In Martin Scorsese's 2002 film Gangs of New York, the two main characters-Amsterdam Vallon (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (played by Daniel Day-Lewis)- attend a 'Tom' show (a stage adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin) in New York City. In this scene, which depicts the end of the 'Tom' show, the deus ex machina in the form of Abraham Lincoln descends from the rafters to console the African-American characters (played by white actors in blackface). Lincoln's presence is met with derision from the nativist audience members, who throw vegetables at the actor playing Lincoln and shout, "Down with the Union!" By staging this scene in a 2002 blockbuster film, Scorsese demonstrated that the 'Tom' show was a nearly universal experience in Civil War-era American life, pervading its culture and its politics during and even long after the Civil War. In addition, Scorsese visualized the multiple ways in which Stowe's novel was adapted and appropriated for the stage, ultimately reflecting the racial, cultural and political tensions of the times.
[...] As a result, racial and nationalistic tensions were on the rise, and entertainment such as the ‘Tom' show stepped in to provide answers, reaffirming the “superiority” of American-born citizens over both the hordes of foreigners that were entering the country from all continents and the slaves that were fighting for their freedom. As the title suggests, Aiken's 1852 play originally ended at the point in the novel where Eva succumbs to her illness, which strongly encouraged the audience to sympathize with the sick white angel, rather than Tom and his fellow slaves. [...]
[...] In addition, the semiotic visualization of the black body next to an creature such as an alligator creates both a conscious and a subconscious association between the two: neither alligators nor blacks, implies this scene, have a place in proper American society. Although Aiken's production of Uncle Tom's Cabin was not as ostensibly racially prejudiced as later adaptations (which I will discuss later), his version paved the way for these later, more explicitly racist, adaptations. In eliminating the political teeth from Stowe's novel, removing Tom's significance, and emphasizing the melodramatic aspects of the novel, Aiken created an environment where Uncle Tom—and blacks in general—could be parodied endlessly. [...]
[...] One of the most popular examples of this was in Disney's 1946 children's film Song of the South, featuring a character named Uncle Remus, who very closely resembled Belasco's Uncle Tom in dialect and dress. Uncle Remus' character lived on a plantation and was ostensibly an ex-slave with no desire for true freedom; the film played on the stereotype of the “happy black” by failing to mention slavery or race relations, instead featuring upbeat songs such as “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” In this way, popular culture used the “Uncle stereotype as created by these stage adaptations—long after the heyday of the ‘Tom' shows—to capitalize on African-American “culture” without acknowledging their suffering. [...]
[...] However, if the white actor's body was a cultural signifier of power, then the white actor in blackface—literally covering the white with the black—seemed to symbolize the idea that the race issue pervaded all facets of American life and directly affected every white person. In demonstrating black characters, the ‘Tom' show used parody where Brecht did not: as Hutcheon writes, critical distance is implied between the backgrounded text being parodied [in this instance, both Stowe's novel and blacks] and the new incorporating work [the minstrel show and the ‘Tom' show], a distance usually signaled by irony” (32). [...]
[...] In producing a sterilized version of the book for the stage, Barnum and Conway succeeded in shifting the narrative entirely insofar as its relationship to slavery goes. However, as I suggested earlier, if audiences willingly saw the minstrel tradition in these adaptations, then a shift away from an abolitionist message would have been unsurprising and perhaps even acceptable to many audiences, as the minstrel shows had already conditioned them to interpret the black body on stage as a comedic figure. [...]
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