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

The Metropolitan Playhouse revives the Harriet Beecher Stowe classic

The show’s history, all-pervasiveness followed by embarrassed silence, explains why few living Americans have ever seen Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also why everyone has heard of it. Uncle Tom, Topsy, Little Eva, Simon Legree, and Eliza crossing the ice are all embedded in the public mind, but only as the exaggerations they became. Retaining only the cartoon images, memory has blanked out the facts (Legree is not Eliza’s pursuer; Eva’s death moves Topsy to reform); it allows troubling figures like St. Clare and Miss Ophelia to vanish altogether.

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)

The willed amnesia endemic to our public life makes an effort like the Metropolitan’s salutary by definition. Additionally, Alex Roe’s production solved many of the challenges involved by deploying his sparse resources swiftly and lucidly. His actors, though uneven in talent, all met the difficulty of their roles head-on: Marcie Henderson (Eliza), George Lee Miles (Uncle Tom), and Alex Marshall-Brown (Topsy) found the germ of truth inside Aiken’s ornate phrases; Peter Tedeschi found real fun in a white sympathizer’s by-cracky dialect. But greater than their individual abilities was the gratifying sense of a historical memory recaptured. Backsliding as our country currently is, we need many more such reminders.

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