The Death of Little Eva on Stage

Please enjoy a deeper look at the interpretation of Little Eva’s death on the stage, by guest blogger, John Frick-Professor at the University of Virginia Department of Drama.

John Frick is currently writing the book, Staging Tom: Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American Stage and Screen. He has written numerous articles, edited books and journals, and written other books on theatre. While in New York, he worked Off-Off Broadway as a dramaturg and as a stage manager with theatre and dance companies.


The Death of Little Eva on Stage

No sooner had the serialized version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in the abolitionist journal The National Era than enterprising theatrical managers, realizing the potential popularity of Mrs. Stowe’s masterwork, contracted their house playwrights to adapt the story for the stage.  And since copyright laws did not yet exist, playwrights were not required to adhere to Mrs. Stowe’s narrative.  As a result, many of the dramatic changes to the original story were sensational and changed forever how both the serial publication and the novel were perceived.   Among the sensation scenes in the theatrical Uncle Toms were Eliza’s flight across the ice-coveredOhio River chased by a pack of vicious dogs; a river boat race which ended with one of the ships catching fire and sinking; a Grand Apotheosis following the death of Tom; and Little Eva’s death scene and subsequent ascension into Heaven.

As written by Stowe, the death of Little Eva – her actual dying and not the illness leading up to it – was an event that covered just a page of the narrative.  Sad as it was, it was over quickly.  The text states simply,  “A Bright, a glorious smile passed over her face, and she said, brokenly, — ‘O! love, — joy, — peace!’  gave one sigh, and passed from death unto life.” {p. 257}.  In the hands of theatrical entrepreneurs, however, Stowe’s simple death scene was transformed into one of the dramatic high points of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on stage – a scene that was expected and eagerly anticipated by audiences at one of the myriad Tom shows of the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth.   Arguably the most common way of sensationalizing Eva’s death was to have her, following her demise, ascend into heaven where she was met by a host of angels.   The actual ascension was effected by lifting Eva from her death bed with invisible piano wire and having her float in the midst of a hovering celestial choir, enclosed in an intermixture of gauze drops.  When Eva’s ascension was performed by the best professionals in well-equipped theatres, the scene was accomplished efficiently and was magical; but in the hands of lesser performers, frequently the result was disastrous.  In one mid-western opera house, for example, Eva got stuck halfway into the flys during her ascension scene because the rigging system was rotting and the next day the critic for the local newspaper reported that as the actress dangled precariously in midair, the angelic child was heard to utter some “un-Eva” like language.

As Uncle Tom’s Cabin moved into the modern era, the old-fashioned method of hoisting Eva out of her bed using a rope and pulley system was considered too antiquated for an updated production and twentieth-century producers began to experiment with alternative methods of getting Eva into Heaven.  In 1901, William A. Brady hid Heaven and the angels behind a scrim (a loosely woven fabric that, when lit from the front appears solid, but when light is shifted from front to back, appears to dissolve allowing the spectator to see through it) to be revealed at the end of the scene as Eva quietly died and dissolved behind the scrim.  And, instead of having the actress playing Eva return from the dead to appear with the rest of the cast for the curtain call, Brady had the actor playing Uncle Tom carry Eva’s body to the footlights.

As Uncle Tom moved further into the twentieth century and became the subject of nine movies, the realism that was emerging in both theatre and film was evident.  The two earliest films of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – one by pioneer director Edwin S. Porter in 1903 and a second by Siegmund Lubin also in 1903 – adopted the nineteenth-century staging of Eva’s ascension, employing the time-honored Tom show technique of hoisting Eva to Heaven on cables from above; but Porter eclipsed all of his theatrical predecessors by filming it with a double exposure.  In his Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a ghostly angel descends, appears to lift Eva’s spirit from her body and ascends again to Heaven with it.  38   The effect created was of Eva’s soul ascending to Heaven while her body remained behind in her bed.   And, since Lubin’s film was an exact copy of Porter’s in practically all respects, Eva’s ascension was effected in the same manner.

Beginning with J. Stuart Blackton’s cinematic Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Vitagraph in 1910, Eva’s death and ascension became noticeably more realistic.  Blackton significantly expanded Eva‘s death scene and departed from the rope and pulley staging tradition utilized on both stage and early film.  Unlike the “cinematic” treatment of the earlier films, Vitagraph’s version showed unmistakable signs of an emerging realism in film-making. The scene was the longest of the entire film and the playing time of the scene was closer to “real” time.  The grouping of characters around Eva’s bed, rather than being on the same plane as was the case with the 1903 movies, was multi-leveled and displayed depth; while the double-exposure angel was eliminated.  And, finally, Eva’s ascension into heaven – a prominent and much-publicized event in Tom shows since the beginning – was omitted.  Instead, Eva simply fell back on the bed and her body remained where it fell.   When more realistic stagings were employed in later films, the rope and pulley system of hoisting Eva to Heaven was abandoned.

During its illustrious 80+ year existence (from 1852 until the mid-1930s), the role of Little Eva was one coveted by child actresses and one which was inhabited by some of the most famous actresses of the American stage.  These included Minnie Maddern Fiske, Maude Adams, Mary Pickford, Bijou Heron, and May West to list some of the better-known performers.  Arguably, however, the most famous Little Eva of all time was 7 year old Cordelia Howard, the daughter of George Howard, who commissioned the writing of the most famous stage version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Caroline Fox Howard, the actress who popularized Topsy.  Little Cordelia played Eva to rave reviews from 1852 until 1861 when she retired permanently from the stage. Since her retirement, all Evas that followed have been measured against Cordelia Howard.

Note:  The citation is from the Norton Critical Edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed. Elizabeth Ammons (New

York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994).

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