Munsey's Magazine
Frank S. Arnett
New York: September 1902

Fifty Years of Uncle Tom.


  WITH the exception of the Bible, no book has been so widely read these last fifty years in the United States as "Uncle Tom's Cabin"; and the play based on it has been presented more frequently than any other piece. The 20th of March marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the novel. The 23d of August, 1902, is the semicentennial of the production of the drama. Not a literary review in America remembered the first occasion. The dramatic jubilee has been left to us to celebrate.

  Putting aside all political or sectional opinion, it is an indisputable fact that the work had a vital part in our national history. To the inherent character of the Southern people no one today attributes the conditions it claimed to picture. So far as the picture was true, those conditions formed part of their unavoidable inheritance, a factor in the evolution of the entire country. And while it is even now, perhaps, too early to discuss the purpose or the truth of Mrs. Stowe's book, it is but right that on the semicentennial of its dramatization some account should be given of the most marvelous theatrical record known to the stage of this or of any other country. That record gains additional pertinence in this day of dramatizations of novels of ephemeral popularity.

  How often is "The Corsican Brothers" revived? What has become of "The Gilded Age," of "Robert Elsmere," of all the old time dramatizations of Scott and Cooper? How short were the lives of "Trilby," "The Gad-


fly," and "The Children of the Ghetto"! Yet a crude adaptation of a crude romance, given more than three hundred consecutive nights in New York, is today—fifty years after its first presentation—annually witnessed by one in every thirty men, women, and children in the United States.

  Glance first at the unparalleled story of the sale of the book. Three thousand copies were sold the first day, ten thousand the first week; the second month eight presses were running night and day; ten thousand dollars in royalties were paid for the first four months; three hundred thousand copies were in circulation within a year. In London the book sold at the rate of one thousand a week; eighteen publishers were employed simultaneously issuing the book—one of whom devoted to it the labor of four hundred people and eighteen presses—how puny are the trumpetings of today's "record circulations"!

  The total sales of "Uncle Tom" in Great Britain and the colonies amount to more than two million copies. Millions have circulated in other parts of the world. Translations have been made into at least twenty five languages and dialects—including Bohemian, Danish, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Finnish, Flemish, Magyar, Wallachian, Polish, modern Greek, Russian, Servian, Siamese, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, Welsh, French, Italian, German, Arabic, Armenian, Hungarian, and Illyrian.

  So sensational a success in a work possessing theatrical qualities demanded immediate dramatization. Even while running as a serial the title had been seized upon, Stuart Robson making his debut in Baltimore in a version entitled "Uncle Tom's Cabin As It Is."

  The credit of the first production of an actual dramatization of the book is customarily awarded to G. L. Aiken's play, given at the Museum in Troy, New York, in September, 1852. The credit is claimed also for an almost simultaneous production of Mrs. Anna Marble's version by J. B. Rice's company in Chicago. In one sense the Troy cast is justly looked upon as the original. Its version was the first to employ the names of the novel's characters, the first faithfully to follow the story, the first to make of it an entire evening's entertainment. Strictly


speaking, nevertheless, the pioneer production was that at the National Theater on Chatham Street in New York, on Monday, August 23, 1852.

  The scene of this historic event had known the debut of Lester Wallack's cousins, Fanny and Julia Wallack; the triumphs of Edwin Forrest; and the original performance of America's first organized band of Negro minstrels, headed by Dan Bryant. So that Uncle Tom stepped upon a stage which, in a modest way, was not unhallowed by important events.

  All this takes us back further than one imagines at first thought. Can the year of "Tom's" production have been that in which Jenny Lind said farewell at Castle Garden? Was Laura Keene's debut at Wallack's so recent, and Mme. Alboni's at the old Broadway? We realize what "fifty years ago" means in this country, and under what primitive conditions "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was produced, only when we recall that not until three months later was America to hear Flotow's "Martha," and not for three years Verdi's "Il Trovatore"; that Grisi's voice had not yet aroused our enthusiasm, nor had the tragic greatness of Rachel.

  Thackeray was yet to give his parting supper to Lester Wallack and George William Curtis in his rooms on Houston Street. Imagine him now entertaining in that part of town, where once be nightly joined in the chorus of "Drink to me only with thine eyes!" We retrace but fifty years, yet find a circus pitching its tent in a field near the Rialto of the New York actor, and the carriages of the fashionables stopping at theaters where all is now finance by day and misery by night.

  "Those dear, dead ladies, they that thrilled the gay world of the old Park's time"—Fanny Kemble, Fanny El1sler. Taglioni, Jenny Lind, Garcia, aye, even our first Topsy, Mrs. Howard—their shades would not know the Rialto of today, nor know our window posters to be implements of their former trade. Fifty years in New York have worked more marvelous changes than centuries in the cities of the Old World.

  To tell the truth, it was a sorry performance, that original presentation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The characters we loved as children were all absent—and the bloodhounds, too, which we feared. The whole was condensed into an hour's action, and was little more


than a travesty followed by a farce. The chief feature of the evening was the performance of the rope dancer! The following is the Sunday newspaper's puff preparatory of this really momentous, if at the time apparently insignificant, event:

NATIONAL THEATER—The new drama called "Uncle Tom's Cabin" will be produced for the first time at this popular place of amusement. The scenery is new and beautiful, and the artists engaged are of a superior order. The leading character of Edward Wilmot will be sustained by Mr. W. G. Jones. Herr Cline, the great rope dancer, will appear in his surprising feats, and the entertainment will conclude with the farce of the "Mummy," with Mr. T. D. Rice as Ginger Blue.

  Pathetically amusing is it now to note that in announcing the second and last week, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had shriveled to two lines, while the rope dancer had increased in importance:

The drama called "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is again announced for this evening with the same cast. Herr Cline, the celebrated rope dancer, who is every night greeted with cheers from audiences who admire his daring and elegant feats will display his abilities this evening in a variety of surprising performances. Add to this great attraction the Negro delineations of Mr. T. D. Rice, who will appear in the drama of "Jim Crow in London."

  One objects more to "Herr Cline" than to the after pieces, for these were written by T.D. Rice, the originator of Jim Crow and in a sense the father of Ethiopian minstrelsy—throughout his life one of the most original, most respected, and best loved figures on the American stage.

  Upon the version produced at Troy, however, was constructed that with which we are now familiar. It remained in that city for more than one hundred nights, opening at the National in New York on Monday, July 18, 1853. Here it was played almost continuously until May 13 of the following year, its three hundred and twenty five consecutive performances having been exceeded by less than a dozen later dramas.

  It had little to fear from opposition. The records show that the Bowery Theater, with "The Robbers" and "The Wreck Ashore," had the only rival dramatic attractions. There were performing dogs and Barnum's Museum, a petrified horse at a now forgotten hall, minstrels at Christie's, the New Orleans Serenaders at the Chinese Hall on Broadway, and a circus at Sixth Avenue and Thirty Ninth Street. Mlle. Casinet's "Troupe of model artists" in living statues and a troupe of charmers "opposite the entrance to the Crystal Palace" completed the ways in which time could be killed in New York before Uncle Tom came to town.

  The new version was in six acts, eight tableaux, and thirty scenes, and was interpreted by the following cast:

UNCLE TOM . . Greene C. Germon
ST. CLAIR . . George C. Howard
EVA . . Little Cordelia Howard
TOPSY . . Mrs. George C. Howard
SIMON LEGREE . . N. B. Clark
WILSON . . Mr. Toulmin
DEACON PERRY . . Mr. Lingard
ELIZA . . Mrs. W. G. Jones
CASSY . . Mrs. Bannister
OPHELIA . . Mrs. Bradshaw
EMMELINE . . Miss Barber
MARIE . . Miss Landers

  This list includes but few names now remembered. Greene C. Germon is re-


called as the husband of the first Joseph Jefferson's granddaughter. Mrs. Howard, at the age of seven, made her debut at the Richmond Hill Theater, formerly the country residence of Aaron Burr. For her daughter, the original Eva, later was written the dramatization of Mrs. Stowe's "Dred." George L. Fox, her brother, was, as Humpty Dumpty, the greatest pantomimic clown the American world has ever known. From his death dates the decline of the art.

  In later years many famous people have appeared in the play. In the heyday of the stock companies few escaped it. Any scribbler could dramatize the book, any manager could stage the result. Mrs. Stowe had failed to protect herself, and of the five millions taken at thousands of box offices she received not one dollar.

  Hence the faithfully recorded careers of the entire profession would reveal, in addition to those here named, a host of notable who have been in the cast. But in the "authorized" lives of actors there is a studied anxiety to avoid all reference to Uncle Tom. The roll includes Joseph Jefferson, present dean of the American stage; John Gilbert, last of the great interpreters of the old English comedy; J. H. McVicker, who acted in Chicago when Indians in native dress still rode through the streets; his stepdaughter, Mary Runnion, second wife of Edwin Booth; J. E. Studley, Frank Aiken, W. J. Le Moyne, and William Warren, who for fifty years acted at the Boston Museum and was the only man permitted to carry a latch key to a cozy little house in Bulfinch Place, the home also of Tooth, Fechter, Florence, McCullough.


  Lotta, when about eighteen, included Topsy in her repertory. Emily Rigl, although she first appeared in this country as a dancer in the original production of the "Black Crook," was probably the most dramatic Cassie we have ever had. Henrietta Crosman, who afterwards achieved fame in a night, impersonated Eliza after her debut in "The White Slave." J. H. Stoddard was once an admirable Uncle Tom, as was also George Kunkel, Ada Proctor's husband, prominent in the famous Thespian colony surrounding the old home of Junius Brutus Bootle. William A. Mestayer, who married Therese Vaughn, was one of the few excellent Phineas Fletchers. John L. Sullivan was, in appearance, Mrs. Stowe's ideal Legree. Wilton Lackaye and Theodore Roberts, as Uncle Tom and Legree, were successful in William A. Brady's recent New York revival.

  Among scores whose first appearance on any stage was in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" have peen Effie Ellsler, who made her debut as Eva in 1863; Mrs. John W. Albaugh, wife of the Baltimore manager, whose first appearance was as Topsy in 1855; and Edwin F. Thorne, who as a child in San Francisco appeared in the role of Eva. They form a goodly company, do these "Tommers" of the past!

  Although the play has been presented in every European capital, Americans might not recognize the versions used. In Paris, where the Negro finds social equality, many features objectionable to him were omitted, but the absence of Eva, as well as of Topsy, must have been due to a dearth of infant phenomena.

  English presentations have been notable for original ideas of American geography. Professor Peck says that on a Liverpool stage St. Clair's New Orleans garden was at the base of snow capped mountains; that Shelby's Kentucky home was of white marble, located on the shore of an illimitable lake, on which floated a fleet of gondolas; and that Mrs. Shelby, at three in the afternoon, appeared on the veranda in a low necked dress and a tiara of diamonds!

  Some six hundred actors live by this play exclusively. They are fed and lodged, work the year round, without rehearsals, and have no new roles to study.

  Best of all, the "ghost" invariably walks—a custom he intermittently follows at fashionable Broadway theaters. A stranded "Tom show" will remain an anomaly so long as a million and a half people annually witness the play. "Uncle Tom" has had more than a quarter of a million presentations, and the total attendance during the half century of its existence equals the total population of the United States.

  Nothing indicates a cessation of this marvelous popularity—although the play is no longer, if ever it were, admired as a dramatic work. The time is not yet when we can determine if the novel will live with the deathless classics.