“You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din”.
I’m thinking of Alex Roe’s bravery in putting on such a potentially controversial play in this day and age (his Uncle Tom’s Cabin is on the boards at Metropolitan Playhouse through December 12). But it occurs to me that the tone of Kipling’s line is also more than a little relevant to the cultural product at hand. Both “Gunga Din” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel and its many theatrical adaptations share a point of view we today recognize immediately as patronizing, an attitude not far in spirit from “Good dog!”
For this reason, since well before the mid-twentieth century there has been an almost all-encompassing tendency to completely dismiss the various incarnations of Uncle Tom completely. This is rather unfortunate, if for no other reason than that the story was the single most recognizable landmark on the American cultural landscape for the better part of a century. The book was the best-selling novel of its time (sold 300,000 copies the first year of its release, 1852), and the various plays and movies were even more popular than that, reaching millions more people. The characters and many incidents from the book became household by-words, and references to the likes of Topsy, Eva, St. Clare, Eliza and Simon Legree in the late 19th century and early 20th century are as common as references to the Bible and Shakespeare. This is true even as late as the 1951 musical The King and I (though if that’s the only place you know it from I will be only too happy to flog you, Legree-style, with a bullwhip).
Most importantly , the book was the single greatest factor in opening the eyes of countless Americans (especially in the north) to the evils of slavery. Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln is supposed to have said (perhaps apocryphally) “So you’re the little lady who started this great big war)”. Let it never be forgotten that the villain of the piece is the cruel, sadistic, aforementioned slave-owner Simon Legree. He is the villain and we hate him. That much is unambiguous.
So much of the book and the play based upon it IS ambiguous, however, and this accounts for the book’s falling out of favor and the ultimate equation of the name Uncle Tom with a compliant, docile and subservient black. Even as Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself went out of fashion itself in the age of talkies, echoes (such as Bill Robinson’s roles in several Shirley Temple pictures) had become more than distasteful by the late twentieth century. The ultimate truth is, while the book is strongly anti-slavery, and extremely sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, it can’t help but be unconsciously mired in the attitudes of its own day, attitudes we have long since outgrown. The extremely difficult question for the modern producer is, how to present this important cultural object, while not only not seeming to embrace its unfortunate prejudices, but perhaps even using them as an opportunity to teach and begin a conversation?
Let me here interject: my thinking on this subject is largely influenced by Kathleen Hulser and Jan Ramirez, curators at New-York Historical Society when we did the exhibition Reading Uncle Tom’s Image: A Reconsideration of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 150-Year-Old Character and His Legacy on the occasion of the novel’s 150th anniversary. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately….the recent Bowery event reminded me of the exhibition on THAT topic they also curated. In retrospect it occurs to me what unique and important work they were doing. The culture needs it more than ever.
At any rate, as I think I’m making clear, I highly approve of the choice to do this play. In fact, I think it is important enough to be a permanent part of the Metropolitan’s repertoire. I also think, however, that because it is so important (and so problematic) that it needs a huge amount of thought and resources (in time, money and personnel) to do it as it needs and deserves to be done.
Don’t get me wrong. Given the resources at the Metropolitan’s disposal, they have done their usual excellent job. My point is that (like the work itself) they deserve more. Right now their production of George Aiken’s production feels a little half baked. There could be many strategies for dealing with a work like this and director Alex Roe seems to have chosen a little bit of each: a little Brechtian epic theatre, a little traditional melodrama, a little contemporary realistic performance, a little color-blind non-traditional casting. His reluctance to choose a direction I think dilutes the play’s potential power.
In a nutshell: good, loyal, honest Uncle Tom (George Lee Miles) a recent Christian convert and a slave so trusted that he is the actual manager of his master’s farm, is sold off to pay some debts. Fortunately he winds up at the home of Augustine St. Clare (Rick Delaney) an owner even kindlier than his previous one, and made the personal servant of his saintly daughter Eva (Helen Highfield). Unfortunately, St. Clare dies before he is able to free Tom as he intends to do, and Tom is sold at last to the villainous Simon Legree (Dan Snow), who eventually whips him to death when he refuses to beat his fellow slaves as instructed. Along the way, there are strong, memorable sub-plots, including Eliza (Marcie Henderson’s) escape across the river ice (a favorite incident with silent film producers), and the rehabilitation of the “wicked” pickaninny Topsy (Alex Marshall-Brown) by St. Clare’s Yankee cousin Ophelia (Lisa Riegel).
The ensemble cast, equal parts black and white, play multiple roles, most of them essaying roles of both races, which at times can be confusing. There is no offstage; when not playing specific characters, the actors move around the space as themselves, even before and after the show and during the two intermissions. Another Brechtian touch: the actors announce chapter titles to the audience before every scene. These Brechtian gestures indicate the direction in which perhaps the production wants to go, but it needs to go farther. It seems to me that an excellent way of dealing with the play’s many implausibilities and outmoded stereotypes would be to get right out in front of them with playing style – to deconstruct it, and comment on it with full-on alienation effect. I usually am not a fan of such shenanigans, but I think this particular story would suit it extremely well. It seems to me they are already part of the way there. Some of the actors, Marshall-Brown in particular as Topsy, seem to be palpably gagging on their “I’se jes’ wicked, massah!” dialect – why not allow them to ridicule it?
I realize though that this is not the Metropolitan’s usual style. I recently praised The Drunkard for the way they played it straight. And there are some aspects of that here. In particular, Miles’ Uncle Tom seems straight out of the traditional playbook – he’s just playing the guy as written, and in some ways that’s as interesting as the little bird-tweet sound effect toys that get used elsewhere in the production – a blast from the melodramatic past. I wouldn’t mind seeing the full on old-school version, but I think you’d need a talk-back and maybe even a “talk-front”, too, before every production, just to make your intentions clear.
Another strategy though would be to work – work really hard – with the best realistic actors you could find, people really and truly skilled at the art of non-verbal communication, so that we can see the wheels turning inside their heads and read their faces, which will add a level of complexity to dialogue that can too often be written off by modern audiences as simplistic or stereotypical. Mind you, I don’t personally write off the text here. But it does have to be grappled with and interpreted for the modern audience. At any rate, two or three of the present cast are excellent and up to such a task I think (Miles, Snow and Delaney were my favorites).
The real injustice to Stowe (mostly by people who haven’t even read her book) is the misreading of the nature of Tom himself, and the book as a whole. Basically, the book is a Christian sermon. Stowe’s father, brothers and husband were all ministers. To me, she much resembles Dickens (in fact, Dickens’ Little Nell much resembles Little Eva). The thesis in the work of both authors is not so much radical political change but “love one another”. Thus we have several idealistically realized characters as role models…Christ figures. Uncle Tom is one of them, but so are Eva and St. Clare – and all three suffer symbolic martyrdoms. Seen in this light, Uncle Tom isn’t just some puppet set up as an example for only black people to emulate, to “be good” and “behave” even in the face of gross mistreatment. He, like Eva and St. Clare, is meant to be an active example to everyone who reads the book. But, to us moderns, the idea of martyrdom is a tough pill to swallow. I admire it when I think of the early Christians in Rome. But on this issue…well, let’s just say I find the rebellious Nat Turner a more satisfying hero. In fact, he’s at the center of my new action film: Uncle Tom’s Carbine.
At any rate, this blogpost itself has turned into a novel! And this is what I mean when I say the work of Metropolitan Playhouse is always thought-provoking, You have just over a week to catch the show. For info and tickets go here.