The aerial theatre

Under the terms of an agreement made in 1909 between the three main British aviation bodies, the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain concentrated on 'the scientific phases of the movement', the Aero Club of the United Kingdom was responsible for 'sporting and social aspects', and the Aerial League of the British Empire, the one I'm most interested in, took on 'the patriotic and propaganda' side of things.1 In terms of this propaganda role, I've usually tended to see the Aerial League as focusing more on fostering airmindedness among elites than the masses. After all, its ranks were filled with peers, solicitors, generals, journalists, politicians and other examples of the better-off classes of society.

But while this may be fair comment for the interwar League I'm starting to realise that this misrepresents the scope, or at least the ambition, of its activities before 1914. For example, in June 1910 it organised a very successful aeronautical exhibition in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, which ran for a couple of months. Claude Grahame-White's weekly aerial displays were the major drawcard, pulling in up to 10,000 spectators; according to Charles Gibbs-Smith, there were nearly riots when bad weather prevented flying.2 After hosting a luncheon for journalists to show them how the grounds had been adapted for aviation (including the construction of 'What is termed an "aerial cottage" -- that is to say, a cottage with an aeroplane shed attached and forming a part of the design'), Colonel H. S. Massy told them 'that the object of the league was to form a great central aeronautical institute with branches all over the country at which young men of small means would be able to qualify as airmen'.3 So although, as far as I know, this scheme was never attempted, there was at least an idea that it would be desirable to help those who could not otherwise afford to learn to fly.

The motive wasn't simply altruism, of course; it was to do with that other part of the Aerial League's remit, the 'patriotic'. As Massy further explained, 'if we, in this country, allowed the fatal drowsy sense of security born of freedom from foreign attack to gain the upper hand with us, we should not only be a laughing-stock, but an easy prey to our neighbours'.4 The same motivation presumably explains the Aerial League's patronage of a play entitled War in the Air, which premiered at the London Palladium on 23 June 1913. It was written by Frank Dupree, a journalist with the Standard who had flown with Gustav Hamel from Dover to Cologne in April, in an aeroplane which was donated to New Zealand by the Imperial Air Fleet Committee. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to locate any detailed descriptions of the plot in contemporary sources, although one London newspaper ridiculed its stage effects, claiming that 'Nothing [unintentionally] funnier has been seen on the veriety stage for years'.5 However, Andrew Horrall gives a useful précis in Popular Culture in London:

War in the Air, a play designed to arouse the nation to the hovering peril, whose cast included a young Noël Coward, detailed the heroics of Tommy Vincent the commander of Britain's fictional Central Aerial Station. As in many melodramas, female weakness caused the trouble. Vincent's fiancée had unwittingly allowed Britain's enemies to dupe his pilots into believing that the north-east coast was being invaded. As the British squadron headed north, the enemy's aircraft attacked Kent. Needless to say, such an evil, ungentlemanly ruse was discovered when the emboldened fiancée cabled a new warning and was avenged unsparingly as Vincent's planes destroyed the enemy fleet over Dover. These aerial battles were carried out between planes suspended on wires above the audience. Subsequent performances in Willesden and Shoreditch proved to Londoners that British pilots would protect them, from both air and seaborne invasions.6

It sounds like it combined elements of the invasion, naval and spy fiction of the period, which I would argue is quite characteristic; the airship panic earlier in the year -- in which Dupree's paper had played an enthusiastic part -- was much the same, and another airship play which opened a few months later, Sealed Orders, had a similar mix.7 I'm not sure if the Aerial League had any involvement in War in the Air beyond its patronage, and sending along representatives on opening night (as did the Imperial Air Fleet Committee).8 It doesn't appear to be mentioned in the minutes of the Aerial League's executive committee. But what was evidently its message -- the need for aerial preparedness -- certainly fit with the Aerial League's goals.

War in the Air was, in one sense of the phrase, aerial theatre. The Aerial League's Crystal Palace exhibition was, in a slightly different sense, also aerial theatre. The flight of Nulli Secundus around St Paul's in 1907 was aerial theatre. The Hendon Habit, in which tens thousands flocked to Grahame-White's North London aerodrome every week to watch exciting and spectacular flying displays, was aerial theatre, too. Grahame-White's 'Wake Up, England!' tour in the summer of 1912, when he did aerial stunts over fashionable seaside resorts was too, and so too was the inaugural Aerial Derby in June, and the use of airships in Army manoeuvres in September, and the prolonged flight of a Royal Flying Corps squadron from Farnborough to Montrose in February 1913, and the King's visit to the aeronautics exhibition at Olympia the same month, and the Navy League's poster campaign in April. And so on. Readers of Jan Rüger's The Great Naval Game will have seen what I'm getting at: this aerial theatre is a (perhaps slightly broader) parallel to his naval theatre. As Rüger explains:

This book is about the theatre of power and identity that unfolded in and between Britain and Germany in the imperial age. It explores what contemporaries described as the 'cult of the navy': the many ways in which the navy and the sea were celebrated in the decades before the First World War. At the heart of this obsession were a host of rituals that put the navy and the nation on the public stage. Of these, fleet reviews and launches of warships were the most prominent. At once royal rituals and national entertainments, these were spectacles of power and pride, with hundreds of thousands regularly turning out to watch. They became a potent public theatre where tradition, power and claims to the sea were demonstrated to both domestic and foreign audiences. What role did this maritime stage play in the rise of the Anglo-German antagonism? What was its significance for nation-building and ideas of empire? And how might it change our understanding of the relationship between politics and culture, between public ritual and power?9

I think something similar happened in the air. But not the same. For, while the aerial theatre borrowed some props from the naval one, it differed in a number of obvious and interrelated ways. It was newer and had less tradition: while it could be claimed that Alfred the Great had created the first British (or at least English) navy, nothing approaching an air force had been formed until the Air Battalion in 1911, or perhaps the School of Ballooning in 1878. It probably had a smaller audience, at least in direct terms, although it was claimed that the Aerial Derby had an audience of 3 million watching along its route, and the aeroplane and the airship were as widely recognised cultural icons as the dreadnought. It was performed more by civilian actors than by government ones: the number of military aircraft was still small (precisely what the various leagues were trying to rectify), for one thing, and this offered few opportunities for massed displays of aerial might (as did take place after 1918). And most importantly, perhaps, the story being staged wasn't one of power but of weakness. Britain manifestly did not have command of the air as it did the sea. Perhaps most importantly, and in consequence of all this, the aerial theatre was more forward-looking, more aspirational, more fictional, more imaginary. It was about things to come, not things which had been or even which were.

Just as 'Rule, Britannia!' -- written in 1740 for a play about Alfred the Great, an early and literal example of naval theatre -- was an imperative, imploring Britons to rule the waves or else be slaves, so too did the Edwardian aerial theatre warn them to now rule the clouds. Or else be vanquished.


  1. Flight, 4 September 1909, 532, 533

  2. The Story of the Air League 1909-1959 (Sidney-Barton, 1959), 5. 

  3. The Times, 7 June 1910, 12. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Quoted in New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 20 September 1913, 4

  6. Andrew Horrall, Popular Culture in London c. 1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 93. Horrall's main source is The Era, 28 June 1913, 19. 

  7. Ibid. [Correction: Horrall, Popular Culture in London, 93.] 

  8. The Times, 21 June 1913, 10. 

  9. Jan Rüger, The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1. 

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3 thoughts on “The aerial theatre

  1. Just an idle thought about audience reception here, Brett. I'm deep into 1944 aviation technology journalism right now, and without descending into anything so dreadfully positivist as counting visual elements, I am getting the impression that the advertising is being pitched at a dramatically different audience than "usual."

    Okay, strike that: I'll count a bit. I've opened Aero Digest to Feb 1, 1944, 102:

    1 picture, editorial (E): guys overhauling engines. They're so obviously exhausted that my heart breaks to look at them.
    103: Full page ad (A) for The Metal Speciality Co. selling stamping equipment. Picture shows middle-aged tool-and-die guy tool-and-dieing.
    104: (E) Older man in foreground of a diagonal across a long drawing room. Caption: "Efforts put into simplifying aircraft design will pay untold dividends."
    105: (A/Drawing [A/D]): Ad for Adams Stamping Corp. Drawings of cockpit, bazooka team, P/T boat and something that looks like a submarine conning station merging into the engineer looking at the blueprint for something in his science-joint.
    106: (E) Two pictures of tool-and-die sets.
    107: (A) Ad for Morrison Stitchers shows a stitcher with a male operative.
    108: (E) More dies.
    109: (A) Lumarith ad shows a "Celanese" plastic control yoke.
    110: "Goodyear's Precision Assembly Jigs" (E) jigs, male operative.
    111: (A) Kenyon, drawing of B-17
    112 (E) Jigs, two male, one female operative.
    113 (A/D) Hollingshead advertises POL products as "LIFE BLOOD for Aircraft Controls." Drawing of product and silhouette of generalised warplane.
    114 -16 (E): "Design Details: Lockheed Lightning" Drawings/photos of P-38. No background.
    117 (A) Kropp Forge Aviation ad. Picture of B-24, no background.
    118(E): "Fabrication of the T-1 Bombsight" Upwards of 20 operatives, all female, at a bench assembly line.
    119(A/D): Houdry: "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Ad is divided into three triangular panes: first shows Johnny at the driving seat, woman beside him, parking valet reaching down to open door. Johnny is well-off and in a relationship. Second shows Johnny in cockpit w/ three rising suns painted below. Third panel, Johnny and same(?) woman in private plane.
    120(E): Two female operatives assembling T-1s. both made up, hair done.
    121(A): Pipe Machinery Company photo shows selection of products.
    122(E): Article on pending civil aviation legislation, photo of "Wounded Marines" being evacuated from Bougainville by airliner.
    123 (A/D) Federal Aircraft Bearings; B-17, no background.
    124(E) "Scene of utter devastation in railroad yards at Foggia"
    125(A): Timken Bearings: Picture of experimental bogie-wheel landing gear that is "easy on the pilot's and crew's nerves when landing on [difficult ground].
    126(E) Aircraft secured to escort carrier deck.
    127(A) New York Air Brake Company: picture of product.
    118-19 (A) Vard, Inc. Two-page ad spread of products in patriotic red-and-white. (Blue is for the glossies.)

    Okay, I think that's quite enough spamming to make a preliminary case that the images here make considerably less use of menacing warplanes and explosions to sell products to the military aviation industry than a random interwar number of Flight International, while placing far more emphasis on themes of aircrew safety.

    I am speculating that this trend (if real) reflects the feminisation of the industry. Or, to put it another way, advertisers, probably staffed very largely with women, are trying to appeal to female readers. The speculation requires another reach --that more women are involved in middle management in the larger WWII-era aviation and advertising industry than is our common perception; but I think that that is at least a defensible proposition.

    So, then, out of my chain of wild-assed theories, a conclusion: audience receptivity produces an observable shift in the visual iconography of flight during the war years, away from masculinised images of power and implicit violence towards feminised (at least by a conventional understanding of the feminine) images of safety and domesticity.

  2. Post author

    Completely impressionistic and based on no research whatsoever, but my impression of wartime Flight is that it is quite bellicose in terms of imagery. Which would be an interesting point of difference with the US.

    So, then, out of my chain of wild-assed theories, a conclusion: audience receptivity produces an observable shift in the visual iconography of flight during the war years, away from masculinised images of power and implicit violence towards feminised (at least by a conventional understanding of the feminine) images of safety and domesticity.

    Could the shift be explained in other ways than in an increased female audience? For example, the emphasis on women workers could be meant as a signal that the company is doing its part by maximising its female workforce and releasing men for the services. The emphasis on safety could be because nearly everyone had a brother or son or father or friend off fighting, and were more worried about their coming back home than smashing the enemy (which by Feb 1944 maybe was starting to be taken for granted? Though it is before D-Day and Philippines).

    While they certainly count as aviation propaganda, advertisements in aeronautical magazines are not quite what I would consider 'aerial theatre'; they need to be aimed at a general audience, for one thing. Though, that said, Rüger might not consider actual plays or press scares to be part of his naval theatre, as I would for aerial theatre -- I need to reread The Great Naval Game. But audience reception is important, for sure. Just difficult.

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