Explosions, car chases, narrow escapes---what summer blockbuster is complete without thrilling moments like these? In the 19th century, long before the era of film and television, 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.
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. 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.