The Death of Uncle Tom's Cabin
By R. Burton Rose
WHAT might be called the greatest tradition of our nation has ceased to live somewhere in theatre or tent show. After 79 years of continual production throughout the country, no show is now playing "Uncle Tom's Cabin." No Topsy "just grows"; no Little Eva jerks heavenward on creaking stage ropes; Uncle Tom has ceased to whimper under the biting lash; and Eliza no longer flees ruthless bloodhounds.
Two generations of life have grown up since the premiere performance in 1852. During this period Uncle Tom has become a tradition to the world and to the stage, the most famous character in dramatic history. Not less than 10,000,000 people, it is estimated, have sat enthralled with Eliza's wild flight across the ice, or wept in Little Eva's last moment and laughed to Topsy's "I'se so wicked."
Practically every great actor has grown up through that southern cabin's gripping atmosphere at some point in his career. David Belasco once held the rank of an Uncle Tommer and Mary Pickford portrayed Eva for years. Uncle Toms were more often born— sons of older Uncles—who played their parts until death.
At the suggestion of his brother, a theatrical manager, G. L. Aiken created the first stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's popular book early in the fall of the year she published her novel. For this to-be world famous play, he received a gold watch and felt well paid for his efforts.
On September 27, 1852, three Troy newspapers announced "The New Drama from the late popular work "Uncle Tom's Cabin, of Life Among the Lowly."
Uncle Tom...........Mr. G. C. Germon
To commence at eight; doors open at seven; admission 25c, boys to gallery 12 1/2c, box seats 12 1/2c extra."
Merely a first night experiment, this program shows many later characters lacking. Skepticism faded immediately that night, however, when the show played to a full house. For nearly three months the townspeople packed the theater solid.
Appearing at the crucial moment when the book had just swept both the nation and even England, this melodrama stormed the country. No book ever became so widely heralded in so short a time. Editions in several languages totaled 1,500,000 within a decade. Then burst the play proving Hamlet's, "The play is the thing.
ONE month after the first performance a second dramatization by G. L. Aiken, entitled "Death of Uncle Tom, or Life Among the Lowly," created a new sensation. Shortly afterward he combined these two brief dramas, thus making one full length perfectly balanced in tragedy and joy. Since then triumphant waves of this production have rolled across the country and have helped stamp out slavery's curse by bloody conflict.
Responding to insistent demands the troupe finally left Troy on December first for New York. There they brought Christmas tears and smiles to critical Broadway's audiences.
The next troupe season found many scattering with the new irresistable call of freedom. Northerners rose in their seats to applaud; Southerners rose to threaten the characters. But nothing could stop the message which was flaring across a continent, widening the break of a nation. A mighty civil war in exchange for a gold watch!
From the decidedly broad indications between humor and pathos of
the 60's to the subtleties of later years G. L.
Aiken's powerful representation has served with few changes as the standard six-act version of the play.
What has happened to a nation that can let die so vivid a picture of life with its compelling human emotions? Are we growing too intellectual and rich to still appreciate "Life Among the Lowly," or to feel the surge of Uncle Tom's divine loyalty?
As the Troy National Budget remarked nearly 80 years ago, "this is one of the rich, pathetic and rare things which interest the feelings and find their way directly to the heart."