“Oh! I’se So Wicked”
Sheet Music from George Aiken’s Theatre Production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
featuring Caroline Fox Howard as Topsy
Monday Sept 27th We have done some washing to day and
some housecleaning I have been to work
about house most of the time The gardener
has taken up the plants and I washed
the pots and brought them into the dining
room Carried my sewing into Edwins
this morning Augusta is getting quite smart
The weather is delightful
Laundry, choring, and gardening were on Evelina’s agenda this Monday. A gardener – perhaps an extra hand from the shovel shop – was putting the garden to bed. Under Evelina’s direction, no doubt, he dug up particular plants for her to pot and bring indoors. Her perennials, of course, would winter outside, but other plants – herbs among them, most likely – she would try to winter-over in her dining room, which must have been sunny and warm. What practiced forethought Evelina was using to prepare for winter on such a “delightful” September day.
Back on April 6, we saw Evelina and her daughter sewing indoors out of the way of a heavy spring snow storm. They and a friend passed the time reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a brand new novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The book was a phenomenal success, selling not only hundreds of thousands of copies in its first year, but becoming the best-selling book of the 19th century, after the Bible. The book’s popularity spawned a host of imitations, rebuttals, and theatrical interpretations. Modern historian David Reynolds has noted that, over time, Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s “cultural power resulted not only from the novel but also from its many spin-offs – particularly plays, songs and films – that swayed millions who never read the novel.”*
On this very date, in fact, the first theatrical production of Beecher’s story premiered in Troy, New York (later to move to Albany and New York City.) Produced by George L. Aikens, the show Uncle Tom’s Cabin highlighted dramatic moments from the novel and added tableaux and musical numbers. Like other productions that would follow, the story was somewhat reinterpreted. Aiken “slightly revised”* the plot, dispensing with some characters and inventing others, but kept the essential story line in tact. “Religion, thrills, comedy: the crowd-pleasing elements were all there.”*
The religious component of the story (and, in the north, the anti-slavery message) was enough of a draw to make theatre-going almost respectable, and drew many to the theatre who had never gone before. The play also offered its audience, for the very first time, a single-feature program rather than the variety fare that was usually staged. “The play appealed to audiences of all backgrounds and ages. Horace Greeley, William Lloyd Garrison, the young Mark Twain, and the even younger Henry James were among those who were deeply stirred by the play.” Competitive versions soon sprung up, including one produced by P. T. Barnum. For decades before and after the Civil War, the story of Uncle Tom and Eliza was everywhere.
*David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, New York, 2011