Uncle Tom's Cabin on the Antebellum Stage


  In the September 8th, 1853 edition of the Liberator, the noted abolitionist and newspaper editor, William Lloyd Garrison, made the following claim in a review of Uncle Tom's Cabin which, at the time, occupied the stage at New York's National Theatre: "If the shrewdest abolitionist among us had prepared a drama with a view to make the strongest anti-slavery impression, he could scarcely have done the work better. O' it was a sight worth seeing those ragged, coatless men and boys in the pit (the very material of which mobs are made) cheering the strongest and sublimest antislavery sentiments!"* While Garrison's statement has long ago been absorbed into Uncle Tom lore and ostensibly forgotten, the import of his words remains significant for social, literary and theatre historians alike.

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  Intriguingly, Garrison was lavishing his kudos, not upon the first stage adaptation of Mrs. Stowe's classic, but the third since the novel was first published in March 1852. Several months before the release of the novel, on January 5, 1852, the first adaptation, Uncle Tom's Cabin, as it is; or, the Southern Uncle Tom, had appeared at the Baltimore Museum, followed in August of that year by a version by C. W. Taylor at Purdy's National Theatre in New York (Figure 1). Both were severely truncated, with Taylor's version running only one hour and eliminating all of the St. Clare, Eva and Topsy episodes while adding numerous songs and tableaux. According to Sarah Meer, "Taylor's was a typical sensation melodrama, an afterpiece meant to fill a space in a program rather than to cause controversy. It played on different nights alongside a nautical drama, a tightrope walker, and a blackface burlesque of Otello."* Predictably, the Taylor Uncle Tom, which was widely dismissed as "an exaggerated mockery of southern institutions calculated to poison the minds of our youth with the principles of abolitionism," closed after just 11 performances.*

  These trial ventures not withstanding, the true history of Uncle Tom on stage began with the third adaptation; a four-act drama subtitled Life Among the Lowly, that opened on September 27, 1852, not in New York, as might have been expected, but at the Troy Museum in Troy, New York, 150 miles from America's emerging theatre capitol in Manhattan. This version, which would feature the famed Howard company of actors and which ended with the death of Little Eva, was created in just one week by George Aiken (Figure 2), an actor with the company and the cousin of company manager, G. C. Howard. According to legend, Howard wanted a star vehicle for his four year old daughter, Cordelia (Figure 3). As Little Eva, and later as Little Katy, in the Howard Company version of Little Katy, or the Hot Corn Girl, Cordelia Howard defined and gained immortality as the martyred child of the Antebellum theatre.

  Aiken's four-act Uncle Tom that opened in September proved so popular that by November, Aiken, spurred by audiences to "finish" the story, had added two more acts, with the play now concluding with the death of Uncle Tom and his ascendance to heaven. Just as he had done in creating his original play text, Aiken was able to work quickly on the expanded script because he simply transferred the major scenes directly from the novel and "lifted" dialogue unchanged from Mrs. Stowe's narrative. This "larceny" was logical, for, as David Grimsted has noted, . Aiken capitalized on "one of the things that most accounts for the book's success and reputation: [Namely that] Mrs. Stowe's argument is thoroughly grounded in her characters, dialogue, and incidents."* Aiken's new, six-act adaptation was as popular as his earlier drama and before it closed at the Troy Museum, it had run for 100 performances, an astonishing record considering that the long run was not yet established on the American stage and the population of Troy at the time was less than 30,000.*

  While the Aiken/Howard Uncle Tom's Cabin was running in Troy, it attracted the attention of Capt. Alexander Purdy (Figure 4), proprietor of the National Theatre in New York (Figure 5) and the producer of the ill-fated Taylor Uncle Tom earlier in the year. Undaunted by his earlier failure with the story, Purdy brought the Howard company to New York — all "six acts, eight tableaux, and thirty scenes, embracing the whole [of Mrs. Stowe's] work" — and sponsored a grand opening of the drama on July 18, 1853 (Figure 6).*

  Once he had the Howard company firmly installed on his stage, Purdy took measures to ensure the financial success of his investment. While still in Troy, even though the Howards had "given a relatively straight rendering of the play . . . they had introduced an orchestral accompaniment for Eliza's flight and crashing chord accents for Legree's whiplashes, and Mrs. Howard [as Topsy] had performed a kind of 'breakdown'."* (Figure 7). In addition to retaining these "spectacular" embellishments, Purdy billed his theatre as the "Temple of the Moral Drama," he "hung the lobby with Scriptural texts and commissioned a painter to portray him with a Bible in one hand and Uncle Tom's Cabin in the other" to share the lobby with the scriptures.* At the same time, he replaced the theatre's orchestra boxes with three hundred armchairs which cost 50 cents each; he advertised comfortable accommodations in the parquet for "colored persons;" and he presented the show three times/day. Later, when competition between Uncle Tom companies in New York was at its peak, Purdy would add Jubilee singers, John Schiebel's National Brass Band and a lighting and pyrotechnic display to his Uncle Tom offerings.

  Soon after Purdy's opening, four other versions appeared in neighboring theatres: one at the Bowery, a second at Barnum's Museum, a third at the Franklin Museum and a burlesque of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Christy's Minstrels. Simultaneously, adaptations of Mrs. Stowe's famous narrative were mounted in major capitals throughout the world. By October 1852, there were Uncle Toms at the Standard, the Olympic, the Strand, The Surrey and the Pavilion in London; a "translation" in Berlin; and another in Paris. In some cases, the transfer of a quintessentially American narrative resulted in a redrawing of the map of the United States. For example, the scenery of one British production "depicted Kentucky in the summer with snow-capped mountains in the background and icebergs in the Ohio River;[while] A French version had George and Eliza escaping to Canada by sailing down the Ohio in a canoe and shooting "the falls of Niagara."* George and Eliza's arrival in Canada was announced by a placard placed on the stage stating, 'Canada — Terre Libre'." However, neither the French nor the British had a monopoly on glitches; in one traveling production in a small mid-western town, the rigging got stuck as Eva ascended to heaven and as the actress dangled in mid-air, the angelic little child was heard to utter some very un-Eva-like language.

  In 1853, as the Aiken/Howard/Purdy adaptation was moving toward a long run of 325 performances, productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin were staged by local stock companies in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and San Francisco, as well as those in New York. Of the latter, the most threatening to Purdy was the production at Barnum's Museum. Barnum had "inherited" his production from his friend and show business collaborator, Moses Kimball (Figure 8), proprietor of the Boston Museum (Figure 9). For years, Barnum and Kimball had been trading acts and shows, the most notable being the temperance classic, The Drunkard, which had debuted at Kimball's establishment in 1844 and subsequently was moved to Barnum's theatre in 1850. Kimball's Uncle Tom's Cabin had been written by noted house playwright H. C. Conway who, after being urged by Kimball and his stage manager Henry Sedley Smith, one of the co-authors of The Drunkard, to temper the "crude points" and "objectionable features" of Mrs. Stowe's novel, crafted an adaptation that came to be known as the "compromise" Uncle Tom. Conway's Uncle Tom opened with an extended plantation scene that, like the minstrel show upon which it was modeled, depicted slave life as happy and carefree; it omitted both Eliza's flight across the ice and little Harry; it accentuated the comic roles; it diminished the female ones; it allowed both Tom and Eva to live at the end of the play; and, it watered down abolitionist statements to such a degree as to render them ostensibly harmless and inoffensive to theatre patrons.

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  When Conway's adaptation opened at Barnum's museum on November 7, 1853 (Figure 11), the legendary impresario immediately touted it as "the only just and sensible Dramatic version of Stowe's book," advertising that his Uncle Tom "represents southern Negro SLAVERY AS IT IS . . . In a word, this Drama deals with FACTS, INSTEAD OF FICITON. It appeals to reason instead of the passions, and so far as truth is more powerful than error, the impressions of this drama will be more salutatory than those of any piece based upon fanaticism without reason, and zeal without knowledge."* Most notably, Barnum defended Conway's changed ending, stating that 'instead of turning away the audience in tears, the author has wisely consulted dramatic taste by having Virtue triumphant at last, and after all its unjust sufferings, miseries and deprivations, conducted to happiness by the hand of Him who watches over all."*

  Needless to say, abolitionists were incensed by the "pro-South" Conway/Barnum Uncle Tom. The reviewer for New York Daily Tribune found it "shorn of salient points, and emasculated of the virility which has given life and reputation to the book . . . The effort of the dramatist has evidently been to destroy the point and moral of the story of Uncle Tom, and to make a play to which no apologist for slavery could object;" while William Lloyd Garrison denounced the show as "an expurgated form of Uncle Tom's Cabin . . .which omits all the strikes at the slave system, and . . . make[s] it quite an agreeable thing to be a slave."* Thus, while Barnum claimed that the Conway adaptation "did not 'foolishly and unjustly elevate the negro above the white man in intellect and morals," but rather presented a "true picture of negro life in the South" and called his version merely a "tamed down" version, others called it the "humbug Uncle Tom."*

  Like Purdy before him, Barnum hedged his bets by adding spectacle. He further enhanced the production with a grand panorama of the Mississippi by moonlight, painted by Delamere, "showing a steamer gliding in the most palpable moonlight, with a thin blue haze rolling up from the majestic river. . . Smoke puffs rose from the steamer, and miniature rotating wheels were heard clearly; then gradually, with the coming dawn, the sun threw its beams over the rippling waves — [at] first clouded in — and [then revealed] in full radiance."* Once started, the urge to add spectacle to stage representations of Uncle Tom's Cabin proved irresistible. By 1854, magic lantern shows of Uncle Tom were being shown in churches; the Bowery Theatre had a "themed" ticket office that was decorated to look like a slave cabin; in one production, Uncle Tom escaped Legree's plantation on a pure-bred race horse; in another, Little Eva ascended to heaven to the strains of Hearts and Flowers: and the death of Uncle Tom was made increasingly melodramatic.* In the Aiken/Howard adaptation, as Uncle Tom dies, Eva, now an angel, appears above the stage and the stage directions say: "Gorgeous clouds, tinted with sunlight. EVA, robed in white, is discovered on the back of a milk-white dove, with expanded wings, as if just soaring upwards. Her hands are extended in benediction over ST. CLARE, and UT, who are kneeling and gazing up at her. Impressive music — slow curtain."*

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  Much of the added spectacle, however, concentrated upon enhancing the more horrific aspects of Stowe's story with the result that scenes that were relatively minor in the novel became centerpieces on stage. As Thomas Gossett points out, "the scene in which Eliza crosses the Ohio River by jumping from ice floe to ice floe, holding little Harry in her arms, was described in two short paragraphs in the novel. In the play it was one of the most important scenes. There had been no dogs chasing Eliza across the ice in the novel, and Aiken himself did not add any, [but], In time, dogs — sometimes great packs of them — were added to dramatic productions, first as harmless bloodhounds and later as English mastiffs."* (Figure 11). In some productions, a fox-scented rope would be stretched across the stage to guide the dogs toward Eliza; while in others, the actress playing Eliza carried chunks of meat in the bundle representing Harry and she tossed the meat to the dogs who would leap into the air to catch the chunks, thus appearing to leap at Eliza's throat (Figure 12).

  Making Uncle Tom theatrical inevitably affected its politics, modified its position on slavery, and significantly altered the audience for Mrs. Stowe's narrative. "Even the scripts produced for museum theaters would have presumed audiences more male, working class, and anti-abolition than Stowe's likely readers."* And, as theatre historian Bruce McConachie has noted, audiences for Uncle Tom on stage were, in fact, generally "more urban, more working-class, and less persuaded by abolitionism than Stowe's readers [and] although museum entrepreneurs had attracted respectable women to their theatres by producing moral plays as family entertainment, the percentage of museum theatregoers who were women remained far less than the percentage of women readers of sentimental fiction."* The theatricalization of Stowe's novel and the predominantly male audiences it attracted thus ensured that the basic story of Tom, Eliza, Little Eva and Topsy reached beyond the largely female readership for the printed versions.

  Like the novel, the various stage adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin were complex sites of ideological conflict - racial, class and gender ideologies. As Marcia Pentz-Harris has pointed out, "Uncle Tom's Cabin may have been writ female, but it was dramatized and acted male."* The proof of this contention is evident in a simple comparison of texts: Stowe's narrative is filled with strong, Christian women — Mrs. Bird, Rachel Halliday, Aunt Chloe, Eliza, Cassy, Ophelia; while the Aiken and Conway scripts either omit them or reduce them to mere figureheads. "George's story takes center stage for the entirety of act one, whereas Stowe concentrates upon Eliza."* Ophelia's role was reduced to just one word — "shiftless" — which she repeated endlessly; and the stories of Eliza, Tom, Eva, Ophelia, Topsy, and Cassy were minimized on stage; whereas those of George Harris, St. Clare, Gumption Cute (an Aiken creation), and Simon Legree were magnified. The end result of these and other departures from Stowe's text was not only a masculinization of the Uncle Tom story, but a secularization of it as well as the Christian principles embedded in Stowe's females were written out of the dramas.

  In lieu of Stowe's Christian females, Aiken, and to a lesser extent, the playwrights who followed him, substituted "the man of principle."*Having disposed of strong, moral women, many playwrights chose instead to embed morality in George Harris, young George Shelby, Phineas, and, quite naturally, in Tom. In the Aiken adaptation, even, St. Clare, through the "salvific agency of Tom and Eva, becomes a man of principle" as demonstrated by his entry into heaven in the final tableau.* Thus, reducing the roles of Stowe's women and by transferring morality to the men, dramatists, beginning with Aiken and Conway, transformed female values into male ones and established the male values as dominant.

  This is not to say that playwrights who adapted Uncle Tom's Cabin to the stage necessarily redefined antebellum American notions of masculinity. As Cynthia Griffin Wolff aptly notes, the American Revolution had already promoted a new set of masculine traits that included self-assertiveness, aggression and competition while it excluded self-sacrifice and sensitivity to the needs of others, characteristics that post-revolutionary Americans considered "feminine."* Abolitionists, Wollf continues, "considered the slave system "no less than an internalized, systematized and legally perpetuated enactment of conquest and colonization, [and believed that] as long as masculinity continued to be defined by conquest, men, as opposed to women, would be especially inclined to perpetuate the slave system."* Thus, while Stowe's abolitionist argument relied strongly upon a radically revisionist notion of 'masculinity'" — the creation of a sensitive, forgiving, Christian masculinity embodied by Tom — dramatists of her story actively espoused the aggressive, self-assertive male represented by George Harris, thereby reversing Stowe's portrayal of the conquest of "communal, benevolent masculinity over a definition of gender that is built upon subjugation and aggression."* As Theatre Historian Rosemarie Bank, and cultural historian Eric Lott before her, both have observed, the stage Uncle Tom's Cabin, even Aiken's reasonably faithful rendition, is a "schizophrenic site in which the character/hero is alternately masculinized and unmanned."*

  While some historians believe that the de-feminization of the stage versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin may have been a volitional act, others point to the nature of the antebellum theatre itself. At the time that Mrs. Stowe penned her novel, the theatre was a masculine institution, in both reception and production. Audiences were predominantly male, with the few women attracted to the theatre most frequently of doubtful reputation, and the producers of theatre generally male. As regards the staging of Uncle Tom's Cabin, in fairness to the playwrights then, "adapters were necessarily drawing on production practices and theatrical conventions ill-suited to realizing Stowe's matrifocal ideals in production. Strong-willed mothers rarely appeared on the antebellum stage [and] most stock companies would have been hard pressed to cast several such roles."* Thus, since a multiplicity of female roles was not consistent with conventions of the time and hence since acting companies couldn't cast them, it was logical that playwrights would, by necessity, need to excise many of Stowe's original female characters. In retrospect, by transforming Mrs. Stowe's feminine, sentimental narrative into masculinized versions, like it or not, the stage adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin may well have made the story of Uncle Tom more palatable to audiences that might have otherwise been hostile to any drama that smacked of abolitionism and have "normalized Stowe's novel, smoothing away the radical challenges to the dominant culture implicit in its mystical and matrifocal values."* In effect, then, "even for those who had encountered the novel, dramatizations functioned in part as mediating or exegetic texts, conditioning the way such audiences "read" the original . . . The wider assimilation of a sense of Stowe's novel was thus closely dependent on the process of dramatic adaptation, and the plays expanded and altered the meanings of the Tom phenomenon."*

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  If stage versions "normalized" the gender values of Stowe's text, they also "normalized" audiences. When the play opened at the National, at the time a working class theatre in a rough, lower Manhattan neighborhood surrounded by Chatham Square, it attracted the "usual" audience for Purdy's house: it was composed of butchers, pocket book droppers, "riggers, hucksters, stevedores, harness-makers, shoulder-hitters, park loungers, . . . apprentices, chip boys, newsboys and boot blacks — frequenters of the low saloons in the . . . Square, and the lower classes swarming through the shadowy byways of the notorious Five Points "* (Figure 13). None had heard of, much less read, Mrs. Stowe's novel and all were at the theatre for an evening's entertainment — to laugh at the comics, to boo anything they didn't like and, if necessary, to throw fruit and vegetables, and anything else that might be handy, at the performers.

  Much has been written about the "conversion" of these rough, uneducated and, by and large, anti-abolitionist audiences — how, once the play had begun, they were quick to sympathize with Eliza and George Harris; how they hissed Haley when he negotiated the purchase of Harry; how they shouted, "it ain't right" at those points in the plot where slaves were sold or brutalized. As important as this conversion was, the "normalizing" process was completed only when the Bowery B'hoys and G'hals were joined in the National audience by respectable middle class patrons — ministers, members of their congregations, and women who rarely if ever entered a theatre. Because of the morality of his stage offering, Purdy, who had previously aimed at courting the lowest classes, now found himself entertaining the most mixed, yet respectable audiences in all of New York. Thus, not only did the play help "to convert a new group in the North to abolition — that group of rough men and boys who before had had the most contempt for blacks and who were most likely to disrupt the meetings of the abolition societies," but for those who already espoused the Christian cause of abolition, it functioned as a form of American Jeremiad — a "mode of public exhortation . . . designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal, public to private identity, the shifting 'signs of the times' to certain traditional . . . themes and symbols'."*

  While the gender shift may have "normalized" Uncle Tom's Cabin for both respectable, religious middle-class patrons and those theatregoers who were generally less than respectable, perhaps nothing affected the racial politics of Tom on stage more than the antebellum minstrel show. From the outset, stage adaptations of Stowe's story showed the unmistakable influence of minstrelsy. The first New York Uncle Tom, C. W. Taylor's truncated, "catch house" version, opened with a blackface spectacle; a "negro celebration" that drew heavily upon black music and dance and included a Kentucky Breakdown and featured a chorus of "We Darkies Hoe de Corn" — minstrel interpolations obviously intended to serve simultaneously as a short-hand for the South and to entertain rough, working-class audiences at the National who routinely attended the myriad minstrel shows in the neighborhood.*

  Almost immediately other Uncle Toms followed suit, in the process moving the Tom story further from Mrs. Stowe's abolitionist text. Encouraged by Kimball and Smith at the Boston Museum to remove the "objectionable" aspects of Stowe's novel, Conway set about muting her radical racial attitudes by liberally lacing his text with anti-abolitionist conventions and devices — in other words, conventions and devices appropriated from the minstrel show. Conway opened his play with a plantation scene transplanted directly from the minstrel show, with "happy" slaves, accompanied by a banjo, dancing, singing "lively negro music" and generally enjoying the "mirth" of a day off from work. During the opening scene, Sam, who is comically dressed as a "ragged but pretentious bumpkin," dances a "polite" mock minuet with Chloe while the other slaves form a "half circle" to watch them.* Later in the drama, Sam encourages the assembled slaves to "heel and toe it out" and to "cut de pigeon wing;" Adolph is depicted as a minstrel dandy who speaks "foppishly," owns a "half pair of specs," and is "scented all over;" and Topsy delivers a minstrel stump speech.* Conway's drawing of the African-American characters as comical and his incorporation of the rowdier elements of minstrelsy, Meer believes, were intended to show a "spectacle of black Southernness designed to amaze the Northerners."*

  Even "the version most faithful to Stowe's novel, [Aiken's] Uncle Tom's Cabin was itself a compromise between anti-slavery politics and established entertainment conventions."* Although it is generally acknowledged that Aiken remained relatively faithful to Mrs. Stowe's abolitionist sentiments, he nevertheless made liberal use of minstrel conventions and devices. He freely incorporated Stephen Foster songs into his text; retained the "wild, grotesque songs common among the negroes" that Harry performs for Shelby and Haley — a performance that Stowe herself had appropriated from the minstrel show; and, perhaps, unconsciously, adopted the rhythms of the Interlocutor-endmen minstrel banter — rhythms like that found in the question-and-answer exchange of Tambo and Bones sketches like "Blackberrying."* Given the popularity of the minstrel show during the 1840s and 1850s, it is understandable that even playwrights like Aiken who attempted to remain faithful to Stowe's radical message "could not have avoided making use of blackface devices; minstrelsy was the current material condition of theatrical production in the representation of racial matters."*

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  During the 1850s, the appropriation of performative conventions and materials was hardly a one way street. In January 1854, just two months aftter the Conway adaptation opened at Barnum's Museum, the famed "Ethopian Delineator," T.D. Rice performed the title role in a production at the Bowery Theatre. When Rice, as Uncle Tom, danced Jim Crow, the two most prominent performance traditions of the antebellum era — Uncle Tom and minstrelsy — were forever linked in the popular mind and "within a few months . . . . ., minstrels had coopted the title and main characters, while reversing the message."* (Figure 14). In the opinion of Robert Toll, "as performers who fancied themselves experts at portraying the plantation and as entertainers who burlesqued theatrical hits and topical events, minstrels quickly made Uncle Tom's Cabin part of their shows."* This degree of appropriation and cross pollination from minstrelsy to drama and vice versa has led Eric Lott to conclude that very likely "Uncle Tom's Cabin onstage was in one sense minstrelsy's logical antebellum conclusion."*

  While Mrs. Stowe's novel reached roughly 300,000 readers in the year following its publication, theatre historians estimate that more than twice that number were exposed to one or more of the stage adaptations; and that arguably the stage version may have made more of an impact due to its mode of presentation: as a moral reform melodrama. In his seminal study of Melodrama, Bruce McConachie has distinguished between the various strains of the form and has codified a typology that includes: sensation melodramas, apocalyptic melodramas, fairy-tale melodramas, nautical melodramas, domestic melodramas, gothic melodramas — and the moral reform melodrama.* While all of these discrete types might be said to embody and reinforce values, and hence deserve to be regarded as, "not only a moralistic drama, but as the drama of morality, it was the moral reform melodrama, more than the other forms, that assumed ideological and political significance."*

  During the nineteenth century, the moral reform melodrama abounded, both in England and in the United States. In the UK, popular melodramatists like Douglas Jerrold, J. B. Buckstone and John Walker adopted and espoused a variety of causes — from temperance reform, in such dramas as Fifteen Years of a Drunkard's Life (c. 1828), The Bottle (1847), and The Drunkard's Children (1848) — to the plight of England's working poor in plays with titles like Luke the Laborer (1826), The Rent Day (1832), and The Factory Girl (1832); while in America during the middle years of the century, noted social activists like T. S. Arthur and Harriet Beecher Stowe penned reformist narratives that were quickly adapted for the stage.

  The emergence of the moral reform drama — the ideal vehicle for disseminating progressive ideology during the middle years of the nineteenth century — was hardly a historical anomaly for, according to Henry Steele Commager, the antebellum era was the "day of universal reform," a period during which "every institution was called before the bar of reason and of sentiment" to be measured and judged against a hierarchy of truths.* Predicated upon the Enlightenment belief that Man was divine, that mankind was perfectible, and consequently no social problem could be considered intractable, nineteenth-century reform was "designed to harmonize man with the [ideal] moral order," to promote and encourage human improvement.* This overriding conviction — the belief in man's perfectibility — led naturally and inexorably to a sentimentalized view of the world — a sentimentalized world view shared by the antebellum melodrama.

  Although characterized as melodrama and lumped with the other variations of the form in conventional theatre histories, moral reform dramas differed markedly from the other types, not only in their ultimate nature, but in their intent. During the nineteenth century, literary historian Jane Tomkins asserts, most drama was, by definition, a form of discourse that had no designs upon influencing the course of events.* It made no attempt to change things, but merely elected to represent them, and its value lay in its representational nature. In contrast to these purely representational works — which constituted the majority of theatrical offerings — were those dramas whose claim to value lay in their stated intention to influence, often significantly, the course of history; to propose solutions to the problems that shaped a particular historical moment. Frequently these dramas were as ideologically radical as the reforms they espoused: slaves denounced the institution of slavery; laborers went on strike against their employers or smashed the machinery in their factories; prohibition was aggressively advocated nearly seventy years before the passage of the 18th Amendment. These then were the plays that have been conveniently clustered under the rubric "Moral Reform Drama" — a construct that, in Foucault's terms, was a node within a network, a set of works that expressed what lay in the minds of many of their creators' contemporaries, "a set of works that tapped into a storehouse of widely held assumptions."*

  In his survey of nineteenth century melodrama and what he terms "the myth of America," Jeffrey Mason argues that melodrama's substructure was essentially conservative, with "little room to denounce an oppressive class or institution."* The so-called "conventional" melodrama, in Mason's opinion, was anything but progressive; hardly the carrier of radical, forward-thinking ideology. This was hardly the case for the moral reform drama. In fact, as I've already stated, moral reform melodramas rivaled in their progressive ideology the social movements which they mirrored and supported. The so-called Women's Melodrama, popular during the 1840s and most frequently written under the auspices of the American Female Moral Reform Society and published in their magazine, The Advocate, for example, presaged the female political activism that followed later in the century. As routinely constructed, the Woman's Melodrama, a highly ritualized narrative, published most frequently in the form of a novel or short story, warned of the "blandishments of the city," regarded as a predominantly male bastion, and reinforced the correctness and necessity of rural (i.e., feminine) morality. At the center of the melodrama was an innocent, young farm girl, described in natural terms, as a delicate flower, a plant rooted in the country, endowed with the love and pride of purity.* Into the American Eden where she blissfully resided came the lecherous, sophisticated male. Urban and sexual, he was the "antithesis of the pure and family-rooted daughter. . . He invaded the female family circle, ripping the flower-like daughter from [her roots,] and carrying her off to the city. . . . The young woman's final ruin took place in a town or city governed by commercial values, . . . beyond women's sphere, . . . places of absolute sexual powerlessness and danger for the rural daughter."* Given its concentration upon vital women's issues and its overt political nature, it is hardly surprising that McConachie should rank Rosina Meadows (1834), a play that, in type, was a prototype for the Women's Melodrama, along with The Drunkard" and Uncle Tom's Cabin as one of the most influential moral reform dramas of the century.

  It is equally instructive to note how closely the American temperance melodrama followed the dominant ideology of its time. When, for example, Washingtonian Temperance activism — a movement that targeted working-class alcoholics — was in full bloom in the early 1840s, the most famous temperance drama of the decade, The Drunkard, depicted a stage alcoholic rescued by a temperance representative who, much like the members of the Washingtonians, walked the streets of America's big cities in search of souls to be reclaimed; while a decade later, when prohibition was in vogue, the most popular temperance melodrama was Ten Nights in a Bar-room, which advocated a legal, governmental solution to national intemperance. During the era of the Women's Christian Temperance Union's dominance such plays as Nellie Bradley's Marry No Man If He Drinks (1868); Ida Buxton's On to Victory (1887), and Effie Merriman's The Drunkard's Family (1898) supported the WCTU position; while the Anti-saloon League in the 1890s spawned its own strain of temperance plays.*

Figure 15

  In their own time, moral reform melodramas proved effective propaganda vehicles, both in Great Britain* and in the United States, and were utilized as the means of reaching audiences heretofore considered unreachable. In England, Buckstone, Jerrold and other progressive playwrights were writing their reformist works just as the so-called "minor" theatres like the Coburg, the Britannia and the Surrey were opening their doors to appeal directly and nearly exclusively to working-class audiences; while in America, stage versions of Ten Nights in a Bar-room, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Three Years in a Man-Trap, Hot Corn and other adaptations from the printed page were being played daily to thousands of uneducated, lower class patrons who were unfamiliar with the serialized or novel versions. And, in surveying audiences for these productions, critics and casual observers alike were astonished by the moral reform drama's power "to elicit sympathy across social divides as the middle classes, promised edification rather than [mere] titillation," entered the theatre in ever-increasing numbers.* This is how middle-class commentators at Purdy's National Theatre in 1853 found themselves sharing theatrical experience with Bowery B'hoys."* (Figure 15).

  But, the moral reform melodrama was historically significant for yet another reason: it served as a harbinger of the progressive social criticism commonly associated with the Realism that emerged later in the nineteenth century. As Thomas Postlewait contends, historically Melodrama and Realism developed during roughly the same time period. As Postlewait summarizes it, both forms "responded to and were shaped by similar socio-political conditions in the modern industrial and imperial age of nationalism, capitalism, population explosion, urban growth, . . . , massive migrations . . . , ethnic conflict, authoritarian controls, and terrible wars. Here in these complex conditions both art forms found their many topics and themes."*

  In proposing a similarity in intent between Realism and Melodrama, Postlewait is ostensibly echoing the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger, who wrote that historically "realism and idealism [i.e., melodrama] were not enemies but allies, and . . . together they defined the morality of social change."* Thus, not only did Melodrama and Realism emerge and develop at approximately the same time, but they dealt with many of the same social issues, albeit the melodrama presented those issues symbolically.

  However, the moral reform melodrama's influence was not wholly positive. All too often, playwrights' reliance upon melodramatic conventions muted, or even subverted, a play's central ideological imperative, resulting in, at best, an ambiguous message; at its worst, a total loss of substantive meaning. While melodramatic conventions may have been readily understood, even by the uneducated, and stereotypes are instantly recognizable expressions of complex clusters of value that convey enormous amounts of cultural information in an extremely condensed form and hence contribute to the reception of any narrative, all too often they undermined the ideological significance of the drama. Since melodramatic stereotypes "tend to individualize issues and hence reduce them to matters of private choice, and where suffering or a social problem could be blamed on the villainy of a single character, there was little room to denounce an oppressive . . . institution."* This was certainly the case in the two most popular stage versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In both Aiken's and Conway's texts, evil was ultimately shifted away from the institution of slavery and embedded in the individual villains of the narrative: Haley, Loker and lastly and most graphically in the character of Simon Legree. When, near the end of their respective melodramas, Aiken and Conway subjected Legree to the mandatory dictates of poetic justice, they not only punished the individual, but they implied that with Legree's death, somehow the overarching problem had been resolved. Such was not the case in Stowe's original narrative, in which Legree — and with him, the institutionalized evil of slavery — remained and continued its systemic routine of torture and human degradation.

  In a similar way, the incorporation of the "stock" temperance reformer into the plot of a temperance melodrama invariably deflected audience attention from the social impact of intemperance which, like slavery in the abolitionist drama, was a national uber-villain. Once Reneslaw, the temperance representative, enters the action of The Drunkard for example, society as a whole is let off the hook. The message to the audience, instead of being a call to action, becomes, "sit back and relax — the temperance guy will take care of everything."

  Equally problematic is the ambiguous role of the nineteenth-century reformer. In retrospect, it is not difficult to view the reformer, or at least some reformers, as a cultural imperialist — more eager to paternalistically shape the character and regulate the behavior of the "less fortunate" than they were to redeem and rehabilitate victims of social change. Furthermore, as literary historian David Reynolds has documented in Beneath the American Renaissance, writers of reform literature, the drama included, were hardly a monolithic group, as demonstrated by the high degree of ethical fluidity in their work.* While many reformers (the so-called conventional reformers) avoided "excessive sensationalism and always emphasize[d] the means by which vice [could] be circumvented or remedied," a second, and often more visible group (whom Reynolds labels subversive reformers) were more interested in creating sensationalist narratives than they were in eradicating vice and/or injustice. These "reformers," although they publicly claimed to be as interested in the morality of reform as were their more traditional, rationalist brethren, were in fact primarily interested in stimulating audience interest through sensational scenes or events ranging from "the grisly, sometimes perverse results of vice, such as shattered homes, sadomasochistic violence, . . . the disillusioning collapse of romantic ideals" or displays of human degradation and humiliation.* The existence of the subversive reformer cast doubt on the ideological legitimacy of some of the century's most famous reformist dramas and served to increase the ambiguity of many moral reform dramas, such as Conway's Uncle Tom which, as I indicated, began with a minstrel plantation scene and later incorporated a slave auction designed more to show off the talents of African-American singers and dancers than to depict the horrors of the sale of human beings — scenes hardly written to encourage abolitionist sentiments and activism from audiences.

  Its inherent limitations notwithstanding, the nineteenth-century moral reform melodrama was a "passionate record of the metaphysical and social tensions of America that dramatized "the dialectic between doubt and faith. [Throughout the century, it] served as a crucial space in which the cultural, political, and economic exigencies . . . [could be] played out and transformed into public discourses about issues ranging from the gender-specific dimensions of individual station and behavior" to the emancipation of an entire race of humans.* Easy to radicalize, highly programmatic, heuristic and didactic in nature, rather than merely mimetic, these plays offered powerful examples of the way a culture, or at least a significant portion of that culture, thinks about itself; the ways that culture has devised for articulating and proposing solutions for the problems that shape a particular historical moment. Viewed from our current perspective, dramas such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Drunkard, The Rent Day and Ten Nights in a Bar-room served as the bearers of a set of national, social, and economic interests — vehicles ideally suited to formulate and disseminate ideological messages while they simultaneously entertained the masses.

© 2007 John Frick. This essay derives from a presentation at the June 2007 Uncle Tom's Cabin in the Web of Culture conference, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and presented by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center (Hartford, CT) and the Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture Project at the University of Virginia. Portions of the essay were previously published in Theatre Symposium 15 (2007).

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