabin has probably never been pictured so handsomely or acted so well in every part as in this reproduction by William A. Brady."
To-day theatregoers are given another opportunity to view the play which has become a landmark in our nation's history. Once more the golden-haired Eva, the jubilantly wicked Topsy, the eccentric lawyer, Marks, and cruel Legree and Uncle Tom himself enact the great tragedy which moved Abraham Lincoln to say to Harriet Beecher Stowe, "So this is the little woman who brought on this great war."