Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


UNCLE TOM'S CABIN

A synopsis and brief history of the play adapted from Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous anti-slavery novel

HISTORY OF THE PLAY

One of the most successful American plays ever written, judging from the number of performances and the amount of money taken in at the box office, is Uncle Tom's Cabin, a dramatization of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous anti-slavery novel. This play held the stage for more than half a century. In 1902, fifty years after its original premiere, no fewer than sixteen companies included the piece in their repertoire. C.W. Taylor's dramatization was the first seen in New York, at Purdy's National Theatre, in 1852, and a year later the Howard family staged the George L. Aiken version, opening at the same theatre, where the play ran three months. The cast included George C. Howard, who acted St. Clair; Greene C. Germon, who played Uncle Tom; George L. Fox, afterwards the famous pantomimist, who was Phineas Fletcher; Charles K. Fox, who acted Gumption Cute; Samuel M. Siple, who played George Harris; and Mrs. W.G. Jones, who was Eliza; W.J. Le Moyne, a popular member of Daniel Frohman's Lyceum Theatre stock company, played the Deacon.

SYNOPSIS OF THE PLAY

A common tragedy of Negro slavery in the old South is being enacted in the Kentucky cabin of Eliza, servant of Mrs. Shelby, and George, her husband, an intelligent and spirited young slave on the neighboring Harris property. George's master has climaxed a protracted campaign of cruelty and humiliation by ordering him to give up Eliza and marry a girl on his own plantation. George tells Eliza that he can stand the torment no longer; he intends to escape to Canada, hoping to earn enough money there to buy his wife and their little boy, Harry.

But more misery is in store for them. Shelby, a kindly man, facing loss of his plantation through debt, is forced to sell Eliza's boy, Harry, to Haley, a slave trader, together with his most trusted and valuable slave, Uncle Tom, his faithful and devout manager.

Eliza overhears Shelby telling his wife this news, and fights her way through the snow with Harry to the cabin of Uncle Tom and his wife, Aunt Chloe. She tells them that she is determined to try to reach George, who has made his escape and is supposed to be on his way to Canada. Aunt Chloe urges Uncle Tom to try to escape also. Uncle Tom, however, rather than cause his master to lose his plantation and force the sale of all the other slaves, decides to stay, trusting that God will somehow deliver him.

Eliza, with little Harry, walking all day, reaches a tavern by the Ohio River. If the two can manage to cross to Ohio their escape will be virtually sure, but the river is full of huge cakes of floating ice. Phineas Fletcher, a good-hearted countryman who has sold his slaves at the demand of his Quaker sweetheart, and who also is waiting to be ferried across to the other side, provides shelter for Eliza and Harry. Soon they are seen by Haley and his henchmen--Marks, a lawyer, and Tom Loker--who have come in pursuit, and Eliza, with Harry in her arms, leaps upon an ice cake and floats from sight as her enemies rush for a boat.

At this same time, a Mr. St. Clare returns to his home in Kentucky with his little daughter Eva, his cousin, Miss Ophelia, a spinster from Vermont who is to be his housekeeper, and Uncle Tom whom he has bought while on a steamboat journey. Eva's mother is a languid, selfish woman, and Uncle Tom is directed to devote himself entirely to the child. The two become inseparable, Uncle Tom frequently reading to her from the Bible and teaching her hymns. Another addition to the household is Topsy, an impish Negro girl who is assigned to serve Miss Ophelia. Eva's love goes far to reform Topsy, to whom no one before had ever shown kindliness.

Back at the tavern on the Kentucky side of the Ohio, Phineas Fletcher reveals that Eliza and Harry have safely crossed the river with his help, and now Phineas' sweetheart has sent him back to look for Eliza's husband. George enters the tavern, and, although he is disguised, the shrewd Phineas recognizes him when he greets Wilson, a former master, and exposes a brand mark upon his hand. Phineas hides George in a cellar when Haley, Marks and Loker suddenly appear. He delays them while George escapes to join Eliza.

Haly and his followers are relentless in their pursuit of the slaves; Phineas, adopting Quaker dress to please his sweetheart, sets off with George and Eliza to the north. Marks, Loker and their men overtake them with a warrant for their arrest, and Phineas, Eliza, George and Harry are trapped in a rocky pass. George shouts his defiance as a man now on free soil, but Marks shoots at him and Loker rushes to capture him. George fires at Loker who is then seized and thrown over the rock by the exultant Phineas.

At the St. Clare home, Uncle Tom has won his master away from drink, but he is concerned by little Eva's cough and her growing weakness. Eva asks Tom to sing a hymn picturing angels "robed in spotless white," and tells him that soon she is going to Heaven with "the spirits bright." She tells her father that she has been unhappy because of the miserable life of the slaves, and asks St. Clare to promise to free Uncle Tom "as soon as I am gone." With Uncle Tom kneeling at her bed, the child, smiling feebly, dies with a vision of Heaven before her.

St. Clare later tells Tom that he intends to free him so that he may return to his wife and children. Tom chooses to remain, however, until he sees his master happier in Christian work; his loyalty strongly impresses St. Clare, who is grief-stricken over the loss of Eva. But he comes home, fatally stabbed, and berates himself to Uncle Tom for his failure to free him; now it is too late. St. Clare dies, saying, "Eva, I come!" Uncle Tom is put up at auction with Emmeline, a fifteen-year-old Negro girl, and both are bought by Simon Legree, a particularly vicious and brutal slave-owner.

Meanwhile, Miss Ophelia has adopted Topsy and has taken her back to her Vermont home where an old admirer, Deacon Perry, successfully sues for Miss Ophelia's hand--after some difficult moments when the unmarried lady explains that Topsy is her "daughter." Gumption Cute, a distant relative of Miss Ophelia and an acquaintance of Marks, arrives to share her home, but is quickly ousted by Miss Ophelia and Topsy when he attempts to order the Deacon away.

At Legree's plantation, Uncle Tom's misery is assuaged only by a lock of little Eva's hair and a silver dollar given him by Shelby. Emmeline rebels at Legree's intentions and he orders Uncle Tom to flog her. The old Negro refuses. Legree whips him, demanding, "Ain't you mine, body and soul?" Uncle Tom declares his soul is beyond the tyranny of Legree, and he is ordered flogged "within an inch of his life."

The repentant Shelby, meanwhile, appears in New Orleans, hoping to repurchase Uncle Tom from St. Clare and restore him to his family. By chance, he meets Marks who tells him of St. Clare's death and agrees to guide him, for a fee, to the Legree plantation. Marks later meets Cute, back from Vermont, and their conversation discloses that it was Legree who stabbed St. Clare because he had intervened in a quarrel to protect Cute. The two are the only witnesses to the quarrel and they agree to confront Legree with a warrant for his arrest. If Legree refuses to buy their silence they will arrest him.

At Legree's place, Emmeline and Cassy, another slave girl, have run away. Legree (after a brief period of reformation brought on by the sight of the lock of little Eva's hair--it had reminded him of his mother whom he also had beaten) demands that Uncle Tom tell him where the girls are or be put to death. Tom refuses and Legree strikes him with the butt of his whip. Tom is carried out, forgiving his tormentor, as Shelby, Marks and Cute arrive.

Shelby goes in search of Tom, and Marks confronts Legree with the warrant. Legree strikes at Marks who draws a pistol and fires. Legree cries: "I am hit! The game's up!" He falls dead. He is carried off by two laughing slaves. Shelby reenters, supporting Uncle Tom. Tom recognizes him, and cries: "Mas'r George! Bless de Lord! It's all I wanted. They haven't forgot me!... Now I shall die content!... Don't call me a poor fellow! I have been poor fellow but that's all past and gone now. I'm right in the door, going into glory! Heaven has come!" He dies, and Shelby covers him with his coat, kneeling over him.

Sun-tinted clouds are next seen, with little Eva, robed in white, on the back of a white dove, as if soaring upward. Her hands are extended in benediction over St. Clare and Uncle Tom who are kneeling and gazing up at her.

Browse quotations from Uncle Tom's Cabin

Back to 19th Century Theatre