In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the North assumed significant power to redefine the South, imagining a region rebuilt and modeled on northern society. The white South actively resisted these efforts, battling the legal strictures of Reconstruction on the ground. Meanwhile, white southern storytellers worked to recast the South’s image, romanticizing the Lost Cause and heralding the birth of a New South. In Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915, K. Stephen Prince argues that this cultural production was as important as political competition and economic striving in turning the South and the nation away from the egalitarian promises of Reconstruction and toward Jim Crow.
In the following excerpt from Stories of the South (pp. 199-204), Prince describes the popularity of stage productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the show’s progression from an abolitionist critique of slavery to a minstrel show embracing a fractured view of slavery and the South.
When it was published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin quickly became the most inflammatory, explosive, and politically significant literary text of the antebellum period. Adapted to the stage shortly thereafter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s moral fervor, emotional power, and iconic characters soon made it a theatrical institution. Throughout the 1850s, northern audiences thrilled to dramatic reenactments of Eliza’s escape across the Ohio River, Uncle Tom’s tender relationship with Little Eva, and Tom’s brutal death at the hands of Simon Legree. Antebellum productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin largely fell into two categories. Most followed George Aiken’s 1852 dramatic adaptation, which was faithful to the novel’s plot and to its author’s abolitionist intentions. Some productions, however, explicitly sought to discredit and undercut Stowe’s antislavery message. Minstrel shows and southern propagandists both offered proslavery dramatic adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the years before the Civil War. Regardless, the political content of the play remained its defining characteristic in the antebellum period. Love it or loathe it, Uncle Tom’s Cabin made a powerful political statement on the stage as surely as on the page.
By the 1880s, however, a curious thing had happened. Stage productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin remained popular, but the political edge had largely evaporated. In place of politics, postbellum productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin came to emphasize display and spectacle. Much like postwar minstrelsy, “Tom shows” competed to offer the largest cast, the most sumptuous scenery, and the oddest novelties. Where antebellum audiences had mourned for Tom and cursed Legree, Gilded Age crowds cheered for trained Siberian bloodhounds and spectacular plantation dance routines. At the postwar Tom show, in fact, the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin largely disappeared, becoming little more than a vehicle for stage trickery and ostentatious display. In the process, the political content that had once defined the production became increasingly peripheral. The transition from the abolitionism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the empty spectacle of the Gilded Age Tom show offers an interesting chapter in the cultural history of the postbellum United States. More than this, it provides a unique perspective on the nation’s declining commitment to African American rights and a prime example of the role that popular culture played in this transition.
It has been estimated that there were nearly 500 Uncle Tom’s Cabin companies on tour in the 1890s, meaning that Tom shows were a fairly regular occurrence in any major city or town of the North. Residents of Detroit who missed Jay Rial’s company in early October 1881, for instance, only needed to wait one week for Henry Jarrett’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to roll into town. During the 1893 theatrical season, San Francisco theater-goers could have seen four different traveling Tom shows. Given this extraordinarily crowded marketplace, it was incumbent on each Uncle Tom’s Cabin company to do more than simply entertain. Since each production was judged not on its own merits but in relation to what had come before, Tom shows were under constant pressure to update, expand, and innovate. The familiarity of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin story to most audience members made it exceedingly difficult for companies to offer much that was new when it came to the plot, the script, or the characters. Tom shows therefore maintained the familiar storyline while resorting to a variety of strategies designed to provide audiences with a show worth their time and money.
As in contemporary minstrelsy, size sold. Promoters trumpeted the expanse and expense of their productions in the hopes of attracting audiences. In 1895, one Tom show—aptly dubbed Stowe and Co.—proclaimed itself the “LARGEST AND BEST IN THE WORLD,” boasting that it required “3 special cars to transport this, the World’s Great ‘U.T.C.’” Anthony & Ellis’ Mammoth Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company also declared itself the “Largest and Best” Tom show on the road, though its “30 Artists” actually made the show relatively small. E. O. Rogers’s company promised fifty performers, Edwin F. Davis’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Co. featured fifty-one, while a production of the Ideal Uncle Tom’s Cabin company boasted a cast of eighty. Even grander was C. H. Smith’s Double Mammoth Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company, which lived up to its name with a cast numbering 100. Clearly, Tom shows were not immune to the supersized logic of Gilded Age popular theater. Though a production may have featured only a dozen speaking roles, companies filled out their cast lists and padded their choruses in order to be able to claim to be the biggest and the most spectacular Tom show around.
This emphasis on scale led to one of the most peculiar developments in the Tom show: the “double company.” Such companies featured two actors playing one role during a single performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Most often, this honor was reserved for Topsy and Lawyer Marks. In Stowe’s novel, Topsy the slave girl was a humorous though ultimately redemptive character, while Marks was a scheming slave trader. In the play, both were transformed into lowbrow comic figures. Since both characters were traditional audience favorites, Tom show promoters seem to have assumed that two would be better than one. By the early 1880s, any Tom show worth its salt was able to boast “2 TOPSYS AND 2 MARKS.” An 1881 Boston production advertised “the two great Topsys—Kate Partington and Minnie Foster.” A Detroit newspaper announced the imminent arrival of an Uncle Tom company with the headline: “We’ve Another Uncle Tom’s Cabin Snap A Double Headed One, Too.”
No Tom show was complete without its traveling menagerie. A centerpiece of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin stage show was the slave mother Eliza’s daring dash to freedom across the frozen Ohio River. To add interest and realism to this scene, Tom shows employed trained dogs to chase the fugitive across the stage. In typical fashion, companies competed to offer the largest and the most exotic canine contingent. A thrilling chase scene featuring a pack of “IMPORTED, TRAINED, NEGRO-HUNTING SIBERIAN BLOODHOUNDS” quickly became an expected part of a production. Individual Tom show dogs even won a degree of fame. A particularly impressive hound named Sultan was reportedly a favorite of ex-president Ulysses S. Grant and the object of a $3,000 standing offer from Buffalo Bill Cody. Donkeys, generally associated with the character Marks, were also central to many Tom shows. Jay Rial’s Ideal Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company featured “the celebrated trick donkey, ‘Jerry,’” while Anthony & Ellis’ Famous Ideal Double Company traveled with “‘KNOX,’ the smallest donkey on the stage.” Miniature ponies, usually the property of Little Eva, often rounded out a Tom show’s animal contingent. By 1892, when an announcement for an upcoming Tom show in the New York Clipper blithely noted that “the usual amount of dogs, ponies, donkeys, etc. will be carried,” animals were as much a part of stage productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Tom, Little Eva, or Simon Legree.
Many Uncle Tom’s Cabin companies went to even more elaborate lengths to attract patronage. Magnificent stage pictures (or tableaux) often punctuated performances. The death of Little Eva was transformed into a spectacular set piece, featuring hosts of angels and a graceful ascension into heaven. In 1881, Anthony & Ellis’ Company presented the “Grand Transformation—The beautiful Gates Ajar—Eva in Heaven—Magnificent Allegorical Tableaux.” The Stetson Uncle Tom’s Cabin company used special lighting for its depiction of “EVA’S ASCENT TO THE GOLDEN REALMS.” Other productions turned to less celestial topics in their search for spectacle. Peck and Fursman’s company offered a reenactment of “the exciting historical race between the Mississippi River steamers ROBERT E. LEE and NATCHEZ,” featuring “two complete practical working models of these famous boats.” The “explosion scene,” the company insisted, “will be without exception the most complete piece of stage craft ever accomplished.” Perhaps the most bizarre Tom show spectacle occurred during a production that featured the black Australian boxer Peter Jackson in the role of Uncle Tom. Though critics praised Jackson’s theatrical skills, audiences were more interested in his pugilistic ones; a three-round boxing exhibition proved the highlight of each performance.
Given the Tom show’s wholehearted embrace of spectacle, it is unsurprising that grand plantation scenes were staged with some frequency. The first interracial production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, featuring black minstrel star Sam Lucas, opened in 1880. From this point forward, Tom shows provided an important source of work for black performers. Their involvement, in turn, encouraged productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to present elaborate plantation scenes, featuring cotton picking, jubilee singing, and slave dancing. Salter and Martin’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company promised “Cotton Fields and Plantation Scenes Portraying the Habits of the Southern Negroes with effect.” An 1885 Tom show had its own “plantation festival,” complete with a forty-person jubilee chorus. An 1886 performance, meanwhile, took place entirely outside, on a lawn “transformed into a plantation, with fields of cotton, slaves at work, houses, and cabins and other distinguishing features of the land of Dixie.” As they turned even Simon Legree’s plantation—depicted in Stowe’s text as a hellish factory in the fields—into another opportunity for lavish spectacle and display, Gilded Age Tom shows proved just how unmoored they had become from the text on which they were ostensibly based.
By the 1890s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was little more than a vehicle for a series of outrageous theatrical novelties. Ironically, the familiarity of the story—Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, after all, the bestselling novel of the century—meant that productions could largely ignore the plot. Northern audiences did not come to the theater to see what happened to Uncle Tom and Little Eva; they knew how the story ended long before they arrived. They came, instead, to see how a particular production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin would distinguish itself from all those that had come before. How fabulous was Eva’s ascension to heaven? How spectacular was the plantation dancing? How tight was the jubilee harmony? How breathtaking was Eliza’s dash across the ice? How ferocious were the dogs? How hilarious was Topsy? How many Topsies were there? In the midst of the carnival of excess that was a Gilded Age Tom show, the story itself largely disappeared. Indeed, one did not go to a Tom show to see Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One went to a Tom show to see the pageantry, spectacle, and one-upmanship that invariably came with a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
This fact had serious political consequences. Though slavery itself was dead by the 1880s and 1890s, its memory was not. Depictions of the peculiar institution were alive and well on the northern stage. In this context, Uncle Tom’s Cabin might have offered a powerful voice for racial justice in the South and in the nation. In stark contrast to the happy slaves and idealized race relations presented on the minstrel stage, Stowe’s novel depicted a brutal, dehumanizing labor regime that poisoned all those who came in contact with it. Even in the Gilded Age, a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that remained true to the spirit of Stowe’s original text could have offered a powerful corrective to the misrepresentations rampant in postbellum minstrelsy. At best, such a production might have offered a shining example of the political potency of popular art and rejuvenated northern interest in racial democracy. At the very least, it could have offered a self-conscious alternative to the nearly hegemonic power of the minstrel stage.
Rather than a counterpoint to minstrelsy, however, Tom shows offered a complement to it. Both cultural forms achieved significant popularity largely by peddling idealized and unrealistic images of the southern past. Less than thirty years after the close of the Civil War, northern theatrical promoters proved willing to sacrifice history on the altar of entertainment. In spite of the best effort of groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Gilded Age performance culture largely whitewashed the violence of slavery, idealized southern race relations, and denied the significance of emancipation and Reconstruction. In so doing, it rationalized northern inaction in the face of southern racial strife and denied the possibility of African American equality. Performance culture, of course, was only one site at which the nature of the South was debated and contested in the years after 1877. In the context of the continuing assault on African American civil and political rights, however, one should not overlook the significance of the stories of the South presented on the northern stage. Through sheer repetition and familiarity, the thoroughly unreconstructed visions of the southern past presented in northern performance culture were deeply woven into the region’s consciousness. As white northerners considered their response to the Jim Crow regime put in place after 1890, they carried this cultural baggage with them.
From Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915 by K. Stephen Prince. Copyright © 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press.
- See Gossett, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture, 260–83. For all things related to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture website at the University of Virginia (http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/) is an extraordinary resource.↩
- On the relation between antebellum minstrelsy and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, see Meer, Uncle Tom Mania, 19–72.↩
- .David S. Reynolds offers a helpful overview of these developments. Reynolds, Mightier than the Sword, 177–200. See also Gossett, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture, 367–87.↩
- Gossett, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture, 370. See also Reynolds, Mightier than the Sword, 177–78.↩
- “Amusements,” Detroit Free Press, 12 October 1881, 6.↩
- “‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ Galore,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11 February 1893, 10.↩
- Advertisement, New York Clipper, 24 August 1895, 397.↩
- Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, 27 February 1880, 7.↩
- “World Players,” New York Clipper, 9 July 1892, 279; “World Players,” New York Clipper, 22 December 1894, 668; advertisement, Hartford Courant, 8 April 1880, 1.↩
- “The Summer Stage,” Boston Daily Globe, 4 June 1882, 4.↩
- Newspaper clipping, unknown newspaper, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Collection, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.↩
- “The Drama,” Boston Daily Globe, 1 May 1881, 9.↩
- “The Stage,” Detroit Free Press, 23 April 1882, 15.↩
- Commemorative card, Anthony & Ellis’ Famous Ideal Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1882, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Collection, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT. ↩
- “Entertainments,” Hartford Daily Courant, 12 September 1881, 2; “The Summer Stage,” Boston Daily Globe, 4 June 1882, 4. ↩
- Advertisement, Los Angeles Times, 27 May 1882, 2; advertisement, Hartford Daily Courant, 8 September 1882, 1. ↩
- “World Players,” New York Clipper, 9 July 1892, 279.↩
- Commemorative card, Anthony & Ellis’ Famous Ideal Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1882, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Collection, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.↩
- Advertisement, New York Clipper, 15 October 1892, 516.↩
- Clipping, New York Clipper, Harry Birdoff Collection, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.↩
- “Peter Jackson in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ at Harris,” Washington Post, 4 March 1894, 14; “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Boston Daily Globe, 1 May 1894, 4.↩
- Advertisement, Hartford Courant, 8 April 1880, 1.↩
- Advertisement, Ed. R. Salter and Al. W. Martin Uncle Tom’s Cabin Co., 1896, Harry Birdoff Collection, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.↩
-  “The Summer Stage,” Boston Daily Globe, 14 June 1885, 10.↩
- “Summer Amusements,” Boston Daily Globe, 8 August 1886, 10.↩