This year marks the 150th anniversary of the best-selling book of the 19th century. Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the first novel to explore the cruelties of slavery in America, and helped to spark public opposition to slavery in the years prior to the Civil War. A successful stage adaptation of the novel toured in U.S. theaters for 70 years. But the legacy of Uncle Tom's Cabin goes beyond its place in popular literature or entertainment. Over the years, critics of the play have denounced it and the novel it draws from, as one of the worst examples of negative stereotyping of African-Americans. Today, in commemoration of the ground-breaking novel, a theater in Virginia has revived the play in an effort to reassess the author's original message.
"I'd always been very concerned about the misconceptions about the book, particularly about the character of Uncle Tom," said actor Michael St. Andress, who plays the title role in the American Century Theater production of Uncle Tom's Cabin, because calling someone an 'Uncle Tom' is just about one of the lowest things you can do."
He says the character of Uncle Tom - a slave whose religious piety leads him to passively accept his fate of being sold beaten and ultimately killed - has evolved over the years as a stereotype of an African-American too eager to please whites.
But Ed Bishop, who co-directed the play, says author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who grew up in a family of social activists, wrote about a variety of slave experiences, based on her observations in pre-Civil War America. "You see, there are two tracks: you have Uncle Tom, who is decidedly pure in his understanding of who he is as a person, and you have George and Eliza, who are decidedly pure in where their directions are and what they're going to do: they're going to be free," he said.
"So Stowe did something very powerful to show the two sides of the African-American experience at that time. One is understanding what America had to offer in terms of spiritualism or Christianity and the other was to understand that America was based in freedom," Mr. Bishop explained.
Uncle Tom's Cabin spawned other archetypal characters in American literature: Simon Legree, the villainous slave owner who tortures and kills anyone who stands in his way; and Little Eva, a white child who treats her slaves with love and kindness and who dies, surrounded by her grief-stricken servants. But while the novel was criticized for its melodrama and one-dimensional characters, it was nevertheless internationally praised for its powerful descriptions of beatings, sexual abuse and family separations.
The book's author said "Uncle Tom's Cabin didn't show the half of it, and she would try very hard to present it clearly but she couldn't possibly convey it's horrible power," said Katherine Kane, Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut.
Ms. Kane says the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin is unprecedented in American literature. "When it was first published as a serial publication in the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, beginning in June 1851, then running for several months, it was very widely read and then it was published quickly as a book. And in the first week, it sold 10,000 copies. And in the first year it sold 300,000 copies with over a million copies being sold in the U.K. There were about 20 million people in the States at the time. So you can see in terms of sales what kind of impact it was having. And then it instantly was converted on the stage," she said.
But Ms. Kane says over the years, productions of the play evolved into what became known as "Tom" shows - minstrel shows loosely based on the novel. White actors in dark makeup would play the black characters in an exaggerated fashion that ridiculed and denigrated African-Americans.
But the current American Century Theater adaptation has largely stayed true to the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel. A cast of 22 actors plays 33 characters, in scenes that include knife fights, gun battles, choral music and a chase over an icy river. Actor Michael St. Andress says he believes the issues raised in the play mirror some of the problems facing Americans today.
"Unfortunately, so much of the lessons that are given in Uncle Tom's Cabin are things that we really still have to think about today. It goes to show you how deeply rooted this whole thing about racism and hatred is in our society. And I think this play is timely in that we're trying to get people to reconsider and to rethink some of their positions," said the actor.
Today the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin has been translated into over 60 languages. To commemorate its 150th anniversary, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Connecticut is sponsoring book discussions, special exhibits and a film series, and recently participated in a nationwide conference of scholars of the novel. The Center's Executive Director, Katherine Kane, says an important part of America's history can be traced through public reactions to the controversial book: first hailed for its anti-slavery message, then reviled as a racial slur, Harriet Stowe's famous tale is being embraced again today by people hoping to rehabilitate its characters and put Uncle Tom's Cabin in its proper historical perspective.