Focusing on the issue of slavery through the main character, Uncle Tom, a long-suffering Afro-American slave, Beecher Stowe's novel dramatises the harsh conditions he and his like were forced to suffer.
The work's popularity saw it dramatised and burlesqued around the world for many decades after it first appeared in the National Era - as a 40-week serialisation. It was particularly favoured by blackface minstrel companies. Adaptations were also frequently staged in Australia during the second half of the 1800s. These included productions by Alfred Dampier, John F. Sheridan and Lance Lenton , with the latter version burlesuqed as Uncle Tom's Cabin Repainted (1886). The story was still being used on the Australia musical theatre stage well into the second decade of the twentieth century. See, for example, an anonymous adaptation from 1914 (Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Adapted from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel and advertised as a drama. Dampier's production saw prominence given to the character of Topsy (played by Lily Dampier), who amongst other deeds shoots dead a slaver. Eva is saved from death amidst general rejoicing. It is believed that the production may have premiered in the USA or Canada.
Along with incidental music the production also incorpoarted singing/dancing performance into a number of scenes, using both original and popular songs of the day.
According to the Brisbane Courier theatre critic in 1890, this version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 'moral and religious drama,' was 'widely different from the orthodox rendering.' Indeed, the advertising, which calls attention to 'the songs, the dances, the lovely melodies, the sparkling humour, the light and brightness, the happy tout ensemble of this entire production,' suggests that it was more in line with minstrel entertainment than with the sentiments traditionally associated with story's dramatic retelling. In this respect the Courier notes that 'in Mr Sheridan's version the sentimental defects of the original drama have to a great extent been rectified, and [that] the possibilities of the plot for scenic display have been more largely availed of:'
Instead of aiming to make his audience weep Mr Sheridan has sought to amuse them, and though he may have taken liberties with the accepted idea of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the end has certainly justified the means. The drama has lost some of its painful original characteristics, and has taken on itself lighter, brighter and more healthy qualities. Advantage has been taken of the plantation scenes to introduce songs and dances which, while giving a realistic effect, open up quite a fund of amusement. The music was rendered by a choir which sang the negro melodies with expression. The dances, such as would be seen at a minstrel entertainment, harmonised well with the surroundings of the plantation ('The Opera House,' 8 April 1890, p.6).
Reports from newspapers in 1886 and 1890 also indicate that the productions staged in 1890 took the variety theatre aspects to a much higher level. In addition to members of the Bristol Musical Comedy Company, which supplemented the 'dramatic' endeavours of Williamson Garner and Musgrove's Royal Dramatic Company, were a number of high profile minstrels - namely Charlie Pope, Walsh and Kennedy, specialist banjo musician Hosia Easton (Melbourne) and Harry Crawford and the Bovis Brothers (Brisbane).
The 1890 production incorporated the following scenes:
[Source: Australian Variety Theatre Archive - "1886"]
Possibly one of the earliest attempts at the revusical genre, the format was likely influenced by the productions then being staged in Australia by the American Burlesque Company, starring Bert Le Blanc and Paul Stanhope among others.