The Lost Museum Archive

"Dred" at the Museum, New York Tribune, October 18, 1856

In 1856, the Lecture Room presented a production of Dred, based on a novel of the same name by Harriet Beecher Stowe and adapted for the stage by H.J. Conway. Dred, even more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was a scathingly antislavery novel. This review of the play from the New York Tribune enumerates Conway’s many changes to Stowe’s story and suggests the ways in which Conway softened Stowe’s starkly anti-southern message. The Tribune, while sympathetic to the antislavery cause, nonetheless lauded Conway’s adaptation and declared this production of Dred “worth seeing.” Dred proved yet another example of Barnum’s ability to present current political and social topics at the American Museum that attracted rather than offended large segments of his audience.

For the third time, inexorable duty demands a notice or a drama founded on that most undramatic of all novels, Mrs. Stowe’s Dred. Mr. H.J. Conway gave his version of the “Tale of the Dismal Swamp” for the first time on Thursday evening, to so much of the world as could crowd into the sky theater of the Museum. By means of omitting many of the characters entirely, changing the individualities of some of those whose names he retained, writing in several new ones names and all, transposing the chronology, leaving out all situations and incidents which didn’t suit him, and inventing others which did; by killing some of the persons of the drama before their time, and suffering others, whom Mrs. Stowe remorselessly consigned to an early grave, to live and get married; by discarding the story as developed in the book, and writing a more easily managed one, and by inventing a catastrophe to match, Mr. Conway has produced an entertaining play. True, his Dred resembles Mrs. Stowe’s Dred only in the general complexion of the characters and one or two other skin-deep superficialities; but he has learned from Mr. Brougham and Mr. Taylor that a drama from this novel may retain the ancestral name, though not the slightest trace of a family likeness be perceptible; the mere baptism is sufficient to legitimatise [sic] the bantling.*

In the dramatization of which we now speak, unusual prominence is give the efforts made by Clayton and Nina to educate their slaves, and in one or two very pretty scenes we have regiments of uniformed children, who are introduced with good effect, and who sing several simple melodies in a very agreeable manner. To compensate this amplification of what in the book is a mere episode, Dred himself is very much curtailed, and is abated in the third act, where he dies with a characteristic Scriptural flourish. Nina and Clayton are married, under protest probably of Mrs. Stowe, Uncle John Gordon does not die of cholera, but survives, and does excellent service in a very white wig. The abduction of Lisette by Tom Gordon, the escape of Lisette and Harry to the Swamp, the burning of Clayton’s school-house, and one or two other incidents of the story which are preserved and brought into bold relief, give occasion for several very spirited and exciting scenes, of which the actors make the most. Tiff, and the young scions of the Peyton family, are retained, though why they eventually make their escape through the window, when the doors of the house are open, and all the inmates dead drunk and fast asleep, we are at a loss to understand.

Cipher Cute, a Stage Yankee, with the customary peculiarities, and the Rev. Mr. Obadiah Orthodox, a kind of Aminidab Sleek,** very much dilated, are the comic elements which Mr. Conway has intermingled with the other ingredients of his play. The Yankee, which is very creditably personated by Mr. Hadaway, is perhaps allowable; but the reverend gentlemen should be at once suppressed. Mr. Conway can evidently write, when left on his own, a much better play than this; but he probably considered himself bound to follow, to some slight extent, the course of the story as laid down by Mrs. Stowe; still his hornpipe would be much merrier if he would discard the fetters. Compared with the other attempts to compress the straggling incidents of this disconnected book into a drama, the Museum play is successful.

Some of the acting is good, particularly Old Tiff (Mr. Lingard); but the most unique feature of the whole thing is the appearance of General Tom Thumb as Tom Tit. In order to bring out this diminutive actor, Mr. Conway has written a part expressly for him, (ignoring entirely the Tom Tit of the book), admirably adapted to his powers, in which the little General made a decided “hit.” We beg leave, however, to enter our protest against his “statuary exhibitions” in the last act. Even had Tom Tit enjoyed the pleasure of a personal acquaintance with Ajax, and Cupid, and Hercules, he had too great a sense of propriety to take off his clothes and give miniature imitations of those worthies before an audience of ladies. The General’s “statuary” is good, but in the last act of a long play it can be dispensed with. As a whole, the Museum Dred is worth seeing, and is fully as good as either of the versions of the other theaters.

Manager Stuart, pray don’t dramatise [sic] Dred. Good Mr. Burton, please don’t chastise our critical shortcomings with another Dred. Most Wonderful Monsieur Jerome Ravel, be kind enough to spare us a pantomimic Dred. The public do not want “six Richmonds in the field,” and will gladly excuse the balance of the half dozen.

* According to Webster’s Dictionary, 1913, n. a child wrapped in swaddling bands; an illegitimate child; or A young or small child; an infant. [Slightly contemptuous or depreciatory.]

* *Aminidab Sleek was a character from The Serious Family, an 1849 comedy by Morris Barnett.

Source: New York Tribune, October 18, 1856, p. 7