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. 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
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. Its proximity to the New River meant easy access to the necessary water. 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.
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. 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.
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.
- Harrison, p. 17
- Trussler, p. 198
- Sharp, p. 99
- Hays, p. 171
- Kirk, p. 55
- Ledger, p. f
- Banham, p. 1136
- Brown, p. 17
- Banham, Martin (1995). Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge University Press.
- Brown, T. Allston (1902). A History of the New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901. Dodd, Mead and Company.
- Harrison, Martin (1998). The Language of Theatre. Routledge Press.
- Hays, Michael and Nikolopoulou, Anastasia (1999). Melodrama. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Kirk, Robert W. and Ford, Herbert (2008). Pitcairn Island, the Bounty Mutineers and Their Descendants. McFarland & Co.
- Ledger, Edward (2007). The Era Almanack. Oxford University Press.
- Sharp, Robert Farquharson (2008). A Short History of the English Stage from Its Beginnings to the Summer of the Year 1908. Harvard University Press.
- Trussler, Simon (2000). The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Theatre. Cambridge University Press.