Performing Flight

From the Barnstormers to Space Tourism
Scott Magelssen
A century of human aviation and space travel, seen through the lens of performance


Performing Flight sheds new light on moments in the history of US aviation and spaceflight through the lens of performance studies. From pioneering aviator Bessie Coleman to the emerging industry of space tourism, performance has consistently shaped public perception of the enterprise of flight and has guaranteed its success as a mode of entertainment, travel, research, and warfare. The book reveals fundamental connections between performance and human aviation and space travel over the past 100 years, beginning with the early aerial entertainers known as barnstormers (named after itinerant 19th century theater troupes) to the performative history of the Enola Gay and its pilot Paul Tibbets, who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, thus ushering in the atomic age. The book also explores the phenomenon of “the pilot voice”; the creation of the American Astronaut, on whose performative success the Cold War, the Space Race, and funding of the US Space Program all depended; and the performative strategies employed to cement notions of space tourism as both manifest destiny and an escape route from a failed planet. A final chapter addresses the four hijacked flights of 9/11 and their representations in discourse and in memorials. Performing Flight effectively and imaginatively demonstrates the ways in which performance and flight in the United States have been inextricably linked for more than a century.
Scott Magelssen is Professor of Drama and Performance Studies at the University of Washington.

Praise / Awards

  • "Performing Flight makes its most exciting contributions to performance studies, tourism studies, and the history of flight when it makes its way out of the archives and into the field. That said, each case study remains essential; each is relatively short, but their resonances add up to much more. As our line of flight loops over and under the military-industrial complex, as the astronaut persona echoes the barnstormer persona, as the 9/11 hijackers deploy the pilot voice, and on, Performing Flight casts new light on a set of quotidian and exceptional performances that have defined a century in the air."
    Theatre Journal
  • "What Magelssen has produced is a work for scholars from a variety of disciplines, including performance studies, history, and cultur­al studies and methods including ethnography, phenomenology, and field research. Performing Flight is clear, specific, and accessible, including for those who may not have a scholarly interest in flight or space."
    Theatre Annual
  • "Tourism is a noteworthy exception, and not just for its subject matter. This nimble and engaging exploration of aviation and space travel as performance is a genuine page-turner, an innovative work of scholarship that is also absorbing enough to hold one’s attention for the duration of a transcontinental flight." 
    The Drama Review (TDR)
  • "...Performing Flight is an important contribution to considering the historical and performative underpinnings of flight for future research on this subject."
    Performance Research
  • "...Magelssen should be commended for focusing on this topic with sensitivity. Throughout, he thoughtfully engages with performance studies to connect the specificity of the historical archive with contemporary culture and politics. He takes seriously the ways in which flight has not only been central to the American cultural imagination, but also how that figuration is fundamentally shaped by disciplinary regimes of race, gender, and nation."
    Theatre Survey

Product Details

  • 204 pages.
  • 12 illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2020
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-12685-9

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  • Flight, aviation, astronaut, pilot, barnstorming, space travel, space tourism, the Cold War, performance, theatre, 9/11, Pan Am, 747, stewardess, flight attendant, Chuck Yeager, Mercury 13, Icarus, gravity, NASA, the Mercury Program, Zero G, Paul Tibbets, Enola Gay, John Glenn, Scott Kelly, Bessie Coleman, the Space Race, cosmonaut, Air Force, aerospace.