Spectacles of Reform

Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America
Amy E. Hughes
Reveals the crucial role that spectacle played in American activism and reform movements in the 1800s


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.

Amy E. Hughes is Assistant Professor of Theater History and Criticism, Brooklyn College (CUNY).

Praise / Awards

  • "[Spectacles of Reform] vividly situates moments of intense melodrama firmly within the iconography of social reform and demonstrates
    the depth of connection that linked popular theater to social reform."
    American Historical Review
  • "Spectacles of Reform will appeal to scholars in theater, literature, and cultural studies..."
    --Scott C. Martin, Oxford University Press American Historical Review
  • Winner, Barnard Hewitt Prize, American Society for Theatre Research
  • "Hughes’ book ... is an engaging read accessible to all comers, yet rigorous in its scholarship. Best of all, Hughes effectively relates 'sensation' images to events and personages of the 19th century, but also to the present day."
    TLA Broadside

Look Inside

Product Details

  • 264 pages.
  • 28 illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2012
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-02889-4

  • PDF: Adobe Digital Editions e-book (DRM Protected)

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  • United States history, politics, activism, performance, visual culture, melodrama, temperance, abolition, women's suffrage, Civil War