Step Right Up
In 1792, the renowned British equestrian John Bill Ricketts arrived in Philadelphia. On April 3 of the following year, he presented the first circus ever seen in America in a wooden amphitheater erected on the corner of Twelfth and Market Streets. On that site today at the foot of an office building, a 42-foot circular piazza (the diameter of a circus ring) and a plaque commemorate the event.
At the time, circus was mainly an equestrian show, with tumblers, rope-dancers, jugglers, and clowns offering comic relief between acts. This mixing of visual acts had originally been designed by another British equestrian, Philip Astley, who presented the first performance of that type in London over twenty years earlier. This new form of entertainment soon became the craze in Europe. But it was Astley's first competitor, Charles Hughes, who gave it a name—circus—and exported it to Russia. Ricketts, who had once served as an apprentice to Hughes in London, brought it across the ocean to America.
The circus soon became extremely popular on this continent. It was easy to appreciate, at a time when horsemanship and physical endurance were part of everyday living. It didn't have the upperclass coloration of the theatre, nor its distinctive British tone—a positive selling point to a newly independent people. Presidents Washington and Adams both patronized Ricketts' circus.
Just as actors managed their own theatre companies, so too did circus performers operate their own shows in those early days. But this new enterprise was becoming so successful that soon businessmen took over. It began with farmers turned menagerie owners, in the region of Somers, New York, who quickly realized that they could increase profits by combining the two most popular traveling attractions of the day, the circus and the menagerie. Fortunes were quickly amassed.
In the late 1870s, the true popularity and financial potential of the American circus was realized by P.T. Barnum, the legendary impresario. Barnum, who was then in semi-retirement, together with his associates, William Cameron Coup and James A. Bailey, turned the circus into America's favorite entertainment—the richest, the biggest, and the greatest show on earth... and so it remained for the next five decades.
As so often happens in these situations, commercial success slowly disfigured the art form. From a rather intimate show-in-the-round, where audiences could appreciate the individual skill and artistry of each performer, American circus evolved into a garish spectacle, presented on three (and up to seven) rings or stages at a time. The introduction of multiple rings arose from a commercial need to increase tent capacity while simultaneously allowing the most remote spectator to catch a glimpse of the performance. By feeding on the American audiences' developing taste for high pageantry and extravaganza, the original perception of circus as a performing art was soon lost.
LaVahn Hoh and William Rough, who have studied the history of the theatre as well as that of the circus, well understand how much the two are interrelated. Jerome Robbins once stated that Circus is the original theatre. Many circus historians have related the history of the circus from a business perspective, or stunningly described the impressive logistics involved in moving the huge cities of tents in the heydey of the American circus. The merit of this book is that it offers a closer look into the evolution of the art form, from its introduction in this country, to its subsequent decline and, as it now seems, to its revival. For any serious theatre, circus, or performing arts scholar, this is an important book—as it should for anyone interested in the history of this country. The circus, as we shall see, played an important role in the development of America. Finally, this work offers a wonderful adventure, as does circus itself, and that alone is enough to make it endearing.
Associate Artistic Director
The Big Apple Circus