Today in Theatre History: OBI; OR, THREE-FINGER’D JACK OPENS IN NEW YORK–May 27, 1801

Obi, Or, Three-Finger'd Jack.  A scene from the climatic fight.

Obi; Or, Three-Finger’d Jack. A scene from the climactic fight.

On this day in theatre history–May 27, 1801–John Fawcett’s pantomime, Obi; Or, Three-Finger’d Jack, opened at New York City’s Park Theatre.  The play had been a big hit the year before in London and was soon to become an equally popular play in the United States.  The story, loosely based on actual events from the early 1780s, follows the exploits of Jamaican slave and folk hero, Jack Mansong, who escapes and flees into the mountains to begin a revolt using obeah magic (or Obi) to support his efforts.  He is ultimately unsuccessful and is defeated by loyal slaves in a spectacular climactic fight scene that had crowds riveted on both sides of the Atlantic.  Often overlooked now, the play was an important piece of political propaganda warning gullible audiences of the dangers of slave revolts and the importance of proper vigilance against African-American unrest.  New Yorkers were especially susceptible to the play’s message, having experienced two major slave insurrections during the eighteenth century, the Riot of 1712 and the Conspiracy of 1741.

Richard Smith as Three-fingered Jack, ca. 1819.

Richard Smith as Three-fingered Jack, ca. 1819.

Furthermore, regular news of a major on-going slave revolt in Haiti also weighed heavily on the minds of the upper-class mercantile audiences who still relied on their Caribbean commercial connections for much of their trade.  The story of Three-fingered Jack and the Jamaican slave revolt would reverberate for decades as an integral part of American culture up to the Civil War and would not be significantly countered until Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.

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One Response to Today in Theatre History: OBI; OR, THREE-FINGER’D JACK OPENS IN NEW YORK–May 27, 1801

  1. John Madill says:

    Nice, concise peice of reporting. His popularity early in his career lead to the popular 19th C British actor picking up the professional nickname ‘O’, or ‘Obi’ Smith (which helped discriminate him from the many other Smiths in the profession at the time). He, in turn, was a friend of actor and former seaman Thomas Potter Cooke, with whom he shared many roles, most notably the unnamed ‘Creature’ in “Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein” (he’s the bulkier, curlier version inthe sometimes mis-attributed theatrical prints)– Cooke having created the role, along with being the first vampire on the British stage in Planche’s adaptation of the French “The Vampire” (1820, and based on Polidori’s short story) which introduced the ‘vampire trap’ to 19th C stagecraft. There are a number of other firsts for these two, who for all the world looked like 19th C versions of Hammer Films’ Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee (Smith also being noted for his sinister bearing and ‘sepulchural’ voice).
    They also were a couple of the first stage directors on the English stage in the first half of the 19th C, significantly earlier than the history textbooks credit the inception of that worthy. It would seem to stem from the technical (integrating mechanics with live performers in unfolding a thrilling story) or ‘authentic’ elements of the plays they were featured in that required special staging as opposed the ‘stand and deliver’ acting conventions. ‘Obi…” was another play that needed special built-up scenery- not just drawing from the standard drop and wings stock.
    They were also playing adaptations of American novels as well as the ever-present Sir Walter Scott.
    Thanks for your information.

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