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Reviews - Uncle Tom's Cabin

New York Times

Familiar Americana, but Still Full of Life

When “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” landed in theaters in the early 1850s, it quickly became ubiquitous. “One of the first things it did,” wrote Henry James, who saw it repeatedly, was “to flutter down on every stage, literally without exception, in America and Europe.”

Is it odd or inevitable that this central national text — dealing as it does with our primal topics of slavery and race — has practically disappeared as drama?

Tastes change, of course, and so did Uncle Tom. The idealized, Christlike character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel metamorphosed into something embarrassing: an emblem of subservience and complicity.

How appropriate then that in its season dedicated to exploring stereotypes, the Metropolitan Playhouse is staging George L. Aiken’s version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” first presented in 1852. Aiken’s adaptation stresses action over psychology, and Alex Roe, the company’s artistic director, has directed this absorbing production with an unobtrusive minimalism, keeping the story front and center.

“Uncle Tom” unfolds with all the familiarity and strangeness of a folk tale. On a stark stage — the only decoration is a sketch of a cabin, white on a dark ground — with just a few benches and a few simple props, a cast of 10 (almost all doubling or tripling roles) enacts Stowe’s crowded story.

Here are the runaway slaves George (Rafael Jordan) and Eliza (Marcie Henderson); Uncle Tom (George Lee Miles) and the saintly little Eva (Helen Highfield); the sly wild child Topsy (Alex Marshall-Brown, in the show’s most complex performance) and the villainous overlord Simon Legree (Dan Snow). And here are corn-pone bits (some added by Aiken) and tragic moments and melodrama, both ham fisted and revealing.

The acting isn’t uniformly good, or even uniform, but mostly that doesn’t matter. (The exception is a long speech by Legree in the third act that drags badly, undercutting the play’s momentum.) And if Mr. Roe’s modern staging fails to produce big 19th-century tears, his production rarely loses its hold on the audience. That’s because, like any good close reader, he values his text.

And “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is full of indelible American scenes: Eliza’s escape across the river on ice floes (here she moves from bench to bench, as the other actors place them in front of her); the death of little Eva; Legree’s brutal whipping of Uncle Tom.

Before this production “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was last seen in New York in 1997 at the Mint Theater. (The Drama Dept. did a wonderful deconstructed version that same year.) During intermission the friend I brought wondered why the play wasn’t being produced at Lincoln Center or the Public Theater or the Roundabout. He’s right. It shouldn’t be a stranger on our stages.

Reviewed by Erik Haagensen

Back

November 21, 2010



I have long been curious to see a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I somehow missed the Mint Theater’s 1997 rendition, so when I heard that the Metropolitan Playhouse had scheduled it as part of a season about stereotypes I was determined to be there. Director Alex Roe has staged it with considerable invention given the tiny stage and 10-person cast, and he’s used the complete 1852 text by George L. Aiken, adapted from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. He’s also brought a contemporary sensibility to the work, having blacks play whites and vice versa and directing the actors to mine the material for its emotional truth rather than play it in the original floridly melodramatic style. The result is absolutely fascinating.

Though “Cabin” still holds the record as the “most-often performed American drama,” according to the theater’s press release, I imagine most Americans are familiar with the story and characters thanks to Jerome Robbins’ superb ballet adaptation for “The King and I.” I was surprised to discover that Simon Legree is not the slave owner chasing Eliza across the ice. He doesn’t even show up until Act 5 of this six-act play. Aiken begins with the story of slaves Eliza and George, who are owned by separate masters. George, abused by his owner, decides to flee to the north, where he will earn enough money to buy the freedom of his wife and young son, who have a kindly owner. But Eliza’s owner is in debt, and when she learns her master is being forced to sell her son as part of paying it off, Eliza also flees. Her famous river crossing ends Act 1. Other stories are interwoven. There is “Uncle” Tom, a deeply religious older slave who is also sold off by Eliza’s owner to the well-meaning St. Clare, who gives Tom to his young daughter, the saintly Eva. Mixed in this story are St. Clare’s cousin Ophelia, a religious Vermont spinster who disapproves of slavery but can’t abide blacks, and Topsy, the unruly teenage slave she educates and ultimately adopts.

Stowe and Aiken are forthright about all kinds of issues that later generations would refrain from discussing. Masters sleep with their female slaves in coercive relationships. Slaves are proud of their deep hatred for whites. An unrepentant unbeliever is a better man than some Christians. Bigotry isn’t innate (Rodgers and Hammerstein got in trouble for that one nearly 100 years later). Though stereotypical dialect is employed, it’s used for uneducated characters, black or white. There are also educated black characters who speak impeccable English. Yes, it’s clear that the piece is aimed at educating whites, and the authors use white characters as the gateway for audiences in an inevitably condescending manner. But compared, say, to “Gone With the Wind,” “Cabin” is far more honest. It’s like watching a movie made before the Hollywood Production Code came in.

Roe has assembled a tight ensemble. Standouts include Marcie Hendersen, who gives the virtuous Eliza a slight Brechtian edge that cuts the sentiment; Alex Marshall-Brown, who tears into Topsy with explosive force; Rick Delaney, who does vividly opposing work as the evil slave owner Haley and the more-congenial St. Clare; and George Lee Miles, who endows Tom with an underlying fierceness that makes his religiosity believable and helps us to at least understand some of the character’s self-defeating choices. Richard Waits offered a strongly emotional George and a slyly duplicitous Gumption Cute, a rapscallion character added by Aiken, presumably for comic relief, but Waits has since left the production (Rafael Jordan is his replacement).

Seen in close proximity with “A Free Man of Color” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” definitely felt like a foundational text. It tells us much about where we’ve come from and how far we may still have to go.

Village

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.

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.

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.

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.