"UNCLE TOM'S CABIN" WORLD PREMIER IN TROY, NEW YORK
June 13, 2016
The most popular novel of the nineteenth century was Harriet Beecher Stowe's UNCLE TOM'S CABIN or LIFE AMONG THE LOWLY (full title). It was immediately successful when published in 1852. Although slavery no longer existed in the Northern states, a good many Northerners did not regard it as a pernicious institution. Mrs. Stowe's novel was instrumental in arousing the moral lethargy of thousands who read her work. If just reading a book could do that, just think of the powerful affect of portraying on stage the suffering of kindly old Uncle Tom and plucky Eliza and Little Eva. George C. Howard had that very thought.
In 1852, Howard managed Peale's Museum in Troy, New York. Stage entertainment had a shaky reputation at that time and was often reviled by the clergy. As a result, theatres were frequently called museums to suggest the educational and edifying nature of the presentations they produced. Peale's was located on the north-east corner of River and Fulton Streets, were the Uncle Sam Parking Garage now stands. Howard was a successful actor as well as manager having formed a company with the Fox Troupe, a family of actors from Massachusetts. He was to marry Caroline Emily Fox, whom he met and performed with in an extended run of THE DRUNKARD at the Boston Museum.
At Caroline's suggestion, Howard engaged her cousin, George L. Aiken, to write a script of Stowe's novel. The result was a play in six acts with no afterpiece. It opened on September 27 1852 and ran for one-hundred consecutive performances. That was a remarkable achievement in a city whose population numbered about 30,000. It was estimated that twenty-five thousand attended the performances.
The production was a family affair: George played St. Clare, Caroline was Topsy and their four-year old daughter,Cordelia, was Little Eva. Even the playwright was on stage, appearing in black face as George Harris. Little did they suspect that night that they were inaugurating a life-long vocation. Over the next thirty-five years, the Howard family "Tommed" on tour in their version of Stowe's story. There would be many other renditions by many other companies. There were forty-nine on tour in 1879 and by 1899, there were five hundred. So varied were the scripts of these productions that finding any trace of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel in the performance was almost impossible. Singers and dancers appeared and one company advertised you would see a "Stage packed with colored people." One "Uncle Tom" devotee related that he saw twenty-five different companies perform the work and no two were the same.
The Howard/Aiken production that originated in Troy remained more faithful to the book. Capitalizing on its success in Troy, it moved to Alexander Purdy's National Theatre in lower Manhattan. There it would run for 325 consecutive performances during the 1853-54 season. This despite having to contend with a rival production at P. T. Barnum's American Museum. Barnum's production was billed as a "Just and sensible dramatic version of Mrs. Stowe' book." Barnum bragged that his version presented a "True picture of negro life in the South," and did not, "Foolishly and unjustly elevate the negro above the white man in intellect or morals..."