Uncle Tom's Cabin Shows What American Culture Was—And Maybe Still Is

The Metropolitan Playhouse revives the Harriet Beecher Stowe classic

Americans’ desire to blot out the past has always puzzled me. For most of my fellow citizens, it seems that history, barring a few easily recognizable names and dates, does not exist. Culture, likewise with a few icons excepted, consists strictly of this season’s hot attractions. It makes no sense. American history and American culture have, for good or ill, permanently changed the world’s. But Americans’ response to their own past, increasingly, can be summed up in the sentence, “I don’t know who (or what) that was.”

It takes the strong jolt of a trip back in time to explain why. Americans love change. They revere progress. Educationally, financially, spiritually, they yearn for their own betterment: The busiest section of any American bookstores, back when America had bookstores, was always the self-help section. The one thing Americans most emphatically don’t aspire to be, in the years ahead, is what they are. Understandably, getting them to look back at what they were, decades or centuries ago, is no easy feat. But that’s only half the explanation: I discovered the second half last week, while watching the Metropolitan Playhouse perform George L. Aiken’s 1853 stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

To see this ancient epic—the actual artifact, not an artsy deconstruction or a streamlined, p.c’d modernization—is to reveal the painful truth that makes Americans, who worship change, leap to shriek, “Dated!” whenever anyone revives a play written before 2008: American culture hasn’t changed. If anything, it has stood still, constantly fixated on the same preoccupations. Slavery has been abolished, and the play’s characters speak in a diction that was arch and artificial even in its own time, but the conditions that Mrs. Stowe addressed in fiction, and that Aiken pointed up for the popular stage, still apply to a startling degree. How perplexing it must be for those with a superficial faith in progress to look up from their BlackBerries and find in this relic, the quintessence, in embryo, of their own culture.

1853 meets 2010: Helen Highfield (as Eva) and George Lee Miles (as Uncle Tom)
Kimberly Stowell
1853 meets 2010: Helen Highfield (as Eva) and George Lee Miles (as Uncle Tom)

For Uncle Tom’s Cabin virtually is American culture. Viewing it in something like its authentic form—the Metropolitan, limited in space and cast size, had to do some condensing—makes you realize why it swept the world when it appeared, as well as how it shriveled in public memory into a set of embarrassing stereotypes. That latter process, too, reveals much about our cultural history. But first came the thing itself, an immediate success: The year it was published, Stowe’s novel sold a half-million copies here and in Britain, spawning innumerable stage adaptations, virtually all pirated. Aiken’s version gained its semi-official status because the literate generally rated it as the most faithful to Stowe’s substance.

As Aiken’s script makes clear, Stowe carefully balanced her picture of plantation life. She portrayed both benevolent and tyrannical masters, showing both as ultimately corrupted by slavery’s system. Through the kindhearted but dissolute planter St. Clare and his prim Vermont cousin Miss Ophelia, she displayed a potential good side to the South’s easy intimacy between the races, contrasted to the aloof Northern distaste that produced de facto segregation. In the runaway slave George’s spiky debates with his wife, Eliza, and with the whites who abet their escape, she foresaw black rage and the black impulse toward cultural separatism as natural outgrowths of the slaves’ quest for the identity that had been stolen from them. Even the innocently “wicked” Topsy’s insistence that she “never was born” echoes the immeasurable bitterness that makes George, in his very first line, wish that he had never been born.

But Aiken at no time held the field alone. For the next seven decades, troupes of “Tommers” toured Uncle Tom’s Cabin everywhere, in productions of every shape and size, from gigantic spectacles to half-hour “tab” versions that rounded off vaudeville bills. Long before Jerome Robbins rendered it as the hypothetical Siamese court ballet, “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” in The King and I (1951), Uncle Tom had become fodder for operetta, musical, pantomime, outdoor drama, cabaret act, and nearly a dozen movies, the two earliest in 1903.

Stowe had a political mission, and used the elements of melodrama unhesitatingly to achieve it—though, like her model, Dickens, she took care to give her heart-tugging contrivances a solid realistic grounding. (Even the villainous Simon Legree sprang from accounts of a particularly brutal Louisiana overseer.) Her aesthetic strategies were conventional, and made more so by Aiken; her sense of factuality was not. Topsy’s anarchic impishness and Uncle Tom’s submissive piety fit naturally into the complex, textured parable of Christian redemption that Stowe—wife, daughter, and sister of ministers—nurtured within her informed account of slavery. Only the endless subsequent exploitation of her story’s sensationalist peaks coarsened them into six decades of box-office triumph—followed by decades of embarrassment over the stereotypes to which time and mass-marketing had degraded Stowe’s characters. The romanticizing of the “old South” that set in after Reconstruction shoveled the degradation deeper.

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