Unidentified Boston Paper
Unsigned Article



They are Known as Uncle Tommers, and Act in No Other Play—Some Managers also Who are Faithful to "Uncle Tom"—Novelties That Have Transformed the Play Entirely.

  "The 'Uncle Tom' business," said the veteran manager, "has been so overdone that it would surprise almost anybody to know some of the tricks of that particular trade. There has come to be a certain class of actors known generally as 'Uncle Tommers,' and they can be hired at very small salaries to play three or four parts in the piece. For $15 a week a woman can be engaged to play Eliza, Mrs. St. Clair and the part of one of the negresses, and for about the same price the rest of the actors can be had. There are regular families of Uncle Tommers, with the child to play Little Eva and the other child's part occasionally introduced into versions of the play. There are just as many combinations to be made among the men, and what is technically known as doubling up is a very easy matter in the companies playing this old drama.

  "The actors who have for years played in nothing but 'Uncle Tom' companies, get to know all the lines spoken in the play, and they are able to step in and do any role that happens to be vacant. I have seen the whole play—that is, so far as the characters go—given by five people, with the negro singers as the most expensive feature in the company. I know of a man and his wife who were for fifteen years in various 'Uncle Tom' companies. They had played, of course, in that time, every part in the piece, and one of their children played Little Eva from the time she was 6 years old until she was 17. Once or twice during the last season in which she played the child's part, the girl played Eliza Harris as well, and she always stood in the wings after her death waiting for the 'grand apotheosis,' 'The Gates Ajar,' singing with negroes.

  "The shifts and tricks of the Uncle Tommers are more diverse than those known to any other branch of the actors' profession. Of late years the number of these companies has very much decreased, and they have played only in the very small towns, not infrequently acting under a tent. The actors in the cheap theatres of the larger cities within recent years have been insignificant features of the performance compared with the donkeys, dogs and negro singers. But they are marvels compared to the companies that travel over the country giving their performances in the small towns—places of not more than three of four thousand people. That was the field of the genuine Uncle Tommers, the actors who for years had confined themselves to this one play. They usually acted in it winter and summer, year in and year out, but theirs was one case in which excellence in a specialty did not bring them any great reward. As I said, their salaries were very small, and the Uncle Tommers were the cheapest people in the business. They are growing scarcer now, and the diminution in their numbers has not served to increase the compensation paid for their services. There is no great demand for the old piece now compared to that which existed some years ago, so a new generation of these actors has not grown up to succeed the old. There is no likelihood, either, that the Uncle Tommer, that unique development of theatrical conditions of two or three decades ago, will ever be with us again.

  "There was permanence then in other than the mere 'artistic'—if the word can stand the strain—side of the 'Uncle Tom' of former years. The same managers clung for years to the play and every season three or four companies would start out under the management of men connected with this business whose names became prominent simply through the persistence with which they clung to the play. A whole literature of anecdotes has grown up about the play, and its treatment is one of the most curious things in the whole history of the stage.

  "Of course when the play was given first in 1852 and during the early years of its success, the feeling against slavery to which appealed made it a stirring play and the impetus it got at that time carried it along for years. Then, when its reputation ceased to be of much avail and its old claim to success had entirely disappeared, the managers began to take all sorts of liberties with the old play. No drama was ever submitted to such indignities. 'East Lynne' has possibly been played as often as any other play excepting "Uncle Tom's Cabin," but nobody ever heard of a scheme to make the play duplex, as it were, and double the number of all the principal roles. Nobody could, for instance, think of two Lady Vines but two Topsies, two Evas, and two Markses were one of the signs that marked the decline of "Uncle Tom's" real popularity. Never before was the mere name of a play used to cover such a series of extraneous and disconnected exhibitions as the Uncle Tommers latterly came to give.

  "But they are nearly all gone, and 'Uncle Tom,' as well as the Uncle Tommers, is almost a thing of the past. There was always a certain sort of a sticking power about these roles. They were hard to shake off when once the actors had taken them up. Cordelia Howard, the original Topsy, played that part for years. Marie Bates, now an old woman actress, was for years a famous Topsy and played no other part for a long time. Similar cases are the humbler Uncle Tommers described above, who gave up, once they were in the grasp of the play, every other character. But they were not persons likely to have been especially distinguished as a rule in other lines of work, and they drifted more or less naturally into the parts which they stuck to—or which stuck to them.

  "In the same way that the managers and the actors have become confirmed Uncle Tommers, so have the negro jubilee singers and wing dancers. Season after season they travelled about the country, often keeping for years in the same organization. There were real negro Topsies and genuine negro Uncle Toms. But they were only incidental features of some of the remarkable changes through which 'Uncle Tom' passed when he got on the stage and had to please public taste if he wanted to stay there."