Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America

Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America

by Amy E. Hughes

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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. 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.

Engaging evidence from lithographs to children's books to typography catalogs, 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. 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. 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472118625
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 10/31/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

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

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Spectacles of Reform

Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America

By Amy E. Hughes

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2012 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-11862-5


The Body as/in/at the Spectacle

The melodramatic body is a body seized by meaning.


In his landmark study of nineteenth-century Victorian and European theater, Martin Meisel argues that the most innovative trait of melodrama was the close relationship between picture and story: "its dramaturgy was pictorial, not just its mise en scène." He further asserts that "such pictorialism was strongest in what were regarded as its most 'dramatic' gestures." The most dramatic of melodrama's gestures was the situation: a spectacular, climatic scene depicting a pivotal moment within a play. Examining how such sequences worked in tandem with literary and visual culture beyond the theater's walls, Meisel shows how the situation became a foundational, defining characteristic of the new dramaturgy, functioning as "a site of a complex interplay of narrative and picture, rather than one member in a three-legged race to a synthesis." Situations variously comprised silent tableaux (often called "realizations," especially when a famous illustration or painting was re-created on stage) or technological triumphs (such as burning buildings, sinking ships, and the like). As Tom Gunning notes, by the 1860s critics and patrons began calling these elaborate effects "sensation scenes," a phrase alluding to the "particularly intense, even overwhelming experience" that they provided.

However, Meisel's main objective is to illuminate connections between staged realizations and extratheatrical visualizations rather than to reveal spectacle's phenomenology. What made these scenes sensational, and why did audiences find them so appealing? Because spectators considered a great many things sensational, the matter is complicated. Some sensation scenes featured impressive scenery; others involved nothing more than an actor's body. Freak shows, panoramas, lectures, and world's fairs were also dubbed "sensational." In publications ranging from newspapers to almanacs to children's books, provocative stories and incendiary images competed fiercely for readers' attention and fostered an appetite for sensation. Despite their incredible diversity, these products and practices had qualities or characteristics in common that gave them the sense of the spectacular.

Clearly, how something is presented and perceived, rather than what is presented and perceived, constitutes spectacle. The sensational is, in a word, exceptional. Our sense of the spectacular springs from the cultural norms that are jarred, destabilized, and exceeded in the process of representation. Therefore, a theoretical conception of the spectacular instant must be based on relations rather than essentials. One way to approach this problem is through the body. As culture's most conspicuous target for normalization, the body often reveals the unique pressures and politics of a historical moment. Concerns about bodies lie at the heart of the three reform movements featured in this book: temperance advocates touted the advantages of bodily discipline; abolitionists declared the injustices of bodily possession; women suffragists challenged assumptions about bodily essentialism. The centrality of the body in both spectacle and reform is one reason why, I argue, spectacle functions as methodology in reform.

Spectacle is nimble; spectacle is quick. Whether as big as a house or as small as a postage stamp, it strikes and overwhelms us with surprising intensity. To assess this power and pliability, I examine how different individuals participate in 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). Each of these perspectives offers unique insights into spectacle's dynamics. When the body itself becomes a spectacle, as in the freak show, ideas about what is "normal" — how a human should look, act, and be — are promoted and reinforced at the expense of variety and difference. Because the norm perpetually haunts the aberrant body on display, I posit that the norm perpetually defines the spectacular. Meanwhile, for the body in the spectacle, the possibility of death is omnipresent. Actors on stage, especially those performing in melodramas, constantly flirt with disaster. Sensation scenes, in particular, aggressively highlight the body's vulnerability. This suggests that the body in extremity is another defining feature of spectacle. Finally, I analyze some of the interpretive practices that nineteenth-century bodies at the spectacle brought to the theatrical experience. Sensation scenes appeared not only on stage but also in other media. Books, newspapers, and illustrations frequently harnessed the scale, intensity, and excesses of spectacle. These assorted texts and objects promoted viewing habits — tactics of seeing — that influenced how Americans consumed and experienced the world. Routinely harnessed as a didactic tool, spectacle focused the reader's attention and served as a conduit for the communication of ideas.

The midcentury emergence of the expression "sensation scene" and the heavy use of the phrase in theatrical advertising suggest that audiences actively sought the bodily sensations — the thrills and chills — that melodrama offered. To explore the potential efficacy of the spectacular instant, in the dénouement I consider how the visual is visceral. How do the things we see influence what we feel? The connection between sight and sensation helps to explain the power, popularity, and persistence of spectacle in US culture.

Norm-Defying Acts: Theorizing the Spectacular Instant

What stimulates our sense of the spectacular? The spec in spectacle suggests that visuality is its defining feature: it is something we see, something we watch. But as Bernard Beckerman observes in his comparison of theatrical spectacles (mass pageants, melodramatic tableaux, performances of skill) and "non-dramatic" spectacles (fireworks, parades, processions), "visual terms do not alone make the spectacle"; rather, spectacles are defined relationally, "tak[ing] their measure from human scale and capacity." Indeed, scale is, perhaps, the most obvious matrix by which we perceive spectacle — but scale is not the same thing as size. According to Beckerman, spectacle manifests "when scale and number exceed human proportion — that is, the proportion which spectators accept as the norm." In other words, scale is conceivable only within a system of relations: in order to detect, describe, or analyze something in terms of scale, an explicit or implicit norm must be in mind. Exhibitions of skill, such as the extraordinary exertions of acrobats or the tours de force of actors, generate awe because such performers exceed the abilities of average people.

Intensity is another defining quality of spectacle, which, like scale, exists only in relation. An event or experience is described as intense when it exceeds the expected or the routine. Discussing melodramatic situations, Meisel observes that some provide "a culminating symbolic summary of represented events" while others "substitute an arrested situation for action and reaction." Either way, such scenes serve as caesurae within a fast-moving plot, presenting an opportunity for the intensity to peak. This intensity derives from "the greater pressure of the whole on the particular," to employ Charles Altieri's phrase. It invokes a larger narrative world, an entire moral universe. This occurs regardless of whether the scene is an elaborate, action-oriented sequence or a static, frozen tableau. Bert O. States, comparing theater and film, argues that the compression of live performance lends it an intensity that can only happen in the theater: "Theater is swift (even Chekhov is swift). This swiftness has nothing to do with clock time or the suspense of the plot, but only with the fact that everything happens through the actor. This is the swiftness of condensation, of life raised to an intense power of temporal and spatial density." The temporal and spatial density States associates with theater generally is taken to another level during the spectacular instant.

Excess — a word invoking both superabundance and superfluity — is another of spectacle's characteristics. As Baz Kershaw writes, "Performance ecology usually thrives on excess — even the excess of subtraction, as in Beckett's aesthetic," and the spectacular instant embraces and celebrates this inherent propensity of the theatrical endeavor. Emotional excess, in particular, is often included among melodrama's trademark qualities, as Peter Brooks contends: "The emotions and conditions expressed are almost overwhelming in their instinctual purity; they taste too strong." In his view, melodrama's tendency toward excessive expression is at once compelling and alienating.

If we can sense its appeal (as well as its evident limitations), it must be because we are attracted to (though perhaps simultaneously repulsed by) the imaginary possibility of a world where we are solicited to say everything, where manners, the fear of self-betrayal, and accommodations to the Other no longer exert a controlling force.

Brooks's assertion underscores what Kershaw has described as our "curiosity and contempt" of spectacle. In a strange and paradoxical way, spectacle both attracts and repulses us. If melodrama appeals to a repressed and abhorred desire for excess — a desire "to say everything" — what cultural and historical factors influenced or caused that repression?

The trend toward normalization during the nineteenth century provides a provisional answer to this question. During this period, a variety of spaces emerged to control, contain, and hide abject bodies. These institutions coincided with new systems of bodily discipline, predicated on self-regulation, that were typically enacted through a repertory of acceptable behaviors. Lennard J. Davis has explored the "remarkable fact" that our modern definition of the word normal emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. Its earlier meaning was "perpendicular," referring to an object of measurement — the carpenter's square ("norm"). The word's etymology reveals that evaluation, comparison, and referentiality are deeply embedded in the notion of normality.

The concept of the norm informed (perhaps even inspired) a number of scientific, philosophical, and practical trends. Phrenology, an important predecessor of psychology that gained increasing popularity in Europe and America through 1850, provides some of the earliest evidence of the ascendance of the norm-as-ideal. Phrenologists postulated that a person's innate character could be read in the bumps of the skull. Similarly, new fields like statistics and eugenics (the cataloging of humans according to race) relied on norms and averages to measure and analyze data. Michel Foucault notes that the quantitative sciences ascended alongside regulatory practices, such as the school examination, that assigned penalties and rewards based on rankings rather than privilege, "thus substituting for the individuality of the memorable man that of the calculable man." For example, as Rodney Hessinger as shown, the University of Pennsylvania successfully maintained order among its male undergraduates during the early 1800s by introducing procedures classifying students in terms of their relative achievements. By replacing professorial approval with peer approval, thereby emphasizing "horizontal" rather than "vertical" authority structures, the system encouraged young men to practice self-control and self-improvement. Even Marxist philosophy — yet another product of the nineteenth century — allies itself with the ideal of the norm, as Davis observes: "Marx is unimaginable without a tendency to contemplate average humans and think about their abstract relation to work, wages, and so on. In this sense, Marx is very much in step with the movement of normalizing the body and the individual." These novel ways of calculating and quantifying phenomena in the natural and social worlds helped to establish the norm as one of the most powerful mandates within Western culture.

And yet, like spectacle, norms can only be defined within a system of relations. Deviance defines typicality; exceptions define rules. The norm is, first and foremost, a mode of measurement and a mechanism for comparison. It identifies and reconciles difference by establishing a common denominator for all. In the process, the norm simultaneously reveals and denies the realities of diversity. Moreover, it is based on a powerful fiction: anyone and everyone can conform to it. The triumph of the norm (a barometer) over the Platonic ideal (a principle) has enormous consequences for corporeality, signaling a paradigm shift regarding the body's potentials. According to Davis,

The idea of a norm pushes the normal variation of the body through a stricter template guiding the way the body "should" be. ... The new ideal of ranked order is powered by the imperative of the norm, and then is supplemented by the notion of progress, human perfectibility, and the elimination of deviance, to create a dominating, hegemonic vision of what the human body should be.

In other words, the norm commands the subject to curtail and contain his or her own excesses — or else. When the norm is ascendant, a directive to be ordinary or commonplace replaces the more benign notion that humanity is and always will be inferior to the ideal. Because averages champion conventions rather than exceptions, atypical subjects are automatically excluded, stigmatized, marginalized.

In a culture that enforces normalcy, excess is automatically abject. Indeed, judgment and repudiation seem entrenched in the word itself, folded within its overindulgent consonants. Normalcy celebrates efficiency; excess epitomizes waste. Normalcy prescribes moderation; excess seizes abundance. Norms renounce, contain, and extinguish the abnormality that excess represents. To embrace excess, then, is to deny both the value and the power of discipline's operations. (By definition, excess is undisciplined.) This is why spectacles of excess — bold, un-self-conscious displays; bodies in extremity; demonstrations of extraordinary skill — are inherently radical. In this sense, excess is always already political, too.

The Body as Spectacle

A striking fact about nineteenth-century spectatorship is that patrons circulated in venues where freaks and plays were in close proximity. Our contemporary aversion to the freak show, both in theory and in practice, is a relatively recent invention. Freakery grew in popularity in the United States during this period and sometimes shared space (literally and conceptually) with theatrical, oratorical, and ethnographic performance. Audiences did not delineate amusements by genre in the same way we do today. Meisel suggests that the complex relationship between images and texts collapsed traditional genre categories within the newly mediatized culture of the nineteenth century; he declares, "The crowning blow to the notion of genre as fixed, immutable, and finite fell in the nineteenth century, whose practice reveals a faith in the infinite variability and particularity of genre." In other words, different modes of cultural production promiscuously borrowed from and referred to one another; they were neither independently constituted nor unilaterally perceived.

The most obvious point of overlap is the midcentury museum, exemplified by P. T. Barnum's American Museum in New York City and Moses Kim-ball's Boston Museum. Museums featured a stunning variety of curiosities, ranging from the theatrical to the archaeological. The superabundant objects attracted middle-class patrons interested in viewing scientific exhibits, freaks, panoramas, lectures, and melodramas in a single visit. Some marketing materials from the period suggest that human oddities were the museums' principal draw. Freaks unequivocally dominate an advertisement for Barnum's museum circa 1860; it announces that there are "three performances daily" (presumably in Barnum's lecture room, where melodramas were staged), but the words are nearly lost on the periphery, literally and figuratively sidelined by the aberrant bodies depicted in the placard (fig. 1.1). Similarly, in scrapbooks from this era that have survived, cartes de visite of famous freaks abut photographs of celebrated actors, just as they shared space in museums.

These blurry boundaries between entertainments that we tend to view separately today warrant a serious consideration of the intertextual relationship between theater and freakery. I contend that freak shows affected nineteenth-century spectators' ways of seeing in important respects, influencing the manner in which Americans perceived bodies both on stage and off. Bluford Adams and Matthew Rebhorn have studied how specific exhibits interacted with melodramas presented in the same venue — for example, Barnum's "What Is It?" (an African American performer presented as a human-primate hybrid) and Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana, which were presented simultaneously at the American Museum on the cusp of the Civil War. Such collisions provide important opportunities to reconstruct audiences' readings of particular plays. But beyond specific instances of intertextuality, I argue that freak shows invited patrons to look differently in general. During the nineteenth century, displays of abnormal bodies fostered a methodology of viewing that emphasized the human in all kinds of spectacle. Because the freak is an exemplary case of the body as spectacle, representational strategies employed in freak shows help to illuminate how spectators perceived, read, and experienced other forms of sensational entertainment.


Excerpted from Spectacles of Reform by Amy E. Hughes. Copyright © 2012 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 The Body as/in/at the Spectacle 13

Chapter 2 The Delirium Tremens: Spectacular Insanity in The Drunkard 46

Chapter 3 The Fugitive Slave: Eliza's Flight in Uncle Tom's Cabin 86

Chapter 4 The Railroad Rescue: Suffrage and Citizenship in Under the Gaslight 118

Afterword: Our Sensations, Our Heroes, Our Freaks 155

Notes 169

Bibliography 213

Index 235

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