I would like a paper on Harriet Beecher Stowe
''s Uncle Tom''s Cabin, focusing on play adaptations of the novel.
UTC should be treated not as a novel, but as a text created and recreated by its readers, adapters, and its foremost opponents. The responses to the text provides a means by which the novel assumed importance in American culture. The way its readers articulated and reconstructed the text bring on a range of social and political meanings. In what way did this text the political environment change the traditional relationship between reader and the novel? In context of slavery, religion, melodrama, and family crisis, UTC can be viewed as a cultural pattern instead of an isolated work.The North primarily used images of the brutality of slavery. Both in text and drawings the Union drew on the grotesque physical evils of slavery to rally support for Emancipation. The power of the visual spectacle opened the eyes of Northerners ignorant to the evils of slavery. Scenes of whippings in slave narratives prove to be extremely prevalent and memorable in the minds of readers. The violence of slavery often takes precedent over the emotional scares. Perhaps because of the immediate impact of physical pain and the accessibility of sympathy achieved through the medium of art and narrative that the Northerners relied chiefly on this image to convey their point. In the play posters of UTC the scenes of brutality are the ones chosen to be illustrated. Similarly, in the theatrical interpretations of UTC there are multiple instances of different productions using the scene of Tom being beaten to death as the cover image on the posters. Why are these images so much more accessible than the emotional scares that were much less apparent before the mass publication of slave narratives and of UTC and what about UTC, the novel broke these boundaries?
The Southern effort to placate the evils of slavery collectively used the image of the "happy darkie." In contrast the visuals and gruesome descriptions of slave beatings and whippings, the "happy darkie" is always dancing and singing. In fact, the black face minstrelsy shows became the most popular form of mass entertainment in both the north and south. White men would blacken their faces with cork perform songs of the "the good old days on the plantation." The only unhappy slaves are those that run away to the North and are unable to survive.
All up and down de whole creation,
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation
And for de old folks at home.
All de world is sad and dreary
Ebery where I roam
Oh! darkies how my heart grows weary,
Far from the old folks at home.
All round de little farm I wander''d,
When I was young,
Den my happy days I squander''d,
Many de songs I sung.
When I was playing wid my brudder,
Happy was I,
Oh! take me to my kind old mudder,
Dere let me live and die.
SOURCE: Old Folks at Home, Ethiopian Melody, As Sung by Christy''s Minstrels [By Stephen Foster] (New York: Firth, Pond & Co., 1851)
This sample from the one of white minstrel groups, though their primary purpose was entertainment, propagated very distinct stereotypes. It served the white community in that it appeased any guilt over slavery they might be feeling by showing cheerful slaves dancing and singing, and as evident in this song living in a family environment. However, in many accounts of slavery, most notably UTC, the separation from family and the displacement resulting, plays a central role the stories. In this particular song, the presence of the mother and brother can be accounted for by either naivety or assumption that most slaves were left in family groups or assimilated into the families already present on the plantations. Not only does, this song serves both to portray life on the plantation in a positive light, but also warned the slave community of the loneliness and desperation they will fell should they attempt to leave "de good old folks at home."
Similarly the accent of the language used is indicative of the prejudice in the writer. Although the race of the writer is unknown to me at present, it seems probable, pending confirmation from further research, that it was written by a white man or else composed by a black man and put to paper by a white man. The translation from the auditory language of slaves to paper reveals the prejudice. The unnecessary change of "the" to " de" proves gratuitous and unnecessary. The purpose of this change and the abbreviation of "ed" to " ''d" is a tool of the Southerner to distinguish himself, his intelligence, and mode of communication superior and different to the that of the slave.
Interestingly, in the recreation and translation of UTC, the novel, into the play the meaning is changed by the fusion of different elements and influence. The popularity of the minstrelsy fused into itself in the play. In the book the only dancing and singing occurs when little Harry and Topsy dance and when the Legree demands his slaves to sing and dance for him. However, by the 1870s, singing and dancing slaves appear repeatedly. In the Cabin Company production, there was dancing outside Tom?s cabin, the opening of the play, and on the auction block. The influence of the popularity of the songs of the "happy darkie" transforms Tom''s suffering into an entertaining spectacle. By 1890, Stowe?s copyright ends and new versions of the story emerged changing the original message even more adding more dancing in some and even erasing the dying infant in the hands of Prue. Could these changes in the translation of the text to theater serve to actually erase guilt for both Northerners and Southerners?
These same play posters and those in newspapers (from the Harry Birdoff Collection) claim historical accuracy, a notion the book did not. The poster for the Cabin Company advertises the play as "Instructions in American History" and "An Educational Experience." The argument for truth value in the novel is not present. In Stowe
''s very own A Key to Uncle Tom''s Cabin (1853), she announces her intention to "exhibit [slavery] in a living dramatic reality." Though much of the novel is inspired by her observations on an actual plantation, she recognizes the power of fiction. What role do these ''half-truths'' play in history and this historical setting? What circumstances are provide volatile situations for controversial literature? Without ever aiming to do so UTC masqueraded as truth. Many of the play posters advertised the play as historically accurate or offered the truth. Why was this important to the both the adaptors and the audiences and what effect did it have?
In the character of Topsy many of the stereotypes of the North and South and the social issues of the time came together to form more complex messages. In the context of Christianity, family displacement, and the bondage of slavery Topsy embodies both a minstrel stereotypes and the image of the "wild child." In Stowe
''s Key she explains Topsy in terms of the English working class and New York City prostitutes for whom education and reform efforts were being concentrated. These reforms were supposed to encourage self-respect, hope and an sense of character. The failure of these reforms is explored through the misguided intentions of Miss Ophelia who basically uses the young and rambunctious Topsy as an experiment to prove her educational theories will even work on a brutalized child of slavery. Though she would like to tame the child, her lingering prejudice stands in the way of her connecting with Topsy. Eventually the errors of middle class morality imposing itself on the lower classes is evident when Topsy''s behavior does change due to the genuine love from Eva, another slave. Like the middle class, Miss Ophelia is anxious about lack of morality present in Topsy, or the lower class. Yet in the anxiousness their is no love or genuine attempt to understand. Perhaps there is a sense of impossibility to connect such different creatures. However, most notable is that Topsy, like the lower classes, has no voice, no narrative. With out any sense of home or family, as she never knew one, Topsy is not a person, but a commodity to be dealt with. When compared to Tom, who misses a family he once new, Topsy cannot envision any alternative at all to comodified slavery. What other subtleties exist in the text and how were they interpreted by various readers? As the original text changed form, from novel to play to silent film to movie, what meanings were lost or changed?
It is my suspicion that the meanings of the text was manipulated through these transformation. The novel became a vehicle for both Northerners and Southerners to communicate and grapple with the issues of the time. It seems to be an enabler for other factual? narratives to emerge. How did the various responses UTC shape the political and social climate of the time period? I would also like the paper to further explore the truth value of fiction. When and how is fiction "truer" than history and How and when is fiction more powerful than fact?
Accurate citation is of the utmost importance. Also please cite works consulted even if not quoted in the paper. Feel free to use excerpts of this description in the research paper. Include all types of sources- databases, newspapers, play posters, books, play reviews, etc.
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