“Spectacle and Reform in Nineteenth-Century America”
By Amy E. Hughes
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. Based upon her latest book, Spectacles of Reform Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America, Hughes program scrutinizes these peculiar intersections of spectacle and reform, revealing that spectacle plays a crucial role in American activism. Engaging evidence from lithographs to children's books to typography catalogs, she will trace 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—and argues that spectacle was central to the dramaturgy of reform. Ultimately, she suggests that today’s producers and advertisers still exploit the affective dynamism of spectacle, reaching an even broader audience through electronic media and the Internet.
Amy Hughes is an assistant professor of theater at Brooklyn College. Her scholarly expertise is in United States theater, visual, and material culture during the nineteenth century. Additionally she studies theater and performance in the Republic of Turkey and specializes in collaborative learning and other nontraditional pedagogical methods. In 2009, Hughes was awarded by AAS a Deborah and Jay Last Fellowship to research Spectacles of Reform in the Society’s collections.