Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The LaGrange Dramatic Co. and "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

This photograph and the program carefully pasted to its back are among amazing, but rarely seen, photographic artifacts in the Lucas County Historical Society collection. It's not that we're hiding them or anything, but vintage photographs like this live in archival boxes most of the time for their own protection. And visitors rarely have time to examine the contents of those boxes unless they're looking for something specific.

What's shown here is the cast for an early spring, 1895, production by the LaGrange Dramatic Co. of a play, Uncle Tom's Cabin, based upon Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel of the same name. That novel, second only among books to the Bible in U.S. sales during the 19th century, became a powerful tool in the anti-slavery movement that led eventually to civil war. Widely praised in the North and across Great Britain, it was despised in the American South.

But more Americans actually saw stage adaptions of the book during the latter half of the 19th century than read the book. There were many adaptions --- the author's rights were not protected by copyright --- ranging from those that accurately reflected Stowe's literary work to some that were little more than slapstick minstrel shows.

Stowe's intent always was to highlight the  horrors of slavery, but as the 20th century advanced mixed feelings toward it developed. Uncle Tom's Cabin also helped embed in the minds of white Americans some of the stereotypes about black people that continue to plague us.

Because of the program, we know that the LaGrange production had six acts, so it may have been a version of George Aiken's dramatization, generally considered one of the most sympathetic to the original text.

What remains of LaGrange, once a principal Lucas County village and the last stop before Chariton on the Western Stage Co. route, is located on the north side of U.S. 34 at the Lucas-Monroe county line. The LaGrange Cemetery is just off the highway to the north on the county line road.

LaGrange's fate was sealed when the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad route passed a couple of miles to the south during 1866-67 and the new town of Russell was established. But the village still was a community center in 1895, site of Cedar Township No. 2 "LaGrange" School and the LaGrange Presbyterian Church.

The LaGrange Dramatic Co. grew out of the winter "Literary" held at the LaGrange School that year. These evening social gatherings were common in rural school districts and brought residents together once a week or so for evening gatherings to socialize in a literary setting that could include readings from popular books of the day (or classics), oratory --- and dramatic productions. The LaGrange effort this year surely must have been the most ambitions undertaken in Lucas County.

The first performance was held at the LaGrange School during late March as both the winter term of classes and the Literary season were ending. A second performance was presented on April 2 at Hatcher's Hall in Russell. 

This copy of the photograph belonged to Dr. Earl M. Stewart, who portrayed "Doctor" in the production. He's the guy in the stovepipe hat in the back row with a toy pistol pointed at his head. It came to the society during 1979 from his son, Kermit Stewart, of Alexandria, Virginia. Earl M. Stewart, who went on to become a physician and settled in Nebraska, was teaching the LaGrange School that year.

All of the cast members are numbered on the photo, with corresponding numbers beside their names on the program pasted to the back. If you're really ambitious, you can open both of these images in new windows and do the identifying yourselves.

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