In the nineteenth century, long before film and television brought us explosions, car chases, and narrow escapes, it was America's theaters that thrilled audiences, with “sensation scenes” of speeding trains, burning buildings, and endangered bodies, often in melodramas extolling the virtues of temperance, abolition, and women's suffrage. Amy E. Hughes scrutinizes these peculiar intersections of spectacle and reform, revealing the crucial role that spectacle has played in American activism and how it has remained central to the dramaturgy of reform.
Hughes traces the cultural history of three famous sensation scenes—the drunkard with the delirium tremens, the fugitive slave escaping over a river, and the victim tied to the railroad tracks—assessing how these scenes 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. Her book 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.
“A superb study of a significant facet of American melodrama…. Immaculately researched, fluent, lucid, and unpretentious, Hughes’s intense concentration on specific scenes, with emphasis on their cultural content and contexts, imparts a method of study which reaches well beyond this book to guide other scholarly enquiries… a mature cultural history, essential far beyond the theatre scholar’s bookshelf.”
—David Mayer, Theatre Survey
“The all-too-frequent view of nineteenth-century melodramas as little more than exaggerated actions, carried out by posturing cardboard characters spouting sentimental or romantic exclamations, is thoroughly debunked by Hughes; instead, she positions these plays . . . as significant social landmarks through her admirable guide to deeper readings of their content.”
—Theatre Library Association
Cover: Escape of Eliza and Child on the Ice, #3 of 10 magic lantern slides by C. W. Briggs Company, 1881, Joseph Boggs Beale. Digital ID #86858d. Collection of The New-York Historical Society.