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Theater Group Brings National Issues to Mendon in 1856

Mendon's Town Hall, shown in this old photo, was the site of many theatrical presentations over the decades. In the summer of 1856 those presentations included the very topical adaption of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Contributed photo





James Cunnabell's invitation to his cousins to spend some vacation time in Mendon in the summer of 1856 seemed like a great idea. George Cunnabell Howard, his family, and a few friends were performers in a Boston based theater group, and they welcomed the opportunity to spend some quiet time in the countryside to visit with their colorful relative, who lived at 7 Maple St. James was well known for his outgoing personality and sense of humor, so it was no surprise when he began to tease his house guests about their line of work. His teasing continued, and after a while, it became evident that he wanted the members of the group to put on a play in the Town Hall to give Mendon people a sampling of their work. Surely, the theatrical cousins had to wonder if the summer of 1856 would be as relaxing as promised.

George agreed to "give a show," so the group built a stage and painted scenery in the upper Town Hall. James invited his family and friends to an evening of entertainment.

The performance that evening was quite memorable. The "show" was Uncle Tom's Cabin based on the controversial book by Harriet Beecher Stowe. George Howard's theatrical group had performed the play to 326 sold-out audiences at the National Theater in New York City, and recently to many sold out audiences at the Boston Museum Stock Company. The locals were treated to a first class play by superb, professional actors. The book and the play focused on the issue of slavery, the divisive theme of the 1850's. Stowe was originally against the idea of allowing the dramatization of her book, but after watching Howard's play, she was pleased that her powerful message was being spread about the evils of slavery. The stage production had become a tool of enlightenment. Howard's production of Uncle Tom's Cabin filled capacity seating in city theaters throughout the Northeast, but on a summer evening in 1856, in the Mendon Town Hall, James Cunnabell's family and friends enjoyed a stage presentation that awoke the nation's conscience.




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