“Playing Ghost”: Performing Cassy and Emmeline’s Escape in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
OUTLINE OF PROJECT
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is the most performed 19th century American novel in American history. Theatrical performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin proliferated from 1852 and into the early 20th century; they remained popular throughout the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the era of Reconstruction. These “Tom Shows,” as they were called, morphed Stowe’s novel into a gross misrepresentation of her intended anti-slavery politics and Christian morals, resulting in a peculiar afterlife for the novel’s plot and characters. Many of the novel’s Black characters were transformed into racial caricatures–– one dimensional, racist, stereotypical depictions of “blackness” in the American racial imaginary. One of the questions I continue to ask myself throughout my studies of nineteenth century American literature is: which stories are adapted into plays and/or films, which stories are not, and why? The spectacular and sentimentalized nature of Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers a rich discussion of these questions for literary studies, performance studies, and film and media studies alike.
Tom Shows were performed on stage as plays, minstrel shows, or musicals. My project aims to write a script for the stage that (re)-imagines Cassy and Emmeline’s escape, ranging from the chapter in Stowe’s original text titled, “The Strategem” to the chapter titled, “An Authentic Ghost Story” (Ch. XXXIX-XLII). I am particularly interested in Simon Legree’s “haunted” garret as a site of captivity and feminized fugitivity–– a kind of fugitivity that exceeds and subverts masculine narratives of fugitivity and freedom. I argue that these (non)-spectacular feminized fugitive acts–– fugitive acts that are often hidden and performed in the liminal space between ‘freedom’ and captivity–– radicalize the limits and possibilities of ‘freedom.’ This project ultimately wonders how Tom Show performances of Legree’s haunted garret––the site of Cassy and Emmeline’s escape–– might subvert the grand (and violent) spectacle of Eliza’s grand escape across the ice, thus performing an alternative narrative of fugitivity.
The script I intend to write will be inspired by later 19th century African American novels, Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig (1859) and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), as well as black feminist scholarship, such as Avery Gordon’s Haunting and the Sociological Imagination and Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in the Nineteenth Century. While scholars Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar trace the haunted garret and the “madwoman in the attic” back to (white) women’s 19th century literature in their book, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, I would like to trace Cassy and Emmeline’s fugitive escape forward into the future of Black Studies and Black literature, into what was not yet written or theorized. This approach will situate Cassy and Emmeline’s escape in a longer genealogy of black feminist fugitive acts that exceed Stowe’s imagination and the imagination of Tom Show scripts, as well.
The goal of this project is to imagine how the many displays of Black feminized fugitive acts might have taken place not only in the confines of Stowe’s novel or its subsequent Tom Shows, but on the plantation as well. This paper asks: Whose narratives of escape are told and/or performed, and why? What tools were available to enslaved Black women to enable their escape or temporary relief from quotidian forms of violence? What are the sounds and tastes of (temporary) escape? What are the social and political costs of making fugitivity a spectacle? For Tom Shows especially, what were the perceived benefits of capitalizing off of Black women’s fugitive narratives?
I will first read through stage scripts on University of Virginia’s website, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture,” for the inclusion or exclusion of Cassy and Emmeline’s escape from Legree’s plantation. In this search, I will be looking for: whether or not Cassy and/or Emmeline are characters in the stage performances; whether or not the haunted garret is present in the performance; the extent to which Cassy and Emmeline are represented similarly or differently from Stowe’s original text; and their significance to the plot of these various stage performances.
After I have read through each of the available scripts in the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture” archive and have answered the questions above, I will begin to map the characters and plot lines surrounding each of the Acts in which these characters are present. Mapping the characters and plot line in the last acts of the plays (Legree’s plantation usually appears in Acts IV and V of the stage performances in my available archive) will open my research to possible patterns of recurring characters, tropes, and conclusions. This research will inform my own understanding of the sociopolitical afterlife of Tom Shows and how they informed the North and South’s racial imaginary. This exercise will also inform how I might re-imagine these scenes given the novel’s historical and literary social life in the realm of performance.
I am also considering watching a few 20th century film adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One of the limitations to my project is that I only have access to a written script, and not the visual performance itself. I intend to research a few visual performances of the haunted garret scene in hopes of drawing inspiration from more contemporary adaptations of the novel. One of the questions implicit in my project is whether the haunted garret scene can and/or should be visually depicted? What is lost when the visual takes hold of the imagination? What is gained when fugitive Black women are represented on screen?
Moreover, 19th and early 20th century stage adaptations typically place the haunted garret scene in Acts IV and V of their plays, often with the addition of new characters or with characters who meet later in the original text (such as Cassy and Eliza). The haunted garret is often mentioned solely as a site of Legree’s paranoia, but there are no stage directions indicating that a set was made to stage the garret with furniture or the provisions Cassy places in it. Importantly, Cassy and Emmeline’s fugitive escape is often absent or underemphasized. While I imagine my script will also indicate that the “play” has progressed to Acts IV and V, Cassy, Emmeline, and the haunted garret will take center stage (so to speak).
The field is limited to Tom Shows––plays, minstrels, and musicals––and 20th century film adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Since Cassy and Emmeline’s escape was not central to the plot of Stowe’s novel (it only affected the plot to the extent that their escape resulted in a melodramatic reunion between Cassy and Eliza), their escape did not receive as much critical attention as, for instance, Eliza’s escape or Eva and Tom’s deaths.
In the scripts available in the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Literature” archive, Cassy and Emmeline are very minor characters. One might argue that the “ghost story” associated with the garret (a story that takes on a radically different life in Tom Shows, one which imagined Legree’s mother as the woman tortured in the garret rather than an enslaved Black woman) is its own character in the Tom Shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries. For this reason, my project would, in essence, (re)-imagine a scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that was often overlooked in the novel, though most people were only familiar with the Tom Shows’ adaptations of the text rather than the novel itself.
Harriet Wilson and Harriet Jacobs did re-imagine the fugitive garret space from a Black feminist perspective, which is why they are central to this project. Offering two different perspectives of enslavement––Wilson was an indentured servant in the ‘free’ North and Jacobs was enslaved on a southern plantation–– both women theorize fugitive life within conditions of confinement. Wilson’s L room provided Frado/Nig with a temporary escape from her violent mistress, Mrs. Belmont; and Jacobs’ seven year confinement in her grandmother’s garret provided her safety from the violent, unwanted advances and abuses from both her master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Flint. Similarly to the haunted garret in Legree’s home, Wilson and Jacobs’ garrets are filled with prayer, laughter, music, and pain. They do not guarantee freedom, much in the same way Eliza’s escape across the icy river. In Wilson and Jacobs’ narratives of temporary fugitive life, there is no melodramatic ending; they refuse to sentimentalize chattel slavery and Black pain.
Wilson and Jacobs’ literary representations of fugitive life (and social death) in the garret account for much of my own understanding of the ways in which Cassy and Emmeline’s escape exceeds Stowe’s narrative control over their characters. I intend to use all of these resources to imagine a way out for Cassy and Emmeline that refuses to reduce them into sentimental characters/caricatures.
Frick, John W. Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the American Stage and Screen. NewYork: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
Gordon, Avery F. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Random House, 1992.
Moten, Fred. “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream.” In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2003.
Wilson, Harriet. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.