Repost: The aerial theatre

[Part of a celebration of Airminded's 10th anniversary; originally posted on 1 March 2014. This was an initial roughing out of an idea for my next big research project, which hasn't quite happened because I've been distracted by other things and haven't got any funding yet. But I still hope to pursue it in some form.]

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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