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The Language of Blackness: Representations of Africans and African-Americans on the British Stage After Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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Abstract

This chapter examines representations of blackness on the Victorian stage that follow the publication (and adaptation for the stage) of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), focusing on the legacy of the ‘minstrelised’ stereotype promoted by blackface minstrelsy and further popularized by Uncle-Tom images. The connection between black characters and the ‘dialect’ they are made to speak on stage will be especially explored with reference to Lemon and Taylor’s drama Slave Life; or, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and William Brough’s farce Those Dear Blacks! (1852), as well as theatrical Robinsonades from the second half of the century that reveal an influence of the ‘minstrelised’ stereotype, as well as references to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Part of the research leading to these results has received funding from the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under REA grant agreement no. 299000.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, The Negro Slave (The Standard, 8 September), Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, the Fugitive Slave! (The Victoria, 15 September), Edward Fitzball’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Royal Olympic Theatre, 20 September—then performed at Drury Lane in December), George Dibdin Pitt’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Nigger Drama (Pavilion, 9 October), Richard Shepherd and William Creswick’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Royal Surrey Theatre, 27 October), T. H. Young’s equestrian version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Astley’s, 22 November), and Mark Lemon and Tom Taylor’s Slave Life; or, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Adelphi, 29 November).

  2. 2.

    These include William Brough’s farces Uncle Tom’s Crib (Strand, 14 October 1852) and Those Dear Blacks! (Lyceum, 19 November), Frederick Neale’s pantomime Harlequin Uncle Tom (Effingham Saloon, 27 December), and T.L. Greenwood’s pantomime Dick Whittington and His Cat; or, Old Dame Fortune and Harlequin Lord Mayor of London (Sadler’s Wells, 27 December).

  3. 3.

    No pages are available for these manuscripts. Uncle Tom’s Crib also includes amongst his characters a Mr Caesar Augustus Squashtop, ‘a crossing sweeper and lecturer upon the rights of man and the wrongs of Africans’, and others that hint to the Jim Crow tradition: Dandy Jim, Ginger Crow and Dark Ive (‘Ethiopian serenaders’), and Dinah (Uncle Tom’s daughter).

  4. 4.

    Waters has on the contrary stated that ‘[t]he craze for Uncle Tom, though intense, was much more short-lived than that for Jim Crow’ (Waters 2001, 46–47).

  5. 5.

    See the founding of the Ethnological Society of London in 1843, the publication of Robert Knox’s The Races of Men (1850) and James Hunt’s ‘The Negro’s Place in Nature’ (1863), and the setting up of the Anthropological Society of London (1863–1871), which signalled a rejection of the less virulent, monogenist opinions of the ESL and coincided mostly with Hunt’s career (until he died in 1869). The ASL would have merged with the ESL to become, in 1871, the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

  6. 6.

    However, this material mainly consisted of ‘derogatory broadsides and snide newspaper articles’ (Lewis 2016, 57), the racist spirit of which Mathews’s impersonations may have absorbed.

  7. 7.

    For a discussion of AAVE and its usage and implications in the contemporary American context, see also John Baugh’s Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice (2000).

  8. 8.

    I extend to later theatre a point that Davis makes in specific regard to Charles Mathews, who in his fast-paced shows ‘must have indicated each character verbally (and possibly physically), but a change in makeup was impractical and a change of costume unwarranted. By this point, purely as an impersonator, without accoutrements, he had established conventions that indicated to his audience the contrast between characters’ races. Through voice, syntax and pronunciation (“dialect”), and demeanor, he marked the distinctions’ amongst the many different ‘American’ figures he brought to audiences (2011, 170).

  9. 9.

    A similar fate has Robinson Crusoe, which in William T. Moncrieff’s The Cataract of the Ganges (1823), for instance, becomes a prop, as the protagonist Jack Robinson ‘carries the novel from one scene to the next and gives the text voice by reading from it aloud’ (Gould 2011, 38).

  10. 10.

    ‘By the time black actors performed onstage during the 1850s and 1860s, minstrel audiences were used to the notion of counterfeit and rarely assumed that minstrel performers were black unless they were advertised as such’ (Nowatzki 2010, 38), since ‘the lack of makeup [in black performers] suggested that their performances of blackness were not constructed but real, and that, conversely, makeup signified counterfeit’ (ibid.).

  11. 11.

    The minstrel show would later become ‘more family-friendly and less proletarian, […] offer[ing] fewer opportunities for identification between white viewers and blackface characters’ (Nowatzki 2010, 64).

  12. 12.

    To best appreciate the relevance of these innovations, it is worth keeping in mind the three main subplots around which the original story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin revolves: the story of Tom and the St Clares, introducing Eva, Miss Ophelia and Topsy, and eventually Legree to the reader; the story of George, Eliza and Harry’s escape to Canada, and their encounter with Tom Locker and the Quakers; and the story of Emmeline and Cassy. As noted in the novel, ‘[t]he separate incidents that compose the narrative are, to a very great extent, authentic, occurring, many of them, either under her own [Stowe’s ] observation, or that of her personal friends’ (‘Closing Remarks’, UTC , ch. XLV); these separate incidents also had the function of illustrating the different aspects of the slavery problem and debate.

  13. 13.

    Clothes are another indicator of status, the ‘whiteness’ of Eliza and George being similarly conveyed by more refined attire (Thomas 2004, 50).

    Lilly::

    You’s my serbant den. What your name?

    Fea::

    (impressively) Sir! –

    Lilly::

    What a funny name! Den I call you Sir, when I want you.

    Fea::

    Exactly! (…). (Brough 1852, 18)

  14. 14.

    Another piece of the same year, Arbuthnot’s L’Africaine or the Belle of Madagascar, presents Selika as ‘an Oriental Princess’ who speaks SE.

  15. 15.

    See note 9.

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Morosetti, T. (2021). The Language of Blackness: Representations of Africans and African-Americans on the British Stage After Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In: Morosetti, T., Okagbue, O. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Theatre and Race. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-43957-6_20

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