Uncle Tom is Dead
This year, for the first time in more than three quarters of a century, there was no company playing Uncle Tom's Cabin in all America. This play, which boasts the longest continuous run in theatrical history, incorporated in itself a whole era of American drama and acting.
ALL ILLUSTRATIONS ON THESE PAGES ARE FROM THE ALBERT DAVIS COLLECTION.
THIS year the longest theatrical run in American history came to an end. It was, indeed, a run half as long as American history itself. For the first time since the premiere in 1853, there is now not a single company anywhere playing Uncle Tom's Cabin. The five-year run of Abie's Irish Rose is supposed to have established a record. But Uncle Tom's Cabin beat that record by just seventy-two years.
The run of Uncle Tom's Cabin was as wide as it was long. It was not confined to New York, nor to half a dozen big cities, nor even to the road as we knew it twenty years ago. Uncle Tom's Cabin played in theatres wherever there were theatres to be played in. But it also played in town halls, in empty rooms over warehouses, and under canvas. The troupe traveled by wagon in the early days, and later by special car. There were dozens of Uncle Tom's Cabin companies, and they came back year after year to every hamlet and village in the nation. They played where even the circus could not play and make it pay. For tens of thousands of Americans they were the only contact with the theatre; and they went on representing the theatre all across the American continent for three generations.
The play had the start of huge initial publicity. The book from which it was made has, like the play, a record which is still to be beaten. But making a play out of the book proved to be not so easy a job as it seemed. The Uncle Tom's Cabin which we know was, in fact, never written; it was an accretion of details contributed by many bands through an entire generation.
There was, it is true, a proper dramatization to begin with; in fact, there were two. One of them the superior from many points of view, was made and presented in England. It had its premiere in Manchester on February 1, 1853.
The curious may still find the text in Lacy's Acting Editions of Plays. The play is in three acts, divided into fifteen scenes, with deep and shallow stage alternating in a workmanlike manner. The story of Eliza and her husband is the main plot, that of Uncle Tom a strong subplot.
The curtain on Act I is Eliza escaping across the ice. The curtain on Act II is the fight in the defile, with the converted Quaker pushing a kidnapper off a precipice as he utters the immortal line: "Thee isn't wanted here, friend." The curtain on Act III is the death of Uncle Tom; and just before Uncle Tom dies there is a scene that out-Stowes Mrs. Stowe herself. Cassy, the quadroon woman who has been living with Legree, was always to my mind the most impressive figure in the book. Everyone else was afraid of Simon Legree; but Legree himself was afraid of Cassy. In Lacy's play Cassy, shoots Legree; and the dying Uncle Tom takes the blame for the murder, adding one more laurel to his crown of self-sacrifice.
Lacy's version has a unity which the book itself lacks, but it failed, and became a curiosity instead of a contribution to dramatic history, largely because it was a well made play and stuck to its theme. That was long before the days when The Green Pastures would have been possible, or even Scarlet Sister Mary. Audiences might like to have their feelings harrowed about the poor Negro; but they were principally interested in white people. Lacy made a mistake when he twisted Miss Ophelia, and turned St. Clare into "Mr. Yahoo." He made a really fatal error when he never so much as mentioned Little Eva.
There was plenty of Little Eva in the American dramatization, which was prepared by one George L. Aiken and first played in New York and Philadelphia in 1853, in Detroit in 1854, and in Chicago in 1858. Mrs. Stowe never received a dollar in royalty from the stage versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and George L. Aiken didn't deserve much in the nature of royalties. His version was only a sort of skeleton on which the actual acting play was made.
The true popularity of the play began after the Civil War, when its propaganda value was gone. There were countless amateur productions, stock company productions, and productions with added features. One manager, Al W. Martin, with the Celtic genius for exaggeration, even applied the technique of life three-ring circus to a classic, and announced: "Al W. Martin's Uncle Tom's Cabin, with two funny Topsies, two Little Evas, and two Simon Legrees." I never saw his production and cannot guess offhand what the result is when you apply mathematics to art. Two Topsies might be twice as funny as one, and two Legrees ought to curdle the most sluggish blood. But two little Evas must make early and pious dying seem less a tragedy than a habit. However, the idea took on.
Martin's production was highly successful, and toured week-stands year after year. But most Uncle Tom troupes ran remarkably true to type. It was the conservatism of an established caste: for in those days "Uncle Tomming" was a profession in itself.
An actor did not sandwich a season of Uncle Tom's Cabin between a season of While the World Sleeps and a season of Nellie the Beautiful Cloak Model. All three of these
shows played to the cheapest prices, and to an outsider it might have seemed that the technique and professional standing required were much the same.
The outsider would have been wrong. You were an Uncle Tommer, or you weren't. An Uncle Tommer was born in the business. He was usually the child of another Uncle Tommer. By the time he could walk they could use him in the show. By the time he was old enough to learn a part, he had a part, or two or three parts. The cast was large, and the company was never so big as the cast. Thanks to the way the story moved, an actor could double a part that appeared early with a part that appeared late. Even little Eva often doubled, appearing in the First Act as Eliza's child, Little Harry. Sometimes, to be sure, it was Harry who doubled; and you had the spectacle of a little boy dressed in a blond wig and going to Heaven to soft music. Boys did not make the best Little Evas.
The worst Little Eva that I ever saw on the stage, however, was miles better than Little Eva in the book. The mere presence of an actual child did something to credibilize the character. The scenes with Uncle Tom had real audience appeal: people always like to watch a child playing with an old man. And in the play Eva was a more active character than in the book; she posed less, and she did more.
When "Little Harry" Eva grew long-legged and lost his front teeth, he would get a chance to play Topsy. Topsy is a fat part: the droll and ignorant little darky, with her monkey tricks and her faked confessions—"You told me to 'fess and I couldn't think o' nothin' else to 'fess"—her famous "Never was born, I just growed," and her refrain, "I'se so wicked," gives a chance to any actress who has anything in her to act with.
Twenty years ago all the celebrated actresses on our stage used to claim that they began as Topsy. Some of them undoubtedly did. If they were exceptionally good Topsies, that was their chance of leaving off Uncle Tomming.
If they were not especially good, they still had a livelihood assured. After the Topsy days the sexes divided off. A young woman played Eliza, usually doubling with Cassy. If she was not good enough, or pretty enough to play Eliza, she might double Marie, Little Eva's Mamma, with the quadroon Emmeline, whom Legree buys when he buys Uncle Tom. As she grew older she could double Aunt Chloe, Uncle Tom's wife, with Miss Ophelia.
The men were luckier than the women; for the older female parts are all less important than the younger. But Uncle Tom stood at the peak of the pyramid; and a veteran Uncle Tommer could go on playing Uncle Tom until he died.
Indeed the older he got the better, so long as his voice stayed sonorous and he could take his falls properly. Uncle Tom in the book is a man in the prime of life: he has young children, he saves Eva from drowning in the Mississippi, and Legree buys him as a strong field hand. But on the stage he always appears as a very old man, with white cotton whiskers, and a narrow snowy fringe surrounding a bald black pate. It increased the effect of his scenes with Eva and it added to the audience's feeling of revulsion to see an old man beaten to death.
So an Uncle Tommer might die in the same show he had been born in. If he did die, an ad in the New York Clipper brought in a substitute, who came, in nine cases out of ten, not from another walk of the theatrical profession, but front another Uncle Tom troupe.
There was a time when the play was in the experimental stage of accretion. You can still look up a prompt book of Uncle Tom's Cabin where you will find Aiken's six acts reduced to five, and Aiken's long scenes involving a Yankee comic relief named Gumption Cute mercifully diminished. But you will be lucky if you find Little Eva's song, even in an unfamiliar version. It drew barrels of tears in its day. Standing at her father's knee, assuring him that she is going to die pretty soon, Little Eva turns the play for a minute into opera:
When your Eva's taken away,
Set down in cold blood this way, it looks like a pretty bad poem; and the music was no better than the words. But all the affecting scenes in the play had "cue music" anyhow, and this was only cue music with words.
Sometimes the addition was a distinct im-
provement. St. Clare's speech beginning, "Tom, I am going to set you free tomorrow," was the work of an unknown collaborator. It substituted a definite promise to Tom for a vague intention; it heightened the effect of the next episode, where St. Clare is killed in an accident, and Tom has not been set free; it nailed a point that the original dramatist had left floating.
All plays are built up in performance; and Uncle Tom's Cabin had the longest try-out in the history of the stage. It was natural that some roles should be built up and others diminished, that some episodes should be sharpened, and many connecting passages cut. But after a time the cement set, and thenceforth changes ceased. Every prop and piece of business, every word and every inflection, had to be just what the actors had grown up with. Little Eva sang, whether she could sing or not. Mr. Marks would no more have appeared without his umbrella than Legree without his blacksnake whip. Miss Ophelia's corkscrew side curls were as much a part of the play as Eliza escaping the ice. They say there was once a manager who tried to teach Uncle Tom's Cabin from a prompt book; but he had to discard it at the second rehearsal. His actors knew better than the prompt book; instead of accepting it as an authority, they used it only to quarrel with.
It was as not alone the actors who had grown up with the play. By this time the audience knew it situation by situation and almost line by line. Novelty is one thing: early in its history Uncle Tom's Cabin had itself been a novelty. But tampering with a classic is not enterprise, but busybodying. It was no longer safe to make changes when the audience knew better.
The acting of the Uncle Tommers was what a metropolitan audience nowadays would call very bad. It wasn't incompetent as a rule, but it was so obviously acting. Yet that was not simply the taste of the age. It was what the play demanded. Legree and Uncle Tom and Topsy were not subtle parts; and any attempt to act the roles naturally would simply have spoiled them. It wasn't a case for a light hand.
But with all their incongruities upon them, those were real parts. And under all its absurdities, it was a real play. It might be artificially funny, or soddenly pathetic. But it was about something. In the worst performance that could be given it the real greatness of the subject would come shining through at times, in the slave market scene, in Eliza's flight with her child, in Uncle Tom's death. It was the story of a race in bondage.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was not only our most successful American play; it was an American institution. Its day is done. If the play is revived, it will be as a curiosity; and no one can revive the profession of Uncle Tomming. Alas, we must pay a price for our sophistication.