The issue of slavery was reaching crisis levels in 1800s America as the true cruelties of it were beginning to be realized. This ‘critical mass’ was the result of many voices, several of them black, revealing their experiences and having their words verified again and again as more and more voices added their own stories. Some of these stories, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s play “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1858), were intended to be consumed by the public immediately in the form of live-action on the dramatic stage. Others, such as William Wells Brown’s play “The Escape, or: A Leap for Freedom.” (1858), were created more as an exercise in writing and were intended for a more private, intimate sharing on an individual level in the form of literary entertainment. Despite this difference of approach, both play place a strong emphasis on depicting the Southern slave realistically as a thinking, feeling, full human being while demonstrating the inhumane treatment they receive at the hands of white masters backed by an unjust law. The two plays, published so close in time proximity, contain highly similar scenes of frustrated humanity. By comparing these scenes, Stowe’s Act I, scene 1, and Brown’s Act 1, scene 3, one can begin to develop an appreciation for the similarity of message yet the difference in approach that was proving so effective in swinging the opinions of the masses.
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In both plays, the primary slave couple is shown to be intelligent, thinking human beings with typical human desires. Stowe’s main characters are Eliza and George, both slaves attempting to enjoy a normal family life within the confines of their bondage. Although not formally educated, George demonstrates his ability to think on a logical level as he answers Eliza’s encouragement to believe that heaven is doing the very best for them. “That’s easy for people to say who are sitting on their sofas and riding in their carriages, but let them be where I am – I guess it would come some harder” (Stowe, I, 1: 4). His argument only becomes stronger as he spells out the fate of their son should anything happen to Eliza’s much kinder master and reveals their dreams and desires are very similar to the dreams and desires of white people everywhere. “Then Harry may be sold to nobody knows who. What pleasure is it that he is handsome and smart and bright? I tell you, Eliza, that a sword will pierce through your soul for every good and pleasant thing your child is or has. It will make him worth too much for you to keep” (Stowe, I, 1: 4-5). The corresponding characters in Brown’s play are Melinda and Glen who are also married and also belong to different owners. Glen echoes George’s use of logic and expresses his same deep sense of human desire when he sets the scene for his meeting with Melinda: “This man, who claims Melinda as his property, is unwilling for me to marry the woman of my choice because he wants her himself … but I am determined to protect my wife or die” (Brown, I, 3: 50). In both cases, the men’s anger is logically justified as they are denied the basic human rights white people passionately insisted were God-given – the right to choose a wife and the right to raise one’s child.
In each scene, the playwright also offers clear connections between the black characters and white values as a means of validating their claim to humanity should the more subtle points listed above be dismissed. Stowe does this by allowing Eliza to speak with her husband about what their appropriate response should be as Christians. She tells him, “I always thought that I must obey my master and mistress, or I couldn’t be a Christian” and “If you only trust in heaven and try to do right, it will deliver you” (Stowe, I, 1: 4). These statements win her the sympathy of other Christians who understand her to be truly desirous of doing good and forges a bond of compassion between them. Melinda is not so pious, but Brown allows her to find Northern sympathy through the educated sound of her speech. “After the soul has reached the lowest depths of despair, and can no deeper plunge amid its rolling, fetid shades, then the reactionary forces of man’s nature begin to operate, resolution takes the place of despondency, energy succeeds instead of apathy, and an upward tendency is felt and exhibited” (Brown, I, 3: 51). Her obvious education and depth of human understanding immediately gain her the sympathy of the American intellectuals, black or white, at the same time that she provides an explanation of the natural human response when so much is denied with no hope for a better tomorrow.
However, in both plays, the true potential of the black couples is severely stunted by the dictates of the white men who own one or both of the primary characters. Neither couple is permitted to be together for entirely different reasons. Stowe’s characters each belong to a different master. While Eliza’s master is kind and has treated her well, she is still considered a slave, and her safety and continued happiness are therefore dependent upon his weakest moment. George, on the other hand, belongs to a master who insists on seeing his slaves’ spirits broken and does whatever it takes to make this happen, including refusing to allow George to ever see his wife or child. “I have been careful, and I have been patient, but it’s growing worse and worse – flesh and blood can’t bear it any longer. Every chance he can get to insult and torment me he takes” (Stowe, I, 1: 4). As one move toward breaking his slave, George’s owner has decided that George will no longer be permitted to go to Eliza and he will be forced to marry a slave on his plantation. Glen and Melinda are separated for a much different reason. In this case, Glen has the kinder master and Melinda belongs to an owner who desires her body and thus will not consent to her marriage. The same malicious tendencies are seen in this play as first Melinda and then Glen considers the potential actions of her master. Melinda says, “thanks to Heaven, he does not own Glen, and therefore cannot sell him. Yet he might purchase him from his brother-in-law, to send him out of the way” (Brown, I, 3: 52). In each play, the only options available to the slaves are to die spiritually and emotionally or to attempt some form of escape.
Stowe and Brown wrote their plays with different intentions in mind for their use, but both shared a single purpose – to convince their white audiences that the practice of slavery was an inhuman practice being perpetrated tacitly in their names against individuals who were no less human just because the color of their skin is different. Although the conditions of the slaves are different in the two plays, they are each demonstrated to be fully human in their reasoning and understanding of the world and to have the same kind of human desires shared by white people, such as being able to protect their families. While it might be argued that, as slaves, they have given up the rights to these things, both playwrights find a way to connect these characters with valued traits within the white society in support of the idea that they, too, deserve the right to follow God or to use their talents. In the way in which the stories are presented, each of the masters in question exhibits deplorable behavior, working directly against the teachings of God. In making these presentations, Stowe and Brown helped lead the way for black people to gain the support of white people simply by telling the truth about their own lives in a way that demonstrates how the system prevents them from behaving right.
Brown, William Wells. “The Escape, or: A Leap for Freedom.”
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
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