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In Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York, the two main characters—Amsterdam Vallon (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (played by Daniel Day-Lewis)—attend a ‘Tom’ show (a stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) in New York City. In this scene, which depicts the end of the ‘Tom’ show, the deus ex machina in the form of Abraham Lincoln descends from the rafters to console the African-American characters (played by white actors in blackface). Lincoln’s presence is met with derision from the nativist audience members, who throw vegetables at the actor playing Lincoln and shout, “Down with the Union!” By staging this scene in a 2002 blockbuster film, Scorsese demonstrated that the ‘Tom’ show was a nearly universal experience in Civil War-era American life, pervading its culture and its politics during and even long after the Civil War. In addition, Scorsese visualized the multiple ways in which Stowe’s novel was adapted and appropriated for the stage, ultimately reflecting the racial, cultural and political tensions of the times.
It is first important to note that Stowe had mixed feelings about adaptations of her novel for the stage. Although she would eventually withdraw her objections, as an orthodox Protestant, she feared that the theatre as a whole was detrimental to the moral fabric of society (Gossett 261-262). Nevertheless, countless adaptations hit the stage in the years following the novel’s publication. Harry Birdoff counts 271 separate companies which performed the show; most of these productions took place between the 1850s and the early 1900s, although at least one production was still in existence as late as 1953 (Railton). Thomas F. Gossett writes that “perhaps as many as fifty people would eventually see Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the play, for every one person who would read the novel” (260); in 1912, Stowe’s son estimated that the play in its various forms had been performed about 250,000 times (Birdoff 388). This was no small feat, given that publisher John P. Jewett sold 300,000 copies of the novel in its first year of printing alone (Meer 4).
Due to lax copyright laws at the time, it was inevitable that despite her objections, Stowe’s enormously popular novel would be adapted and produced in various ways to suit a multitude of purposes. The use of the phrase Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a play’s title only meant that the spectacle to be staged would somehow depict a certain view of slavery, and little else. Among other aspects of the novel, Uncle Tom’s fate was at stake, depending on the production’s view of slavery. The various playwrights—or rather, adapters—of these versions were seen to be competing with the original novel in presenting a “correct” view of slavery. This competition for authority on the issue was seen in numerous advertisements for ‘Tom’ shows: among the names given to the plays were Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or Life in the South as It Is (Gossett 280) and Life Among the Happy (Gossett 276). These titles suggested that Stowe’s idea of slavery was just one of many possible interpretations of the issue at hand, as adaptations argued a political equivalence between their Uncle Toms and that of Stowe.
By adapting the novel in so many ways for such a large number of people, the ‘Tom’ shows took on lives of their own, eventually becoming more Uncle Tom’s Cabin than Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this way, the locus of the slavery debate was shifted from the print media to the theatre—especially important in an age where literacy rates were lower among whites and blacks than now—as the various stage adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin represented a larger struggle over how to deal with the ‘black’ issue in the United States.
As it is evident that the ‘Tom’ show was not a monolithic creature which imposed a solely abolitionist message on its audiences, the main question then becomes how the meaning of the ‘Tom’ show shifted and adapted over time and in accordance with its audiences’ political ideals. In this essay, I will first locate these various adaptations within their proper historical contexts. Birdoff’s book The World’s Greatest Hit, Gossett’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture, as well as Stephen Railton’s website of the same name, provide production histories of the ‘Tom’ show, yet unfortunately, they do not provide much meaningful cultural context. Nor do they provide any critical analysis: it is my intention in this essay to fill these gaps, examining the ramifications of the performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in contributing to a discussion about slavery, politics and race relations in America.
Minstrelsy, Political Theatre and the ‘Tom’ Show
Before I launch into case studies of the specific productions, however, it is necessary to describe the general history and aspects of the ‘Tom’ show. As blackface minstrelsy was still the dominant genre of theatrical entertainment in antebellum United States, ‘Tom’ shows by and large incorporated elements of the minstrel show into their adaptations. Sarah Meer argues that the minstrelsy elements of the novel “may have made its antislavery message palatable for the cautious and scarcely noticeable for the indifferent” (12). So it was with many stage versions. Although blackface minstrel acts in the 1820s and 1830s had by and large been individual acts used to introduce an evening’s main theatrical entertainment, by the mid-1840s minstrelsy had developed a highly structured form. At the opening of the show, the entire company would stand in a semicircle on stage, with the first part of the show being composed of songs, dances, and somewhat ribald jokes. At the center of the semicircle sat the emcee, called the “interlocutor,” who often was the butt of the jokes of the “endmen,” two men on either end of the semicircle who would entertain audiences with comic sketches and puns (Meer 10). Minstrel shows were generally extremely racist, at today’s standards, parodying stereotypical features in physicality and personality which were commonly attributed to blacks at the time—including exaggerated lips, a heavy dialect, laziness, and ignorance, among others—as a declaration of white superiority over blacks.
Although the work of German director and theorist Bertolt Brecht1 would not begin until the 1920s, I suggest that two well-known dramaturgical devices usually credited to Brecht’s Epic Theatre had already been used in minstrelsy, and later, the ‘Tom’ shows of the 19th century. In both instances, these devices were used to create a political or cultural dialogue among the audience: while Brecht, an avowed Marxist, used them to directly attack capitalism, the ‘Tom’ shows used them to indirectly discuss slavery and race relations in America.
First, the ‘Tom’ shows used the technique of “demonstrating” a character, rather than “being” a character. This distancing, or “stepping back,” was used to encourage critical observation among the audience. As both the minstrel shows and the ‘Tom’ shows were performed exclusively by whites, most of whom were in blackface, the obvious mode of representation or demonstration combined with the exaggerated, stereotypical “black” dialect provided the audience with a mode with which to critically observe the presence of blacks in American society. Of course, I must also recognize that racism played an inherent role in the casting of whites as African-American characters in ‘Tom’ shows, so this mode of Brechtian “demonstration” was certainly not intentional. However, if the white actor’s body was a cultural signifier of power, then the white actor in blackface—literally covering the white with the black—seemed to symbolize the idea that the race issue pervaded all facets of American life and directly affected every white person.
In demonstrating black characters, the ‘Tom’ show used parody where Brecht did not: as Hutcheon writes, “a critical distance is implied between the backgrounded text being parodied [in this instance, both Stowe’s novel and blacks] and the new incorporating work [the minstrel show and the ‘Tom’ show], a distance usually signaled by irony” (32). In many ways, blackface in ‘Tom’ shows had a negative effect on the portrayal of Uncle Tom: Gossett notes that “there had been few black characters in American plays aside from the malign stereotypes of minstrel shows” (260). In observing a white actor’s portrayal of Uncle Tom, audiences would certainly remember the comic portrayals of blacks in minstrel shows: in this way, Tom’s status as a tragic martyr figure was, by nature, marginalized in performance.
Secondly, not only were the performers able to interact with the audience, but lighting conventions of the time (which would eventually be appropriated by Brecht) ensured that the audience was able to interact with each other. This lighting style was an especially important feature of a play which demanded the audience to be a consciously critical observer. As the house lights remained up throughout the performance, audience members were able to monitor one another’s reactions to the representations of slavery and race on stage. The use of the house lights also blurred the boundaries between player and spectator, forcing the audience to examine their own places in the events and issues presented before them.
The Antebellum ‘Tom’ Show: Adaptation and Parody
The first major production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the only version that could claim any true authenticity in comparison to the novel. Yet crucial changes which affected the slavery debate were undertaken in this adaptation, most of which played up the melodramatic moments while simultaneously watering down Stowe’s political arguments. Entitled Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, The Death of Eva, this adaptation was written by George L. Aiken for the Troy Museum in Troy, New York.2 The production opened on September 27, 1852, only months after the novel was first published. At this time in the United States, Americans had been confronted with arguably their first major issues of racial tension. Many citizens remembered Nat Turner’s bloody slave revolt from twenty years earlier, which fueled a suspicion of slaves and their desire to define themselves as free people. In addition, America was dealing with major questions about what it meant to be an American, as the young nation was experiencing its first major influx of immigrants from both Europe and Asia. As a result, racial and nationalistic tensions were on the rise, and entertainment such as the ‘Tom’ show stepped in to provide answers, reaffirming the “superiority” of American-born citizens over both the hordes of foreigners that were entering the country from all continents and the slaves that were fighting for their freedom.
As the title suggests, Aiken’s 1852 play originally ended at the point in the novel where Eva succumbs to her illness, which strongly encouraged the audience to sympathize with the sick white angel, rather than Tom and his fellow slaves. Aiken would soon adapt the last portion of the book for the stage, this one entitled The Death of Uncle Tom, Or the Religion of the Lowly. By November, 1852, the two portions would be combined for the stage, featuring six acts, thirty scenes, and eight tableaux.3 Although Tom’s death was now the final scene of the new full version of the play, the final tableaux (in both versions) still showed “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 upward.—Her hands are extended in benediction over ST. CLARE and UNCLE TOM who are kneeling and gazing up to her.—Expressive music.—Slow curtain” (Aiken 6:6).4 The final visual image provided by Aiken ensured that Eva, the pure white character, remained the focus of the audience’s sympathies. Cherry aptly notes that even as Tom is finally “right in the door, going to Glory” (Aiken 6:5), free from Legree’s whip and the bonds of slavery, his death is not equal to Eva’s, as he is only able to enter Heaven on his knees (80).5 Although the Bible teaches that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16)—a verse which Stowe, a deeply religious woman, must have reflected on as she wrote the novel—Aiken seemed to think that blacks would inevitably be doomed to an eternity of servitude to whites, rather than receiving their rewards in heaven. The tableaux is also reminiscent of various pieces of Christian art, in which Christ is surrounded by sinners seeking forgiveness. Eva’s white hands, extended in benediction in this tableaux, must baptize the black (read: unclean) slave before he can enter heaven.
The Aiken adaptation more or less retained the basic abolitionist message of the novel; however, these arguments as a whole were watered down in order to make the play more palatable to multiple audiences. While Stowe’s novel had a number of intellectual as well as emotional arguments in favor of the abolition of slavery, Aiken’s adaptation removed these intellectual arguments almost entirely. There are a number of characters in Stowe’s novel who express intellectual arguments, as opposed to emotional feelings, against slavery: George Harris, Mrs. Shelby, Mrs. Bird, and Augustine St. Clare. Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird, two minor characters of Stowe’s novel—who, ironically, expressed the most convincing arguments against slavery—are deleted entirely from Aiken’s version. In addition, Aiken chose to omit St. Clare’s and Miss Ophelia’s long discussion of Christianity and slavery, and along with it, some of St. Clare’s most poignant and engaging words on the issue: “My view of Christianity is such . . . that I think no man can consistently profess it without throwing the whole weight of his being against this monstrous system of injustice that lies at the foundation of all our society; and, if need be, sacrificing himself in the battle” (Stowe 272). In this way, Aiken defused Stowe’s original abolitionist intent simply by removing her most passionate arguments from the play. In editing the play in such a way, Aiken had his audiences in mind: by avoiding the issue of slavery altogether, this toothless version was more satisfactory to multiple audiences.
Finally, various stagings of Aiken’s adaptation emphasized the melodrama of the piece in often ludicrous form. As I previously mentioned, Aiken was intent on emphasizing the most exciting and melodramatic sections of Stowe’s novel, even at the cost of losing much of her abolitionist message. This emphasis on melodrama was most famously seen in the scene in which Eliza escapes across the ice from Haley, Sam and Andy: the escape and subsequent hunt was often—along with the scene of Eva’s death—the centerpiece of Aiken’s play. The playbill of one 1856 production loudly proclaimed, “SLAVE HUNT: OR, LEGREE’S BLOODHOUNDS!” (Birdoff 160).6 In Stowe’s novel, there is no mention of any dogs pursuing Eliza; however, as multiple productions began to appear and compete with each other for audiences, the heightened tension created by live—and often unpredictable—dogs on the stage played to audiences’ desire for spectacle over plot and character. Gossett notes that as these productions became larger and more elaborate, the dogs became larger, more numerous, and more ferocious: one advertisement shows three Great Danes, teeth bared, jumping on Eliza as she attempts to beat them away with a branch (Gossett, Illustration plate 16). This trend would continue long after the Civil War: Rahill mentions an 1891 ‘Tom’ show in which even “alligators [would] assist the hounds” in their pursuit of Eliza (152). While critics such as Rahill and Birdoff suggest that the increasingly absurd additions to the chase scene were merely techniques used to sell tickets, I would instead argue that there was an underlying racist tone in the use of alligators to chase Eliza. In Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies, Patricia Turner recalls a racist stereotype that alligators prefer to eat blacks rather than whites, writing that these stereotypes “depict more than the presence of a negative stereotype, they implicitly advocate a form of aggression in eradicating an unwanted people” (36). In addition, the semiotic visualization of the black body next to an “exotic” creature such as an alligator creates both a conscious and a subconscious association between the two: neither alligators nor blacks, implies this scene, have a place in proper American society.
Although Aiken’s production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not as ostensibly racially prejudiced as later adaptations (which I will discuss later), his version paved the way for these later, more explicitly racist, adaptations. In eliminating the political teeth from Stowe’s novel, removing Tom’s significance, and emphasizing the melodramatic aspects of the novel, Aiken created an environment where Uncle Tom—and blacks in general—could be parodied endlessly. In addition, Aiken failed to demonstrate alternatives to slavery or to show how free blacks could participate in American society. This was tantamount to an erasure of blacks not only from the American continent, but from the entire consciousness of whites: they are not freed from slavery, nor are they explicitly forced into slavery, nor are they sent to Africa. They simply do not exist. In some way, the propagation of this mindset throughout many incarnations of Aiken’s production aided in creating a path for the marginalization of free blacks in American society and the pervading sense of race-based societal stratification which still continues today.
At the same time that the Troy theatre was enjoying record audiences for its Aiken adaptation, four pro-slavery ‘Tom’ shows were making the rounds throughout the United States. In all of these four versions, a major narrative shift was employed in that Tom did not die, but was saved from Legree by George Shelby and joyfully returned to his master’s plantation as a slave. While Stowe’s main argument against slavery was the physical brutality enacted against slaves—as was demonstrated by her casting of the brutal Legree as the antithesis to the gentle, pious Uncle Tom—then these three adaptations attempted to talk back to Stowe’s novel by refusing to agree with the premise that slavery was anything but a benevolent institution. By keeping Tom alive, these versions denied him status as a martyr and propagated among their audiences the view that there was no urgent need for slavery reform.
The first of these productions was an 1852 production called Uncle Tom As It Is, Or The Southern Uncle Tom. As I mentioned earlier, the appending of the phrase “As It Is” to the well-known title of “Uncle Tom” encouraged the audience to believe that Stowe’s interpretation was only one of many, and that this production was to serve as a correction to Stowe’s misguided abolitionism. Birdoff writes that this production’s Uncle Tom “is not portrayed as a martyr, nor shown in less piety, but with absolute devotion to his master”: this devotion was illustrated by his line, “Sha! I was born a slave, I have lived a slave, and, bress de Lord, I hope to die a slave!” (21). Interspersed within these lines of “absolute devotion” were musical numbers which affirmed this concept: songs such as “Chorus: Nigga in de Cornfield” and “Kentucky Breakdown Dance” (Hirsch 320) identified the slave with “light and cheerful hearts . . . enjoy[ing] themselves a while in the merry laugh and flowing good humor for which they are proverbial” (qtd. in Breeden 15). Again in reference to Brecht’s Epic Theatre, these musical numbers “stepped back” from the narrative in order to demonstrate the author’s interpretation of the wider social and cultural concepts at hand. In these songs, audiences heard an echo of didacticism, as the songs essentially told them exactly what to think about the issues of slavery and race relations.
Another such adaptation was created that same year by Henry J. Conroy, who felt that the novel contained too many “objectionable features which meet the eye of the reader while perusing the book” (qtd. in Gossett 274). The production, which caught the eye of famed American showman P.T. Barnum and was played in his New York theatre in 1852, “avoided all argumentative portions of Mrs. Stowe’s work. . . . so shap[ing] his drama as to make it quite an agreeable thing to be a slave” (Birdoff 88). Heralded in advertisements as a depiction of “SLAVERY AS IT IS,” Conroy and Barnum attacked Stowe’s novel as a far too sentimental work. Instead, Conroy’s interpretation purported to “[appeal] to reason instead of the passions . . . this drama [will] be more salutary than those of any piece based on fanaticism without reason, and zeal without knowledge” (qtd. in Birdoff 89). As difficult as it is for me to defend such a piece, it can at least be said that its preferences for “knowledge” over “zeal” and “reason” over “fanaticism” at least attempted to encourage audiences to approach the issue intellectually. In the end, it could be said that this production succeeded more when it came to creating a political debate among its audiences, although its basic premise was obviously misguided: “do[ing] ‘nothing to extenuate nor set down aught in malice,’ while it does not foolishly and unjustly elevate the negro above the white man in intellect or morals” (qtd. in Birdoff 89). Although the play was a success, abolitionists decried it: as a New York Tribune critic wrote, “The effect 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” (qtd. in Gossett 275). In producing a sterilized version of the book for the stage, Barnum and Conway succeeded in shifting the narrative entirely insofar as its relationship to slavery goes. However, as I suggested earlier, if audiences willingly saw the minstrel tradition in these adaptations, then a shift away from an abolitionist message would have been unsurprising and perhaps even acceptable to many audiences, as the minstrel shows had already conditioned them to interpret the black body on stage as a comedic figure.
A third production, written by Joseph M. Field and performed in New Orleans, was called Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or Life in the South as It Is. Field made no attempt to disguise his politics, as he advertised the play’s author as “Harriet Screecher Blow.” In the play, a “philanthropist” comes upon Tom, who has successfully escaped to Canada but now finds himself wholly unprepared to deal with the harsh Canadian winters. Gossett reproduces the scene as follows:
PHI. Well, Uncle Tom, you seem to be in trouble. What do you want?
TOM. Donno, Massa.
PHI. Do you want a house?
TOM. No, massa.
PHI. Do you want clothes?
TOM. No, massa.
PHI. Well, what do you want?
(In the distance, the strains of “Old Folks at Home” are indistinctly heard. Uncle Tom listens with tears in his eyes.)
TOM. Massa, that’s what I want!
Tom is then happily returned to the plantation, where he and the other plantation slaves dance and sing “Old Jawbone” as the curtain falls (Gossett 280-281). Of course, these plays reflected the concept that slaves wanted nothing more than to be slaves, thereby attempting to cast the abolitionists’ protests as ludicrous. One is reminded of the words of a Georgia planter in 1851: “. . .it is profoundly to be wished that every fanatical abolitionist in the country could but witness one of these scenes of mirthful hilarity. . . . they are the best fed, best clothed, and most cheerful and happy laboring population on the globe . . .” (qtd. in Breeden 15). As abolitionists became more forceful in numbers and in message—mainly due to Stowe’s novel, I suggest—these shows reaffirmed conservatism in America, reassuring the upper classes that their lifestyles would not be upended by a call for African-American rights.7
Finally, Birdoff discusses an 1856 production with an even more shocking twist: not only does Tom remain alive, but “The Good Master [George Shelby] Dies to Save the Slave [Uncle Tom]!” (160).8 This stunning reversal of fate ludicrously suggested that slaves were a burden on their masters, as it aimed to paint the white man (Shelby) as the ultimate victim of slavery. The audience’s resentment for the blacks who “forced” whites to give up their lives for their unworthy slaves was further emphasized by the final subtitle of this production: “And The Happy Days of UNCLE TOM” (Birdoff 160). Whether intentional or not, the implication of this production was that freedom and happiness for enslaved blacks would ultimately be paid by the blood of whites: indeed, many Americans would resent the sacrificing of white Union soldiers for what they deemed to be an essentially “black” cause.
The black body was also weakened in these productions, by way of the characterization of Uncle Tom. I would suggest that such interpretations placed an emphasis on Tom’s humility and ignored his powerful features as described by Stowe, as well as indirectly casting aside his mental faculties. Stowe describes Uncle Tom as such: “He was a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man, of a full glossy black, and a face whose truly African features were characterized by an expression of grave and steady good sense. . . . with a confiding and humble simplicity” (18). In contrast, Birdoff describes actors such as twenty-year-old David Belasco, who played Uncle Tom in an 1873 adaptation in San Francisco. Belasco’s Uncle Tom is pictured as a fairly slight figure, with his low-bent, balding head showing traces of messy, pure white hair (Birdoff 222; see illustration on p. 19 of this essay). Belasco’s ill-fitting costume is full of patches, certainly conjuring memories of the clownish figures of the minstrel shows whose primary aim was to make audiences laugh, as well as the subservient African-American figure who is unable to act on his own accord. The subtitle of the previously-mentioned 1856 adaptation—‘The Happy Days of Uncle Tom’—further recalled the comic minstrelsy elements and cemented the audience’s view of Tom as a happy character, weakening his power and the pathos of his death.
Uncle Tom After the War
As the “the mighty scourge of war . . . pass[ed] away”—as Lincoln had hoped and prayed for in his second inaugural address in March 1865—and slavery was abolished throughout the entire Union, productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were by necessity forced to abandon the staging of their various interpretations of slavery. Instead, these performances discussed the wider issue of race relations, as newly-freed blacks struggled to find a place in a nation which was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Lincoln had noted in his Gettysburg Address two years earlier.9 Many productions, unwilling to accept blacks as equal members of society, harkened back to the minstrel shows which had given birth to a number of staging conventions of the ‘Tom’ shows and aimed to return blacks to “their place” as comedic figures not to be taken seriously. One anonymously-written parody from 1874, entitled Uncle Tom: An Ethiopian Interlude, simply used the name “Uncle Tom” as a derogatory slur against blacks, as Stowe’s Uncle Tom bore no resemblance to the character of the same name depicted in An Ethiopian Interlude. A basic synopsis of the short sketch is as follows: as “Pete” tunes up his banjo (a clear reference to the minstrel show), Uncle Tom—dressed in a clownish manner, in a “grey wig, slouch hat, soldier overcoat, with large black patches on back and sleeves; dark pants and vest, very shabby and slouchy; large shoes”—enters to sell Pete a “snackin’ turple” (snapping turtle). Pete offers to buy the turtle from Tom, if Tom will dance for him. As Tom dances, Pete “fastens the turtle on the rear expanse of Uncle Tom’s pants,” much to Tom’s chagrin, who yelps and runs off stage. As the character of Uncle Tom (in his various incarnations on stage) was well-known to audiences, this was another attempt to reappropriate and reinterpret Stowe’s famous depiction of African-Americans, incongruous to Stowe’s story as it was.
As memories of the Civil War and slavery waned in American consciousness, ‘Tom’ shows began to take on a more general view of American life before the war without necessarily emphasizing slavery or even blacks. Meer writes that by this time, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin still had political connotations, but that now it could stand not only for slavery or even for the Civil War but also for antebellum nostalgia and the national literature as well as history” (253). Memories of Uncle Tom were still fresh; however, the weak, but happy character created by the minstrel shows and post-war parodies were—and continue to be—the most prevalent in the minds of citizens.10 Of course, slavery was no longer an issue; however, I would suggest that the lack of any major emphasis on the black characters in an adaptation of the world’s most famous abolitionist novel further damaged African-American interests and further banished them to the fringes of popular American culture. If blacks were no longer a central feature in a story originally written about blacks, then it seems they would have little hope of claiming a place in “the land of the free.”
Furthermore, racially-charged representations of Uncle Tom paved the way for the many depictions of the “happy plantation worker” seen throughout the early part of the twentieth century. One of the most popular examples of this was in Disney’s 1946 children’s film Song of the South, featuring a character named Uncle Remus, who very closely resembled Belasco’s Uncle Tom in dialect and dress. Uncle Remus’ character lived on a plantation and was ostensibly an ex-slave with no desire for true freedom; the film played on the stereotype of the “happy black” by failing to mention slavery or race relations, instead featuring upbeat songs such as “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.”11 In this way, popular culture used the “Uncle Tom” stereotype as created by these stage adaptations—long after the heyday of the ‘Tom’ shows—to capitalize on African-American “culture” without acknowledging their suffering.
Finally, I would suggest that although Stowe supported abolitionism in her novel, she did not necessarily advocate full and equal rights for African-Americans after slavery had been abolished. In this way, it seems that the ‘Tom’ shows did not twist Stowe’s work as a means of discriminating against blacks, but simply amplified certain racial ideas which were already subtly present in the novel. For example, although Stowe endows Tom with positive qualities—piety, strength, and loyalty—these qualities, as Elizabeth Ammons has noted, have been equated to a feminization of Tom (162). Because of the exaggeration of these traits in the ‘Tom’ shows, which created an ultra-feminization of Tom to the point that he became a weak hero, I would venture to suggest that the ‘Tom’ shows were ultimately more detrimental to race relations than has previously been noted. This is not to say that these adaptations were the sole cause of the pervading racism in the United States throughout the twentieth century, as they simply reaffirmed what many audiences already felt about the relationship between whites and blacks. However, simply by reaffirming the tension between the races, as was demonstrated by Aiken’s play and various parodic offshoots of it, many shows unwittingly contributed to an environment in which racism against blacks was not only supported, but encouraged.
1. David Belasco as Uncle Tom.
Ammons, Elizabeth. “Heroines in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” American Literature 49:2 (May 1977): 161-179.
Birdoff, Harry. The World’s Greatest Hit: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: S.F. Vanni, 1947.
Brawn, Shaleen. Repurposing Uncle Tom. Diss. Stanford University, 2000. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2000. ATT 9986443.
Breeden, James O., ed. Advice Among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in the Old South. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Cherry, James M. Melodrama, Parody, and the Transformations of an American Genre.
Diss. City University of New York, 2005.
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