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Spectacles of Reform

Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America

Amy E. Hughes

Publication Year: 2012

In the nineteenth century, long before film and television arrived to electrify audiences with explosions, car chases, and narrow escapes, it was America's theaters that offered audiences such thrills, with "sensation scenes" of speeding trains, burning buildings, and endangered bodies, often in melodramas extolling the virtues of temperance, abolition, and women's suffrage. In Spectacles of Reform , Amy E. Hughes scrutinizes these peculiar intersections of spectacle and reform, revealing that spectacle plays a crucial role in American activism. By examining how theater producers and political groups harnessed its power and appeal, Hughes suggests that spectacle was—and remains—central to the dramaturgy of reform. Engaging evidence from lithographs to children's books to typography catalogs, Hughes traces the cultural history of three famous sensation scenes—the drunkard suffering from the delirium tremens, the fugitive slave escaping over a river, and the victim tied to the railroad tracks—assessing how they conveyed, allayed, and denied concerns about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. These images also appeared in printed propaganda, suggesting that the coup de théâtre was an essential part of American reform culture. Additionally, Hughes argues that today's producers and advertisers continue to exploit the affective dynamism of spectacle, reaching an even broader audience through film, television, and the Internet. To be attuned to the dynamics of spectacle, Hughes argues, is to understand how we see. Consequently, Spectacles of Reform will interest not only theater historians, but also scholars and students of political, literary, and visual culture who are curious about how U.S. citizens saw themselves and their world during a pivotal period in American history.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7

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pp. vii-x

It has been a pleasure and privilege to work with LeAnn Fields as well as Alexa Ducsay, Scott Ham, and everyone else at the University of Michigan Press. I have deeply appreciated LeAnn’s advice and expertise, and this is a better book because of her. Insightful comments and provocative suggestions offered by the anonymous readers...


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pp. xi-13

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pp. 1-12

For many Americans, the word melodrama usually brings a specific image to mind. In it, a black-clad mustachioed villain is tying a woman to the railroad tracks, cackling as he secures his prey. Checking his work with a firm tug, he hisses something about the brilliance of his devilish plan (or, perhaps, the devilishness of his...

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Chapter 1. The Body as/in/at the Spectacle

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pp. 13-45

In his landmark study of nineteenth-century Victorian and European theater, Martin Meisel argues that the most innovative trait of melodrama was the close relationship between picture and story: “its dramaturgy was pictorial, not just its mise en scène.” He further asserts that “such pictorialism was strongest in what were regarded...

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Chapter 2. The Delirium Tremens: Spectacular Insanity in The Drunkard

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pp. 46-85

As intersections of activism and performance, moral reform melodramas—featuring implicit or explicit references to temperance, abolition, suffrage, and other issues—make up an intriguing subgenre. In them, sensationalism meets ideology; entertainment and politics collide. Crucially, at the heart of many such dramas...

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Chapter 3. The Fugitive Slave: Eliza’s Flight in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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pp. 86-117

Despite William Wells Brown’s declaration that “Slavery never can be represented,” antebellum writers, artists, and performers sought to expose the spectacles of slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852), figures prominently within the community of reformers who, through literary...

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Chapter 4. The Railroad Rescue: Suffrage and Citizenship in Under the Gaslight

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pp. 118-154

When Augustin Daly’s sensation drama Under the Gaslight premiered at the Worrell Sisters’ New York Theatre on August 12, 1867, it was an instant success, playing first for six weeks then another eight when it was remounted a month later. Since this was a time when, in the words of Marvin Felheim, “a month’s run meant a...

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Afterword: Our Sensations, Our Heroes, Our Freaks

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pp. 155-167

This study explores how US citizens saw themselves and their world at pivotal moments during the nineteenth century, and how acts of seeing facilitated the circulation of ideas. A unique mode of communication employed by a wide range of producers, spectacle served as a conduit through which Americans engaged texts and...


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pp. 169-211


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pp. 213-234


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pp. 235-248

E-ISBN-13: 9780472028894
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472118625

Page Count: 262
Publication Year: 2012