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

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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. According to Beckerman, spectacle manifests "when scale and number exceed human proportion — that is, the proportion which spectators accept as the norm.

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.

This intensity derives from "the greater pressure of the whole on the particular," to employ Charles Altieri's phrase.


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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.

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. 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.

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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.

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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 , 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.

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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.

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.

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Spectacles of Reform

In this sense, Marx is very much in step with the movement of normalizing the body and the individual. And yet, like spectacle, norms can only be defined within a system of relations. Deviance defines typicality; exceptions define rules. Your Account Logout. A Critical Companion to Lynn Nottage.

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Edited By Jocelyn L. Edition 1st Edition. First Published While acknowledging that there are many important examples of spectacle, not only in nineteenth-century melodrama but also throughout theatre history, Hughes limits her discussion to these case studies and the respective social dilemmas temperance, abolition, and suffrage that each scene dramatizes.


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By analyzing the actual bodies of the performer and spectator through unique gesture and movement, Hughes calls attention to the human dynamics of spectacle. Therefore, this section emphasizes the importance and utility of the body as a means of both spectacle and reform. Hughes outlines the historiography of temperance via medical research and, as an example, discusses the work of John B.

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Gough, a former alcoholic turned lecturer from s New England. Gough was performing in Boston at the same time as the initial run of The Drunkard, which he attended. Edward Middleton, the title character in The Drunkard, became, next to Gough himself, the best-known embodiment of delirium tremens. This transformation, and the image of it, is relevant and significant in attempting to communicate the experiences and stories of slaves.

In Under the Gaslight, Laura Courtland uses an axe to break out of a locked shed in time to save Snorkey, a Civil War veteran, who is tied to the railroad tracks as a train approaches.


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  5. This was not the first use of this kind of railroad sensation, but it initiated its popularity in the United States. The incongruity to period audiences of Courtland, or any woman, welding an axe creates a space for commentary on the role of women in society as well as exemplifying the potential spectacle creates for communicating subtle yet profound ideals to audiences. Theatre is thus shown to be able to enact social reformation through spectacle.