The plot of George L. Aiken’s melodramatic play does not stray far from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel of social reform. It is in the presentation of the story where the plot of the stage production differs from Stowe’s vision in the original novel. In the Stowe version of the story, the author states in her Preface:
The hand of benevolence is everywhere stretched out, searching into abuses, righting wrongs, alleviating distresses, and bringing to the knowledge and sympathies of the world the lowly, the oppressed, and the forgotten.
Usually, the narrative structure or overall design of a novel follows a pathway from rising action through resolution. The novelist arranges the elements of a story in such a manner as to build a unified structure for the reader to follow. Stowe writes a seething condemnation of the institution of slavery in the pre–Civil War era by tracing the tribulations of Tom, who is sold to a cruel master, and other slaves looking to escape his fate. Stowe stresses the psychological pain endured by the slaves and extols the virtues of Christianity through the attitudes, decisions, and actions of pacifistic protagonist Tom for the purpose of furthering her view toward abolitionism.
Contrarily, Aiken’s play focuses on action, violence, and physical cruelty, with an eye toward visually impacting the emotions of a theater audience. Aiken’s emphasis appears to be on the performance and entertainment aspects of the stage production rather than the scathing anti-slavery focus of Stowe. He appears to leapfrog from scene to scene with less contiguity of plot. The result is an almost humorous or foolish minstrel-like approach to the original plot, which would be considered highly offensive by a modern audience. By altering the continuity and unity of the Stowe plot, Aiken offers a less serious message to his audience, which would undoubtedly be viewed as racist today, despite the even greater emphasis on religion than Stowe intended to infuse into her anti-slavery novel.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852 and became the bestselling novel of the nineteenth century. The novel features Uncle Tom, whose life in slavery is deeply sentimentalized as a way for Stowe to promote her abolitionist views.
Shortly after the publication of Stowe’s novel, George L. Aiken, an American playwright and actor, created a stage adaptation by the same title.
Aiken played the role of George Harris in the original performance. Aiken’s play introduced many Americans to the narrative before the novel, possibly due to its medium and ease of consumption. Generally speaking, the North received the play well, while the South detested it.
Aiken left major aspects of the plot of the novel intact, including St. Clare’s purchase of Tom, Eva’s death, and the Tom’s sale after St. Clare’s death. Two major themes within the play are escape and the chilling beatings slaves received. Eliza’s escape with Harry, and the subsequent crossing of the Ohio River, is a prominent aspect of the play.
In order to keep all major plot points from the novel in the play, Aiken was forced to use dialogue to summarize lesser actions, which some have critiqued as disjointed. Instead of acting out all plot points, Aiken instead intended to examine the juxtaposition of good versus evil as a way to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience.
Aiken's stage adaptation, written just months after the novel appeared, adheres closely to Stowe's plot. It focuses on dramatic highlights of the novel, such as Eliza carrying her four-year-old son across the treacherous ice floes of the Ohio River to safety from the slave catchers. It also includes the sentimental death of the angelic little Eva, with slaves and family members gathered around her bed. Naturally, it does not exclude Tom's horrific abuse and death at the hands of Simon Legree.
The play is more melodramatic than the novel and lacks Stowe's irony. However, it does have a strong anti-slavery message. It is not great drama—for example, it uses static dialogue between Eliza and Harris to summarize plot. But it was a very popular play in the North because it caught and conveyed the strong feelings of the novel. It was very unpopular in the South, however, because it critiqued slavery just as Stowe did.
Later stage adaptations were more racist and changed Uncle Tom from a strong, young, and virile man with a mind and heart of his own to an abject older man who wanted nothing more than to serve whites.
The plot of Aiken's play is by and large the same as its source, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. However, as this is a stage play and not a novel, much more emphasis is placed upon action. Aiken plays up the melodrama of the story, particularly the escapes and grand gestures of Christian sacrifice. The play even ends with the deceased Eva riding on the back of a dove and blessing Tom and St. Clare in heaven, complete with clouds and stirring music.
Interestingly, a great many Americans were introduced to Stowe's story through the play rather than the original novel. It became a theatrical sensation. However, it was never officially licensed by Stowe, even though she approved of it.
George L. Aiken adapted Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin for Broadway, and in doing so helped to create the standalone play; a single story without additional opening or closing acts, told with songs and by virtuoso performers. Although Stowe refused to license her novel for adaptation, Aiken followed the story and themes of the book closely, only diverging for dramatic and cultural effect.
In the book, the sale of Tom to a slave trader spurs Eliza to flee to Ohio with her son Harry. She is followed by her husband, George Harris (played in the initial production by Aiken himself). Tom is purchased by St. Clare and becomes friends with Little Eva, who dies after a long illness. Tom is sold again after St. Clare's death, and is beaten to death by his new owner; two other slaves escape and one finds the Harris family in Canada. They escape America and settle in Africa.
Aiken's play discarded some of the subtlety of the book, instead focusing on the melodrama of the slaves and their owners, evil and good. The subplot of escape is mostly relegated to the first two acts, and the Harris's later escape is eliminated entirely. The last acts of the novel focus on Tom and his selfless nature, and the eventual uniting of Eva, Tom, and St. Clare in heaven. However, Stowe saw the play on Broadway, and approved of it; she still did not officially license it, though.