’Performing Flight’: UW drama professor Scott Magelssen’s book studies aviation through perspective of performance studies

UW drama professor Scott Magelssen floats weightless during a parabolic flight in a converted Boeing 727 as part of his research for his book "Performing Flight.” Al Powers/ Zero Gravity Corporation

University of Washington drama professor Scott Magelssen explores American aviation from the perspective of performance studies in his new book " Performing Flight: From the Barnstormers to Space Tourism ,” published this summer by University of Michigan Press.

In the introduction, Magelssen writes of long knowing that performance was central to the "space-age aesthetic” in art and culture, but that he learned something more during research visits to aviation and space museums.

"I began to realize the important role of performance in legitimizing to American legislators and taxpayers the enormous expenditures involved in the development of space exploration in this country. The idea for the book took off (ahem) from there.”

"Performing Flight,” he writes, "explores how aviation and space travel have been fundamentally connected to the images, gestures, narrative tropes and performative acts that have helped shape the enterprise of flight in public perception and consciousness.”

UW Notebook talked with Magelssen about the book and how it comments on American culture.

"Performing Flight: From the Barnstormers to Space Tourism,” by Scott Magelssen.

You weave personal stories into the research narrative, from loving airplanes and space as a child to visiting exhibits and even experiencing near-weightlessness. What was the benefit of this more personal approach? 

Scott Magelssen: My approach for a long time now has been that of a participant-observer. I use archival research and personal interviews for a lot of my material, but when it comes to a zero-gravity flight, or how a museum visitor experiences the story of America and flight in a museum, there’s no substitute for going through it firsthand - and then reporting on not only what I learned but how it felt.

As I was working on the book, I saw that my own experiences could serve as a case study. I could tell a story, from the point of view of a relatively ordinary American kid, of how ideas of America were shaped by airplanes and spaceships and pilots and astronauts.

Our history as a nation is wrapped up in aviation - in technology, ingenuity, exploration and the Space Race. These things have defined who we are as Americans and have been projected back to us in movies like "Star Wars” and "Top Gun.” Some of our most defining tragedies, too, involve spaceships and airplanes, like the Challenger disaster and the hijacker attacks of September 11, 2001. In a lot of ways, talking about these things from my own point of view is the most authentic way I could think to do it.

The book looks at performance aspects of flight, from scrappy early barnstormers - the very name coming from theater troupes - to today’s elite space tourists. They are so different, but do they share much from a performance perspective? 

S.M.: You’re right that they’re so unique from one another. The early barnstormers, most of whom never made it into the history books, scraped by on income they got from giving rides in airplanes or flying in airshows, and sometimes they slept overnight in fields under the wings of their planes.

Space tourists, on the other hand, are millionaires. They are playing astronaut, but they become real astronauts by doing all the training and participating in the missions.

Both have been driven by the desire to push the boundaries, by the exhilaration of flight, by seeing the world from a different perspective. They have to have a certain kind of fearlessness, and for this reason, pilots and astronauts, regardless of background or income, are in our eyes a special kind of people, like our ambassadors to the heavens.    

You write of Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay , which dropped the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in 1945, and how he starred in a live "re-enactment” of the bomb-dropping - complete with mushroom cloud-like pyrotechnics - for a Texan aviation group in 1976. What does it say about our culture that such an event, and others like it, would be popular, or even tolerated?  

S.M.: We Americans have a long cultural history of re-enacting war. Think about the popularity of Civil War re-enactment events. There are also Revolutionary War re-enactment groups and even hobbyists who re-enact more recent conflicts, like the war in Iraq.

For the Texas audience, the simulation of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima celebrated a decisive victory, something that guaranteed liberty and triumph of American ideals. The re-enactment allowed for this kind of narrative. It was simple. It also left out any representation of the death of 80,000 Japanese victims, and the burning and poisoning of 60,000 more.

But also, while the Texas audience cheered, many Americans found the re-enactment distasteful and inappropriate, and plans to restage it the following year were scrapped. That’s probably one of the biggest things that event shows us about our culture: As a nation we can be quite divided on how we view history and which events are worthy of celebration.

You discuss the "pilot voice,” the unflappable tone of airline captains and astronauts, traced back in part by author Tom Wolfe to test pilot Chuck Yeager. What are its other origins? And is the pilot voice evolving away from its exclusively white male origins?

S.M.: That cool, manly captain’s voice, often with a kind of southern or western drawl, is what a lot of us have heard from the cockpit over the PA system in commercial airline flights, and in representations of pilots from popular culture. The voice was famously attributed to Yeager by Wolfe in his book " The Right Stuff.” But I found in my research and interviews that this is only part of the story. There are other theories, too.

One of my favorites is one I heard from talking with the old-timer volunteer docents at The Museum of Flight here in Seattle. They explained how most pilots in the mid-late 20th century had learned to fly during World War II in Texas, where practically all our airbases were at the time. The bases would bring in busloads of young women for dances, and the young pilots would fall in love with and marry them and relocate to be near their wives’ families after the war. So, they all gradually picked up Texas accents from their wives and in-laws. That’s definitely a counternarrative to the drawl coming from a manly source like Chuck Yeager!

A lot of the pilots I spoke with talked about just kind of picking it up as co-pilots when flying with more seasoned pilots on commercial passenger flights. It’s subconscious - something they’re not even aware of.

But yes, this is definitely changing. Not so much because pilots are getting less white and male. Women still only account for around 6% or 7% of all U.S. commercial pilots, and even fewer are nonwhite. I attribute the change to a generational shift, and because many more pilots are commercially trained now than get their training in the military.

You write that you found it difficult, understandably, to write about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but felt the book required it. What did you learn? 

S.M.: It was indeed daunting, both because it was such a traumatic event, but also because I knew that the idea of taking about the attacks as performance would be offensive to some people. My background in performance studies, though, takes the approach that we can look at all aspects of human behavior and action as performance, and if I was going to turn this performance studies lens on barnstormers and on pilot voices and on Paul Tibbets’ bombing of Hiroshima, then I couldn’t avoid asking how a performance-studies approach could help us think through the 9/11 attacks.

The use of jet planes in the attacks was particularly surprising and shocking to Americans precisely because of the ways airplanes and pilots had become so part and parcel of American culture, and because the cool, unflappable pilot’s voice had helped instill in us the idea that airplane travel was safe - it was about sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying the flight.

For more information, contact Magelssen at magelss@uw.edu.


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