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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.
At the start of the 19th century, the already established Sadler's Wells Theatre came under the management of Charles Dibdin, Jr., a man who had big plans for the theatre's future. In 1804, he installed a large 90x24x3ft water tank that covered the entire stage. The water used to fill the tank was pumped in from the New River, which was adjacent to the theatre, by an Archimedes wheel. This process took twelve men twelve hours: four men would work in four hour shifts and then rotate until the entire tank was full. Even though the tanks were drained and refilled every three weeks they would become filthy. The water would become dirty not only from the shows, but the actors would bathe in the tank, along with rowdy audience members jumping in to see if the water was real. The Aquatic Drama was popular in the early 19th century, and with Sadler’s Wells on the outskirts of London, the audiences, especially in the pit were unruly, loud, and most likely drunk. The large water tank that these disruptive audience members would jump into was not the only tank in the theatre, Dibdin Jr. had a second 5x5x5 ft tank above the theatre that was used to simulate waterfalls.
The first show Dibdin, Jr. and his crew put on was The Siege of Gibralter. It opened in 1804, and it was a play that depicted the naval battle between the English Navy and the Spanish Armada. A playbill from this performance describes the battle in the show:
"the conflagration of the town in various places, the defense of the garrison, and attack by the floating batteries, [which] is so faithfully and naturally represented, that when the floating batteries take fire, some blowing up with a dreadful explosion, and others, after burning to the water’s edge, sink to the bottom; while the gallant Sir Roger Curtis appears in his boat to save the drowning Spaniards, the British tars for that purpose plunging into the water, the effect is such as to produce an unprecedented climax of astonishment and applause."
There were 177 ships on the liquid stage, all equipped with live guns and ready for battle. Over a hundred real scale sized naval ships would not have been able to fit in Sadler’s Wells tanks, so Dibdin hired me who worked at the Woolwich Dockyards to build him smaller ships built at a one iinch per foot scale, with exact detailed imitation down to the rigging. Children were cast as some of the Spanish navel officers manning the tiny ships, and were seen “drowning” after the Spanish had been defeated. The climactic battle of the show was when the English and Spanish went head on, full force, with guns blazing, and the audience members saw incredible spectacle as the English triumphantly destroyed the Spanish Armada.
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