Uncle Tom's Cabin Shows What American Culture Was—And Maybe Still Is
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 seasons hot attractions. It makes no sense. American history and American culture have, for good or ill, permanently changed the worlds. But Americans response to their own past, increasingly, can be summed up in the sentence, I dont 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 dont 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 thats only half the explanation: I discovered the second half last week, while watching the Metropolitan Playhouse perform George L. Aikens 1853 stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowes novel, Uncle Toms Cabin.
To see this ancient epicthe actual artifact, not an artsy deconstruction or a streamlined, p.cd modernizationis 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 hasnt changed. If anything, it has stood still, constantly fixated on the same preoccupations. Slavery has been abolished, and the plays 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.
For Uncle Toms Cabin virtually is American culture. Viewing it in something like its authentic formthe Metropolitan, limited in space and cast size, had to do some condensingmakes 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, Stowes novel sold a half-million copies here and in Britain, spawning innumerable stage adaptations, virtually all pirated. Aikens version gained its semi-official status because the literate generally rated it as the most faithful to Stowes substance.
As Aikens script makes clear, Stowe carefully balanced her picture of plantation life. She portrayed both benevolent and tyrannical masters, showing both as ultimately corrupted by slaverys system. Through the kindhearted but dissolute planter St. Clare and his prim Vermont cousin Miss Ophelia, she displayed a potential good side to the Souths easy intimacy between the races, contrasted to the aloof Northern distaste that produced de facto segregation. In the runaway slave Georges 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 Topsys 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 Toms 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 itthough, 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. Topsys anarchic impishness and Uncle Toms submissive piety fit naturally into the complex, textured parable of Christian redemption that Stowewife, daughter, and sister of ministersnurtured within her informed account of slavery. Only the endless subsequent exploitation of her storys sensationalist peaks coarsened them into six decades of box-office triumphfollowed by decades of embarrassment over the stereotypes to which time and mass-marketing had degraded Stowes characters. The romanticizing of the old South that set in after Reconstruction shoveled the degradation deeper.
The shows history, all-pervasiveness followed by embarrassed silence, explains why few living Americans have ever seen Uncle Toms 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 Elizas pursuer; Evas death moves Topsy to reform); it allows troubling figures like St. Clare and Miss Ophelia to vanish altogether.
The willed amnesia endemic to our public life makes an effort like the Metropolitans salutary by definition. Additionally, Alex Roes 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 Aikens ornate phrases; Peter Tedeschi found real fun in a white sympathizers 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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