Professor's research examines the impact of popular imagery. 

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Theater History Professor Wins Award for Book on Spectacular

Jan. 15, 2014

Amy Hughes, theater professor. 

Most people are familiar with the iconic imagery of the heroic man saving the damsel in distress who has been tied to the train tracks. That scene was a twist on one from an 1867 play, Under the Gas Light.

What Amy E. Hughes, an assistant professor of theater history and criticism wants more people to know is that the original scene actually depicted a woman saving a man from the oncoming slaughter. Yet the remastered version was the one that went viral and stuck to our collective consciousness.

"That's what entertainment does, it has an impact," says Hughes, also the theater department's deputy chair for graduate studies. "Even something as fictitious as that railroad sequence has a lifelong impact beyond the moment of its production." 

Hughes parlayed her insights into why exactly that scene and others have had such an impact into a book, Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth Century America (University of Michigan Press, 2012). That book recently garnered the top prize for research from the American Society for Theatre Research. Hughes was presented with the 2013 Barnard Hewitt Award at the society's annual meeting last semester.

"I am genuinely surprised, and also humbled by the thought that the distinguished scholars on the committee selected my book for this recognition," says Hughes, a 2010 recipient of the Brooklyn College Excellence in Teaching award.

The society's committee that selected the book for the prize wrote that they "especially appreciated the blend of cultural, performance, and dramaturgical analysis that Hughes gracefully balanced," and called the work readable and well-organized.

"The book is arguing that spectacle is central to our way of seeing that moments of heightened reality that we tend to describe as spectacular are what make us remember things," Hughes explains. "They stay with us long after the encounter is over because of their impact and great power and they also become really fertile images of our shared cultural understanding."

Hughes takes a close look at three 19th-century plays in the book and argues that the imagery from them greatly influenced social norms on issues from slavery to women’s rights. 

With the railroad scene, she muses that "somehow our culture needed it to be reversed." She thinks about Wesley Autrey, the Harlem man who gained fame six years ago when he jumped onto the subway tracks and lay on top of a young man who was having a seizure, saving him from an oncoming train. 

"I always wondered had he ever seen the railroad sequence and was that part of what taught him, and taught all of us to put ourselves on the line to save someone in the line of danger," she says.

Hughes also mentions the "Miracle on the Hudson," the story about the 2009 US Airways flight that ended up in the Hudson River. Chesley Sullenberger, the flight's captain who nailed the emergency landing, was hailed as a hero.

"I was intrigued by how that image of the plane on the water circulated all over the place and the story that came out of it was the heroism of the pilot," Hughes explains. "That moment in history was right after the great recession started and we were being told all these stories about villainous people and here comes this incredible selfless hero." Hughes points out that popular entertainment today plays the same influential role.

"Business capitalists appropriate certain images to us for a reason," she says. "We have a shared visual vocabulary just as we have a shared language. Images are very powerful and I think they are dramatically understudied as cultural products."  

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