Early History of "Uncle Tom."
It has been stated that the play of "Uncle Tom" was first produced at Baltimore, where Stuart Robson made his début in in the piece. Mr. Arnett, in Munsey's Magazine, states that "Uncle Tom," by George L. Aiken, was first produced at Troy, N. Y., in September, 1852; also that Mrs. Anna Marble's version was presented in Chicago by J. B. Price's company about the same time. But Mr. Arnett also insists that, "strictly speaking," the pioneer production of the play was at the National theater, in Chatham street, in New York, on Monday, Aug. 28, 1852, a month before it was produced in Troy.
None of these assertions is true. In the fall of 1851 Gary Hough, then the lessee of Peale's theater, on the northeast corner of River (then Elbow) and Fulton streets, Troy, N. Y., went to New York and engaged George C. Howard as manager for the ensuing dramatic season. The latter selected a company, which comprised his wife, his wife's brothers, George L. Aiken and his mother, the latter being an aunt of Mrs. Howard; and others, including Mrs. W. G. Jones.
During this season, in the spring of 1852, Mr. Aiken dramatized "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in three acts, ending with the death of Eva. The exact date of its production has not been discovered, although the files of the Troy newspapers have been examined for the years 1851, 1852 and 1853. There is little doubt, however, that it was first staged in that theater about February, 1852. The play had a successful run of ninety performances, with Greene C. German as Uncle Tom, George C. Howard as St. Clair, Charles K. Fox as Gumption Cute, George L. Fox as Phineas Fletcher, Mrs. Jones as Eliza Harris, little Cordelia Howard as Eva St. Clair, Mrs. George C. Howard as Topsy, and George L. Aiken, the author, in the double role of George Harris and George Shelby. People came from all over New York to see the new play, and it probably ran for ninety performances in an interior city.
During the run Mr. Aiken wrote a supplementary play, carrying the story to the death of Uncle Tom. This was placed on the stage immediately after the first had ceased to draw, but it was not successful and after ten or twelve performances it was withdrawn. It then occurred to Mr. Howard to have the two plays combined, carrying the story over the action of both. This was done.
Alexander H. Purdy, manager of the National theater, heard of the success, went to Troy, and saw the play. He thought it would be a profitable venture and made good offers to Howard and his company to produce it at his theater in Chatham street. The offer was accepted and the play was produced at the National theater Aug. 23, 1852. It was not a dazzling production, and relied on other attractions, among which was a rope dancing performance, to secure a good house. After a few nights it was withdrawn.
The possibilities of the play, however, were so striking that it was rewritten, improved, and embellished, and finally produced at the same theater during the following year, on July 18, 1853. The new version achieved a great success, running until May 13, 1854, a series of 325 performances, which was the longest dramatic run up to those dates.
No small share of the success was due to the acting of Eva by Cordelia Howard, a pretty, engaging and clever little girl. She was only 4 years old when she commenced playing Eva, and she continued playing the part until she outgrew it at 13. Her mother was the original Topsy. Both now live in Boston.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" filled the National theater every afternoon and evening. This, too, despite the fact that the prices of admission were raised repeatedly. When the piece was first produced at that theater the scale of prices was as follows: Pit (now called parquet), 6¼ cents; dress circle (now called parquet circle), 25 cents; first gallery and upper gallery, 12½ cents.
Meanwhile the play was given in many parts of the country, but principally in the larger cities. Garry Hough became manager of the Syracuse theater, and Robert Marsh, who had written another version of the play, produced it there in 1853. George L. Howard also subsequently produced the play in Hough's theater in Syracuse. Howard had his edition of the play printed by this time, and when Hough compared it with Marsh's version he saw they were much alike. At the conclusion of Marsh's engagement he said to Hough:
"I would like to go with this company during the summer and play the part of Gumption Cute at Oswego for one week."
Hough read the part, which was only sixteen lines in length, and laughed at the idea.
"My dear Hough," said Marsh, "take hold of the part and build it up. The play needs some humor, and you can put it in that part. If you do I will conform the play more to Howard's version."
Hough accepted the proposition, elaborated the part into fifteen lengths, or 300 lines, and played it with Marsh's company in Oswego, Auburn and Utica for four of the five weeks. He made a decided hit, and the part became a prominent feature of the play. He then concluded he could do better by playing it with his own company.
After the close of the season of 1853 Hough took his company and played "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in western New York, and had good success. He had a young actor named Martini, who was cast for Uncle Tom principally because he was a good singer. At the request of several citizens "Charles II.," a two act comedy, with another short play, was substituted on the tenth night. In "Charles II.," Martini personated the title role, and made a most amusing blunder. In the first act the roystering monarch, accompanied by Rochester, both disguised as sailors, visits the tavern of Capt. Copp, an old sea dog, in the suburbs of London. After a merry time, during which they knock things around generally, they call for the bill. It is made out.
"What is the reckoning?" asks the king, feeling for money in his pockets and finding none.
"Shipmate (to Rochester), give us your purse."
Rochester protests that he has not a shilling. Capt. Copp becomes wroth, and says:
"Wot does this mean? You comes to my 'ouse an' horders us 'round as if you was the king of Hengland. Best supper, best wine, dance a 'ornpipe on my table, an' rumples my niece. Hit's my opinion that you're a couple o' swindlers. Wot's the name o' yer ship?"
But neither the king nor Rochester know the name of their ship, whereupon the old captain berates them fiercely, ending with the sarcastic question:
"Now, har'n't you a couple o' harrant knaves?"
Martini hung hi head, forgot his part, and, fancying himself abused by Legree, answered in the southern negro dialect:
The effect was electric, and the audience shouted with laughter. When the play was ended Martini hastened to his room and locked himself in, to escape the gives of the company.
In 1854 Hough organized a special company and played "Uncle Tom's Cabin" all through the northern states. In the winter of 1854 Mr. Howard came back to him at Syracuse and played another engagement with the piece. One day he said to Hough:
"How would you like to go to England? Barnum has made me an offer to take an 'Uncle Tom's' troupe to that country. He wanted me to talk to you about salaries, and I told him I would let you know."
"I will go to England with Barnum for a year at $75 per week and my cabin passage paid out and back," said Hough.
Howard, however, declined to make a contract with Barnum because the latter would not agree to pay salaries when the company was idle.
In 1862 Hough went to Detroit and gave "Uncle Tom's Cabin" several times. It was a play of such vitality that in the spring of 1869 he organized a troupe to play it through the west, the trip occupying sixty-five days, during which he cleared the nice little sum of $4,000. The next summer he again made a traveling trip with the play, and again made money. The "Black Crook," however, was reproduced about this time, and Hough organized troupes to play in that spectacle. He forsook "Uncle Tom" until the latter '80s, when he was over 70 years of age. He then played a week's engagement in a variety theater named Wonderland, in Detroit, in an abbreviated "Uncle Tom's Cabin," appearing in his original character of Gumption Cute.
He died shortly afterward.