Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Theatrical Legacy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

Today is the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896). You might think the creator of America’s seminal 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be irrelevant to the usual themes of this blog, but you’d be WRONG! I am distantly related to this important author — and her novel played an important role in both theatre and film history.

Mere months after its publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first adapted for the stage at the Bowery Theatre. After this, many other pirated editions followed and so-called “Tom Shows” were a staple of American theatre well into the 20th century. While the novel probably did more than any other cultural product to turn the minds of Northerners (and some Southerners) against the “Peculiar Institution” of slavery, almost from the very beginning most of the stage and screen versions were counterproductive to the cause of racial equality by popularizing stereotypes that have only fallen out of favor very recently: “Topsy”, the mischievous little “pickaninny”; the Mammy; and kindly, obedient old Uncle Tom, among others. Blackface minstrelsy** figured heavily into these productions; many employed the sentimental songs of Stephen Foster. Vaudeville stars the Duncan Sisters got a lot a mileage for many years out of portraying Uncle Tom’s Topsy and Little Eva. Vaudeville manager Percy Williams had got his start acting in and producing Tom shows.

The story’s cinematic history dates almost entirely within the silent era. It was first adapted by Edwin S. Porter in 1903. This was followed by two other versions in 1910 (one of them with Florence Turner), two in 1913 (one directed by Sidney Olcott, with Henry Hallam and Anna Q. Nilsson; and another one with Harry A. Pollard, Margarita Fischer and Gertrude Short), one in 1914, one in 1918 (with Marguerite Clark, Sam Hardy, and Frank Losee) and one in 1927 (with James B. Lowe, Margarita Fischer, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Lucien Littlefield, Mona Ray, and Virginia Grey). It also clearly exerted influence on D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, many Shirley Temple films, and countless others. An attempt to produce a new version by MGM in the 1940s was stopped by protests organized by the NAACP.

A much smoothed-out, rehabilitated version was finally produced for television in 1987 more in the mold of Roots, starring Avery Brooks, Phylicia Rashad, Paula Kelly, Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Burton, and Bruce Dern. This more type of more nuanced, sensitive interpretation has been the preferred approach for what, after all, started out as anti-slavery novel. My friends at Metropolitan Playhouse produced a version last season; see my review here.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

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