Aqua drama

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A performance at Sadler's Wells, circa 1808.

The theatrical genre of aqua drama that was popular in 19th century France, England, and the United States involved flooding the arenas of circuses for recreations of major naval conflicts and similar aquatic events; some venues participated to such a great extent in this once-popular form as to install permanent water-tanks on stage.[1] Water-based spectacles, especially those portraying great naval battles, had been popular in Roman times, when they were known as naumachia, and the custom was resurrected at various times during the Middle Ages.

19th century performances[edit]

During Charles Dibdin’s management, the Aquatic Theatre, as Great Britain's Sadler's Wells Theatre was then known, specialized in marine spectacles and nautical dramas.[2] Its proximity to the New River meant easy access to the necessary water.[3] The Siege of Gibralter, mounted in 1804, deployed 117 model ships created by the Woolwich Dockyard shipwrights which were capable of firing their guns. For the parts of drowning Spanish sailors, Dibdin cast children who were seen struggling in the waves.[4]

In 1823 Sadler’s Wells presented the aqua drama entitled The Island or Christian and His Comrades which dramatized the main events of the Mutiny on board HMS Bounty.[5] In order to alleviate a twenty minute delay between a dry land scene and an aquatic scene, the stage was made to ascend to near the roof of the theatre, in full view of the audience.[6]

New York City's Lafayette Circus (1826-1829) boasted equipment for both equestrian, or "Hippodrama", and aquatic dramas.[7]

On July 4, 1840, The Bowery Theatre in New York City produced The Pirates Signal. An immense stage was entirely covered by water upon which a full-rigged ship maneuvered. The scene took place upon the decks of the ship itself.[8]


  1. ^ Harrison, p. 17
  2. ^ Trussler, p. 198
  3. ^ Sharp, p. 99
  4. ^ Hays, p. 171
  5. ^ Kirk, p. 55
  6. ^ Ledger, p. f
  7. ^ Banham, p. 1136
  8. ^ Brown, p. 17