THE PLAY THAT GOES ON FOREVER
The Story of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"
BY ARTHUR B. MAURICE
One day during the black times of the Civil War, President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe for the first time. "So this is the little woman," he said, as his great shaggy hand closed over her frail little one, "who brought on this big war." Almost sixty years have passed since the big war came to an end, but the book that the great emancipator believed had inspired it, and the play made from that book, seem to go on forever. Every night, somewhere in the land, an audience is moved by the spectacle of Eliza crossing make-believe ice; of the bloodhounds in pursuit; of Little Eva dying; of Topsy, who had never been born but just 'growed'; and of Uncle Tom suffering under the lash of Simon Legree. Not only in city and town theaters, but, during summer nights, "Uncle Tom" shows exhibit in tents all through the country districts. The play is the most conspicuous success in the history of the American theater.
The story first appeared serially in the National Era of Washington, which was established in 1847 by Dr. Gamaliel Bailey, a prominent Abolitionist. Dr. Bailey wrote to Mrs. Stowe asking her to write a story for the paper, which should aim to further the cause with which they were both so much in sympathy—and the result was "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which began to run in 1851. Mrs. Stowe originally planned it for three or four numbers; instead, it ran through about fifty numbers. For the serial rights she was paid $300. When it appeared in book form it scored an immediate success, and plans were made for its presentation on the stage.
The first version was in six acts, and that version is still being played to-day. It was made at the suggestion of George C. Howard, the manager of the Troy Museum, by George L. Aiken, brother of Frank E. Aiken. The dramatist received a gold watch for his work of adapting the story to the stage, and was well pleased with the bargain. It was at Troy, New York, that the first performance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was given. In the original cast were W. J. Lemoyne (afterward famous in the Lyceum Theater Company, New York), and C. Leslie Allen, the father of Viola Allen. George L. Aiken himself played the part of George Harris.
From Troy the play was brought to New York in 1853, and put on in the National Theater. It made a hit at the start. In some of the weeks at the National it played to $2,500, that being an extraordinary sum for those days in the theater. Of course there were other versions of the story made for the stage, but the Aiken six-act version has survived. Until a few years ago, almost every actor on the American stage had, at some time of his or her career, played a part in the play, very often doubling up and playing two parts. For the stage rights Mrs. Stowe received little or nothing. Had she been rewarded on the present royalty basis her earnings from the play would have amounted to something like $2,000,000. As it was, she died in very moderate circumstances.