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  • Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America by Amy E. Hughes
  • Amanda Boyle
Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America. By Amy E. Hughes. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012. vii + 248 pp. $75 cloth.

Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America by Amy Hughes takes the reader through three particular and significant [End Page 253] spectacles. According to Hughes, melodrama exemplifies “decadence, extremity, and excess,” which together serve to pull in audiences (1). Building on the work of theatre historians and theorists such as Joseph Roach and Marvin Carlson, Hughes investigates spectacle as a “unique system of communication, employed in myriad contexts, that rehearses and sustains conceptions of race, gender, and class in extremely powerful ways” (4). Thus, while theatre for social change is often framed as a twentieth-century invention, Spectacles of Reform demonstrates how theatre has been used for reform since at least the nineteenth century.

Hughes acknowledges that the intersection of spectacle and reform is a peculiar one but suggests that this intersection allows for the combination of “excess and normalcy that, arguably, continue(s) to obsess and regulate individuals today” (5). The book focuses on three scenes in nineteenth-century melodramas: the episode of delirium tremens in W. H. Smith’s The Drunkard (1844), Eliza crossing the icy Ohio River in stage adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and the railroad rescue in Augustin Daly’s play Under the Gaslight (1867). While acknowledging that there are many important examples of spectacle, not only in nineteenth-century melodrama but also throughout theatre history, Hughes limits her discussion to these case studies and the respective social dilemmas (temperance, abolition, and suffrage) that each scene dramatizes.

The first chapter, “The Body/as/in/at the Spectacle,” utilizes Stanton B. Garner’s theory of the spectacular instant, a heightened and visceral moment in performance for the spectator by embodying the display on stage. After laying this critical foundation, Hughes then examines “performances of excess, whether as the spectacle (extraordinary bodies in freak shows), in the spectacle (actors in sensation scenes), or at the spectacle (people who witness performance)” (14). By analyzing the actual bodies of the performer and spectator through unique gesture and movement, Hughes calls attention to the human dynamics of spectacle. Therefore, this section emphasizes the importance and utility of the body as a means of both spectacle and reform.

The second chapter, “The Delirium Tremens: Spectacular Insanity in The Drunkard,” examines temperance through abstention (and withdrawal) from alcohol. Hughes outlines the historiography of temperance via medical research and, as an example, discusses the work of John B. Gough, a former alcoholic turned lecturer from 1840s New England. Gough’s lecturers became spectacles through his humor, charisma, and display of delirium tremens. Gough was performing in Boston at the same time as the initial run of The Drunkard, which he attended. Edward Middleton, the title character in The Drunkard, became, next [End Page 254] to Gough himself, the best-known embodiment of delirium tremens. Smith’s play, argues Hughes, closely ties delirium tremens, insanity, and normality together as a spectacle in life.

Chapter 3, “The Fugitive Slave: Eliza’s Flight in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” explores the imagery and reality of escape from slavery. The iconography of Eliza’s flight is highly recognizable, so much so that the image of Eliza on the ice serves as the cover image for the book. Both in the broader discourse of slavery and in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular, the river represented freedom, hope, and danger. Spectacle operates as “both method and matter in Eliza’s escapade,” writes Hughes, as the escape represents a transformation from property to person (86). This transformation, and the image of it, is relevant and significant in attempting to communicate the experiences and stories of slaves.

The fourth chapter, “The Railroad Rescue: Suffrage and Citizenship in Under the Gaslight,” investigates what Hughes cites as one of the most famous spectacles in American melodrama. In Under the Gaslight, Laura Courtland uses an axe to break out of a locked shed in time to save Snorkey, a Civil...


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