The Lost Museum Archive

“Uncle Tom at Barnum’s,” New-York Daily Tribune, November 15, 1853

For a brief time in 1853, New Yorkers seeking a stage production of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabinhad two choices. The first, a dramatization by George Aiken that ran at the National Theatre, was generally faithful to the novel and maintained its pointedly anti-slavery message. The second, an adaptation by H.J. Conway staged in the American Museum’s Lecture Room, promoted sectional understanding and compromise at the expense of the abolitionist message that was at the heart of Stowe’s novel. In an era before copyright protection for published works, adapters were free to alter Stowe’s famous novel in any way they wished, leaving the horrified author no recourse against the numerous theatrical versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This review from the abolitionist New-York Tribune newspaper warns its readers against the Conway adaptation at the American Museum.

Uncle Tom has been brought out at the Museum with a good deal of care as regards scenery and appointments, but with no care at all to preserve fidelity to the spirit of the story as told by Mrs. Stowe. The drama is shorn of salient points, and emasculated of the virility which has given life and reputation to the book, to as great an extent as could be done and still preserve a respectable show of adherence to the original story.

The piece will not bear comparison with the representation of the National in point of nature, and pathos, and effect, as well as adherence to the tale on which the play is founded. The exquisite character of little Eva, so touchingly rendered by Cordelia Howard, here amounts to nothing. So, too, the original character of Topsy, while it cannot be extinguished, is, in many respects, but a pointless caricature, as rendered at the Museum. The striking scene of the slave auction, so susceptible of dramatic coloring and effect, is touched with the lightest hand, and its point and moral totally extinguished by converting its close into a ridiculous squabble, and ending it amid shouts of laugher. At the end of the play, Uncle Tom is allowed to run with flying colors, after having had a pretty good time, so far as is seen or represented, throughout his entire pilgrimage.

It were impossible that the character of Mrs. Stowe’s great work could be put upon the stage, and while preserving any kind of fidelity to the original creations, fail to inculcate in some degree the great lesson her book teaches. But so far as any play founded on her story can be degraded to a mere burlesque negro performance, we think it is here accomplished. What little edge the play has, the dramatic editor has undertaken to blunt and destroy, by the absurd and stale defense of Slavery put into the mouth of St. Clare, to the effect, that free labor in England is reduced by the British Aristocracy to as low a point of suffering and degradation as Slave labor is here.

The effort 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. He has succeeded; and in doing so, has made a drama which has nothing to recommend it but its name.

Source: New-York Daily Tribune, November 15, 1853, p. 7