Step Right Up
Chapter II. Traces
Tracing the evolution of the circus to what we see in the rings today is not an especially straight-forward task. Towns and countries are eager to lay claim to history with "Home of ...!" or "Biggest ...!" The field of circus history is flush with experts who accord honors to this or that person who was the first to perform this or that stunt. Grown men and women spend hours or lifetimes deciphering who did the first back flip off of a horse's back, or which was the first elephant in America, or in what country was the art of rope-dancing invented. It's almost as hard as trying to decipher what "the biggest" means: Among elephants, for instance, who was bigger: Jumbo, or Tusko, or King Tusk, or now the Circus Vargas' Colonel Joe? And does "bigger" mean higher, or heavier, or with longer tusks? Does the "biggest" show under canvas mean the biggest tent, or the biggest elephant herd, or the largest truck fleet, or the most number of people travelling with a circus? Of course, it all only means what the P. R. man wants it to mean. Usually, such phrasing has more to do with how many tickets can get sold, than with any accuracy or historical relevance.
Of course, claims of superiority are just the kind of thing we want to hear. Americans have been brought up to place high value on the best, the strongest, the biggest, and the first. We wouldn't have it any other way. We wouldn't walk across the street to see a circus or anything else that didn't claim to be the first, or the best, or the biggest at something. And who remembers second or third place at the horse races? We'll have to play the "biggest" game in this book too, at least a little bit. It's impossible not to play at all, and it wouldn't be any fun anyway. P.T. Barnum may not have been an especially able circus man, but we still associate the old shyster with the "Greatest Show on Earth," the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He used to say that the public liked to be fooled, and he was only giving them what they wanted. How right he was. This moral, kind, temperate man may have been full of himself, but he never lied without a twinkle in his eye which entered him into an unspoken partnership with his listener. And he never did give the public anything but what we still want, just for the sheer fun of it.
In the Barnum tradition, many people who ought to know better will insist that the circus is strictly a part of our American heritage. It isn't, of course. Americans didn't invent the circus, or even any of the traditional acts we have come to expect in a circus performance. In the 500 years since Columbus "discovered" America in 1492, the circus as we know it today has evolved in England more substantially than in any other place, although even England has no exclusive claim to be the birthplace of the circus. Die-hard circus fans may insist, "At least the three-ring tradition came from America, didn't it?" Well, no, not really. Even something so basically "American" as a three-ring circus was tried in England by George Sanger long before W.C. Coup and Barnum claimed to have staged the first three-ring circus in the new world. And what Barnum first meant by his claim of three rings was really only two rings, with an oval hippodrome track, the "third ring," surrounding the two conventional rings. Furthermore, Roman arena managers must have staged three or more events at the same time on frequent occasions, in the vast spaces of the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. Thorough research would undoubtedly turn up still other times and other countries where three or more simultaneous presentations were common practice, so there is no justification for any American claim of originating the three-ring circus. The point is that in the circus, there are no genuine exclusives. In the larger picture, "first" and "biggest" and "most" tend to lose their dramatic impact. And of course, dramatic impact is why such claims are used in the first place.
As we begin this brief history of the American Circus, then, two precautionary notes are in order. First, it is advisable to cast a skeptical eye on all such claims. Firsts, mosts, and biggests can usually be contradicted with a little bit of digging, just because of the nature of the human animal. More than a few "Firsts" have turned out to be "Seconds" and "Thirds." After all, we've been walking on ropes and jumping off and on horses for many thousands of years. Records have been accurately kept only relatively recently; and because of the typically itinerant circus lifestyle, even many of those records have been lost.
The truth is that there are huge gaps in what we know about circus history. Some American circus historians, such as George Chindahl, Richard Conover, Fred Dahlinger, Charles "Chappie" Fox, Earl Chapin May, Joe McKennon, the Parkinsons, the Pfenings, Stuart Thayer and a host of others, have worked very hard to provide accurate information and sort it all out. Still more have relied purely on intuition, hearsay, a little memory, a lot of imagination, and a gift for blarney and bull. Or worse: They believe the literature and claims of the circus P. R. people, who are, after all, paid to lie and exaggerate. While almost all circus literature is fascinating and magnificently entertaining, a great deal of it is also full of distortions and made-up facts, with just enough truth to make telling the difference difficult. The unavoidable result of all this is that most histories struggle with truth and fall prey to inaccuracy. In our turn, we have tried in this book to be as accurate as possible, and not a few myths of circus history will fall by the wayside. However, we are not historians, and inconsistencies, gaps, and conflicting "facts" are inevitable. We've done what we can to sort them all out, and we share the rest in the spirit of Barnum.
Second, while this is a book about circus in America, we have found it impossible to deal fairly with the historical aspects of the subject without tracing its evolution during the thousands of years before the American nations acquired their own political identities. We have chosen to spend the rest of this chapter doing just that. After all, not only did Americans not invent the circus, but there are those who even charge that we killed it. In truth, we've done some fertilizing and pruning of branches which have led us in a unique direction. American circus may look and feel very different from the varieties of circus to be seen in other countries, but it is all part of the same tree. And it's pretty hard to kill a good tree with a deep and healthy root system.
Section A. Ancient Roots
When, where, and how did the circus come about? The answer is much less specific than history books would indicate. The roots of the circus can be found in virtually all civilizations. We are often asked to accept the notion that the tradition of circus began in Rome, which is patently absurd, as we shall see. Some say that circus comes from ancient Greece, because it is Greek art and literature that provides us with some of our first records of circus-type acts. In the fifteenth century, the European Renaissance, despite plenty of competing evidence, began to attribute the origin of all things civilized, whether art, politics, or recreation, to the classical Greeks. Scientists, artists, and men of letters traced the evolution of civilization down through the Roman Empire to their own time, ignoring that unfortunate period of barbarianism known to us as the "dark ages." Despite clear evidence of other cultures with alternate traditions, arts, and scientific knowledge of their own, Europeans preferred to think of themselves as "the unique inheritors of the only genuine and truly special civilization known to man" and all that. Our own inherited western tradition of circus has fallen victim to the same prejudice, and it merits another look.
Our modern circus is a genuinely international art form, and any attempt to assign its origins to a single cultural tradition is misleading. If there is anything the circus teaches us, it's that people are pretty much the same the whole world over. Eventually, more balanced and internationally oriented archeological and historical studies may convince us that circus-type arts developed independently in most civilizations and were rapidly shared between them. In the meantime, we need no history books or time capsules to develop some healthy skepticism of single-origin theories.
There are three logical considerations that lead us toward a more intercultural explanation of circus origin. First, circus-type stunts are a universal expression of an individual's freedom to challenge the physical, social and political restrictions of his or her culture, wherever they existed. Secondly, demonstrations of superhuman skills are usually perceived by the more "normal" elements of a given society as extra-human, capable of being performed only by God-like men and women, or with the intercession of the Gods. Thus certain types of performances that we now associate with the circus developed as a part of the religious ritual of various tribal cultures all over the world. Finally, those individuals who were skilled and independent enough to perform these stunts did not always have the sanction of their family or tribe. They generally became nomadic, whether they went by choice or they were driven out. They would have carried their skills and traditions freely across all political and cultural borders. This movement between disparate civilizations alone makes it extremely difficult to assign the origin of any single circus tradition to a particular locale. So before we begin to identify geographical origins, let us take a brief look at each of these more universal explanations for early circus performance.
The urge to triumph over commonly accepted limitations, far from being exclusive to any one civilization, lies within the nature of the human animal. Paradoxically, we are driven both by the desire to remain safely within our limits, and by the urge to challenge our limits. When the cave boy was told by his mother not to go outside of the cave entrance because the lion would attack him and carry him off, he undoubtedly listened at first. But this prehistoric Gunther Gebel Williams also set about devising schemes first to exert his mastery over the lion, and then to show all his friends and other members of the tribe that it could be done. And when the cave girl was told she couldn't climb trees because she would fall, she undoubtedly hesitated only briefly before she climbed the tallest tree she could find and swung on a vine to its neighbor, astounding her audiences then every bit as much as Dolly Jacobs astounds circus audiences today.
We all find that we must ordinarily live from day to day within the limits imposed on us by parents, teachers, employers, and leaders of all kinds. It's easier, after all, to stay indoors and on the ground, to keep house, to bring home the bacon, and to do as we are told. Such conformity earns us rewards from the authorities, because when we play out our given roles in the social pecking order, and perform duties within our expected limitations, it's generally safer for everyone ... up to a point!
At the same time, however, we all delight in those who can find ways of demonstrating to us that expectations and limitations are not so final, not so inviolable after all. Just in the last century, mankind has climbed Mount Everest, dived to the depths of the ocean, flown to the moon, circumnavigated our little world in a mere fraction of Jules Verne's "impossible" eighty days, and defeated dozens of medical plagues. Yet everyone said it couldn't be done! Well, none of it would have been done if someone hadn't been driven to challenge his or her apparent limitations and risk performing outside the norm of expected human behavior. On the most basic level of human physical capability, everyone also knows you can't hang by your hair, or walk on a rope, or stand on a finger, or juggle seven hunting clubs in the air at the same time, or bend over backwards and look forward between your own legs, or balance your dinner plate on a stick, or put your head in the lion's mouth and live to tell the tale. "None of it can be done!"
Oh how we chuckle and wink when we have the opportunity to see it all being done after all. And as we sit comfortably on the side lines, how we love to laugh in the face of the most trying circumstances: circumstances which by rights ought to be making us either afraid or depressed. Watching a performer who can break out of expectations and limitations is our revenge on all of those who have ever told us, "You can't ...!" And so it has always been.
Section B. Ritual Origins
There is an alternate response to the chuckle and the wink, however, when we see someone do something we believe to be impossible. We can react with fear and amazement, convinced that some supernatural force is at work. It leads to the second multicultural source for circus performances. God-like stunts, which challenge our perceptions of what humans are capable of, put the performer in the powerful position of claiming God-like powers. These powers may be useful to the culture in curing sickness, in defeating death, or in exorcising evil spirits. In this manner, a shaman or witch doctor can make himself absolutely indispensible to the welfare of his society.
Anthropological evidence suggests that "circus"-like stunts have been a part of social and religious ritual in hundreds of widely separated cultures since the dawn of man. In a routine paralleling the origins of modern sword-swallowing, an Alaskan Eskimo shaman could swallow eighteen inches of a smooth stick. Native American shamans commonly engaged in clowning, violent acrobatics, sleight-of-hand magic, and Houdini-like escape acts to convince their audiences that they had unique psychic powers on which the future survival of their civilization might rest. In the South Pacific, an ancient "fly-away," not unlike Jaqueline Williams' stunning climax to the Andrews trapeze performance in the 1988 Cirque du Soleil or the hair-raising conclusion of Sacha Pavlata's cloud swing act with the Circus Flora, is commonly practiced by young men entering manhood. These tribesmen for centuries have been proving their worthiness by leaping from a high tower in trance-like states which assure them of the protection of the gods. Their fall is broken inches from the ground by vines secured to their ankles, a primitive but effective bungie cord. In India, the ancient mystical traditions of sitting on swings of sharp stakes, contorting the body into unbelievable shapes while in a trance, and charming dangerous snakes all suggest protection by supernatural forces, and they remain a part of the national heritage. The domestication of elephants, with the blessing of the Gods, to perform useful "tricks" has been going on throughout Southeastern Asia for thousands of years. In Cambodia, we know that something resembling a circus existed at least eight hundred years ago. Temple carvings in the city of Angkor illustrate one such performance before a large crowd. There are jugglers, a trained monkey act on a perch pole, equilibrists, musicians, and even a high wire act with flaming torches. N
The manipulation of fire is one of the most commonly used demonstrations of God-like powers, with separate traditions in many different cultures. Fire-walking appears in ancient India, and it is an ancient tradition which today remains a major annual tourist event in northern Greece. In America, it is currently undergoing renewed popularity among radical spiritualists. Fire-eating, such as is practiced by ringmaster Brian LaPalme with the Roberts Brothers Circus, Red Johnson with Culpepper-Merriwether, John Strong III and others, is an ancient art, a powerful demonstration of man's domination over his environmental and human limitations. Any man or woman who can perform these kinds of activities paradoxically inspires in us both awe and fear. Thus it is that the performer who defies human limitations gains a considerable power over mere mortals, because the rest of us define ourselves by our very limitations. Once we see those limitations transcended, our definition of human potential grows. A simple circus-type stunt becomes associated with the universal quest for identity: Who are we, and where do we fit into the universe? Mystical superhuman power is an essential element of man's common search for selfhood, for an understanding of whatever limits there are that define us as human beings.
The third and final argument for a multicultural explanation for the origin of the circus lies in the fact that circus people have always been nomadic. After all, if they can cross the barriers of human physical capability, why shouldn't they also cross political and cultural boundaries? "Home" would have represented all the restrictions, limitations, and expectations which he or she was dedicated to challenging. Over the ages, thousands of people really have "run away to join the circus!" As any of them will tell you, the challenger is usually given plenty of incentive to leave home. A limited number of shamans and medicine men could be accomodated within any one group of people, and these priests would not have been particularly tolerant of rivals exhibiting the same "magical" superhuman skills. What's more, that young cave boy demonstrating his control over ten lions in front of the family cave may have been impressive, but he was, after all, ignoring more productive duties like bringing home the meat. He was challenging authoritative traditions cherished by the warriors and shamans, and he must have been a tremendous emotional and mental strain on his parents and friends. Part of their fascination with him, after all, was the fear that at any minute he could lose control and the result would be a shared wholesale slaughter. It was a fear which could not be sustained indefinitely. As for the young woman who spent her days swinging through the trees instead of playing it safe and performing her more conventional obligations, she too must have become a constant source of aggravation and frustration for her community. Neither of these prehistoric performers played their expected roles, and neither was long welcome in the cave. As impressive as their demonstrations of skill may have been, tribal leaders, both secular and spiritual, would have encouraged them to leave: "If you must behave like that, not in my cave, please."
One of the most intriguing paradoxes of the circus, to which we will return over and over in this book, is that while we flock to see circus performers, we then want them gone. We need to be amazed and impressed by them, and to identify with them, but then we need to reject them. Circus people will tell you that they don't feel welcome or at home among "towners." Both they and we prefer them to be outsiders. We may want them to come into our towns and show us what is humanly possible, but we don't think we would quite want them to stay. They would only confront us with the extent to which we are content to live within our own more traditional limitations. "Their presence is too painful a reminder of the compromises we have made, thank you very much." Challenge, after all, has its place, but challengers are both frightening and dangerous to a way of life that has been carefully designed within the safe boundaries of the known world.
Animal trainers, jugglers, acrobats, clowns, dancers, contortionists, and rope-walkers from many different civilizations and cultures all over the world, all rejected by their own people, thus found themselves wandering freely and widely in search of new audiences who would be impressed with their skills. They brought with them performance traditions that had been developed independently in dozens of different civilizations in which they had outworn their welcome. They could perform their deeds only until amazement inevitably gave way to fear, and familiarity bred the usual contempt. Then they had to move on once again. Thus, they were no more likely to be members of the civilizations for which they performed than they are today. Instead, we know in many instances that they were exotic strangers, "barbarians" from some foreign land. In the great Roman circuses, for instance, the legendary animal trainers were not Roman but Egyptian.
Wherever groups of such performers banded together to perform their stunts for the amazement and amusement of a rich man, an emperor, a pharaoh, or a king who was eager to impress his court or his subjects, or for an audience of ordinary people gathered on a village green, there was circus. It may not have been called "circus," but surely it has existed all over the world for thousands of years.
Section C. Early Records
In the Nile Valley of Egypt, acrobats and balance artists are depicted on wall paintings that date to 2500 BC. As long ago as the Sixth Dynasty, around 2270 BC, we have evidence of an early clown: We know from a tomb inscription that the nine-year-old Pharaoh Pepi II wanted to be entertained by a Sudanese dwarf "that dances like a divine spirit" more than he wanted all the gold and silver of Sinai and Punt. One of the largest "circus parades" known to man took place in Egypt in the third century BC, when Ptolemy II mounted a day-long procession involving hundreds of wagons and chariots, drawn by thousands of animals of every variety. Large wild animal parks, similar to our modern day zoos, were apparently common both in Egypt and in the Far East. They contained fabulous collections of exotic wild animals, which seemed to be completely domesticated and trained to obey the commands of their owners, according to travellers whose recorded observations have survived to our own day. Marco Polo himself observed Kubla Khan's great zoo at "Xanadu" in the thirteenth century.
In fact, China has a long and venerable tradition of circus-type performers, who travelled throughout the vast provinces and earned respect in the Emperor's courts. We know there were court jesters as early as the Chou dynasty, which began around 1027 BC. The tradition of Chinese acrobatics that is making such an international impact in the contemporary circus goes back at least to the Han dynasty, two thousand years ago, when the "Hundred Entertainments" included rope dancing, juggling, balancing on balls, and pole climbing. On a tile which was excavated from a Han tomb is a drawing of an acrobat balancing a stack of bowls on his head while standing on one hand. And in another tomb is a large mural illustrating three girls cavorting on a rope suspended over four sharp sword points.
Over a thousand years ago, a special school was established by the T'ang dynasty for the purpose of training and organizing acrobatic dancers and musicians. The "Pear Garden," which was established in 714 AD, must have been one of the first theatrical schools in the world. Many traditional acrobatic tricks, such as the art of spinning plates on bamboo poles, were developed and taught at this time. >From the Sung dynasty which followed come stories of performers who juggled everything from clocks to children with their feet. Eventually, the Chinese classical theatre of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries would develop from the groundwork of the Pear Garden. The white-faced clown was to become one of the four basic types of roles in classical Chinese Drama. "Lotus Drama" had developed by the Ming dynasty in the fifteenth century, and it included such circus elements as jumping through hoops lined with swords and turning somersaults on a ladder. Eventually, acrobatic skills were to become an integral part of Chinese drama and opera.
Sub-Section 1. Mediterranean Origins
Perhaps the earliest evidence of circus activity combining acrobatic prowess with wild-animal training comes from the Mediterranean. On the island of Crete, there is a famous mural in the Palace of Minos at Knossos. This fresco depicts three figures engaged in a genuine "circus" stunt. A young man is in the process of a backward somersault, apparently having flipped himself over the bull's horns. He will land on the bull's back and then flip back off into the arms of his catcher, a woman. The third figure, also a woman, is grasping the bull by the horns and evidently preparing to follow the man's somersault. The Minoan palace was built in 1700 BC to replace a 300-year-old palace destroyed by earthquake, so the fresco is at least that old. But no one knows how old the tradition of bull-leaping itself might be. We have no idea whether it was an entertainment, an athletic competition, or some sort of religious ritual, but we can guess that bull-leaping must have been a popular activity, and that it was open to equal participation by men and women. The same scene is repeated on a variety of other Minoan artifacts. Interestingly enough, in later periods of Mediterranean cultural development, where athletics and the theatre rapidly became the province of men only, acrobats and clowns continued to feature women in their ranks. Argument over the image rages, and some modern rodeo men have vowed that the routine could never have been done by anyone.
By the time the great city states of Greece emerged from their own dark
ages, in the eighth century BC, the circus arts were a well-established part of
Greek culture. The great strongman Herakles, or Hercules as the Romans would
come to call him, was the hero of the age, and his exploits in overcoming the
Nemean lion should probably earn him the title of world's first lion trainer.
Completing the picture of his circus heritage, a clown version of Herakles was
also the butt of much of the humor in later Greek theatrical comedies. Homer
includes pictures of festive dancers and acrobats in his description of
Achilles' great shield in Book 18 of the
Odyssey, the sorceress Circe, daughter of the Sun, certainly lends her spirit
if not her name to the origins of the circus. She is surrounded by men whom she
has turned into lions and pigs. Or, like the twentieth-century American lion
trainer, Mabel Stark, has she perhaps instead cast her spell on the animals and
endowed them with human-like behavior? Earlier in
the poem, there is a revealing description of acrobats, jongleurs and dancers
who are entertaining Odysseus:
|Halios and Laodamos ... took in hand a fine purple ball,
one of the clever works of Polybos. One of them would bend his body backwards
and throw up the ball into the clouds; the other would jump lightly and catch
it in the air before his feet touched the ground again. After throwing it
straight up in this way, they danced on the level ground, throwing the ball one
to the other, again and again: the lads beat time standing around the ring,
with clapping hands.
The acts were clearly most appreciated, and Odysseus honors the "ringmaster"-minstrel: "In every nation of mankind upon the earth minstrels have honor and respect, since the Muse has taught them their songs and she loves them, one and all." The Muses included in their jurisdiction not simply music but all of the fine arts. Earliest evidence suggests that minstrels were not only singers and reciters of poetry, but were also well-established as accomplished dancers, acrobats, jugglers, and all-around entertainers. In short, there is ample evidence to suggest that circus arts fluorished in the mythological age of prehistory in ancient Greece.
Also emerging from the Greek dark ages was an already ancient, well-established tradition of comic mime to which many of the antics and traditions of the modern circus clown may be linked. We know very little about this early comedy, but depictions on vases suggest it had its roots in Megara, and spread with the Dorian influence throughout Greece, Sicily, and southern Italy. We can see sources here for the spotted, striped and flowered costumes of the modern clown, along with painted and blackened faces or masks, bald heads, and exaggerated noses and feet. Their comedy was evidently improvised, and dealt satirically with mythological, political, domestic and sexual themes. Many of the routines of modern circus clowns might well be recognized by time travellers from ancient Megara.
Furthermore, at various times and cities throughout Greece, competitive athletic games provided five consecutive festive days of events and noise, and vendors of food, drink and souvenirs, in an atmosphere which must certainly have resembled that of the modern circus. Poets came to recite their verses, and dancers and singers abounded. Chariot and horse races, requiring the design and construction of the first hippodromes, or "places for horses to run," were to become an integral part of Greek athletic competitions. In the later games at Olympus, the kalpe was a race for mares in which the rider jumped down from his horse and ran part of the race holding on to the horse's mane. N It was an event in which many of today's circus equestrian acrobats might have excelled. The athletic Pythian Games at Delphi also included a variety of "musical" events and related acrobatic dancing, adding to a circus-like atmosphere.
At the height of the Greek classical period, Xenophon describes a dinner party given by Callias in 421 BC. As he presumably watched a Syracusan dancer and juggler keep twelve hoops in the air at the same time, the philosopher Socrates, who was one of the guests, concluded: "This girl's feat, Gentlemen, is only one of many proofs that woman's nature is really not a whit inferior to man's, except in its lack of judgement and physical strength." N
During Greece's Hellenistic period, subsequent to the reign of Alexander the Great, there was a rapid expansion of Greek influence among the many cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, and India, accompanied by an internationalization of Greek culture itself. New trade routes and a spreading common language insured a co-mingling of many different cultural traditions, and bands of itinerant entertainers, including actors, acrobats, comedians, ropewalkers, and animal trainers freely roamed around the known world, amazing their new spectators with exotic acts derived from a variety of strange traditions. As Rome gradually overwhelmed the successors of Alexander in the last two centuries BC, circus arts probably became the most widely-accepted form of popular entertainment. The early Roman playwright Terence bemoans the lack of public appreciation for his play The Mother-in-Law. In the Prologue for a later revival of the play, he recounts what happened during its first production for the Ludi Megalenses in 165 BC: "It was interrupted by a strange and stormy scene, so that it could not be seen or heard. In fact, the people's thoughts were blindly preoccupied with a rope-dancer [funambulo]." NTerence evidently liked his play better than the public, which had similar reactions to two later revivals. They firmly expressed a preference for popular circus arts over the "high culture" of Terence's theatre.
Section D. Roman Traditions
Many histories trace the roots of the modern circus to the circuses of ancient Rome, and the result is misleading. It is true that Rome first gave us the word circus, but Roman circuses were certainly something very different from what we know as circus today, and in fact they had little if anything to do with the derivation of modern circuses. They began as chariot races, a tradition the Romans had acquired from Etruscans, Greeks and Egyptians. One of the early Roman "circuses" was the Circus Flaminius, which was not even a built structure at all and had no permanent seating. Evidently it was only a relatively small and confined rectangular space, which was eventually surrounded by many temples and which was traditionally used for horse and chariot racing. On the other hand, the Circus Maximus, the largest structure in ancient Rome, was an elongated horseshoe-shaped amphitheatre, over a third of a mile in length. The Latin word circus means round, or around, and the word was evidently used for such disparate and odd-shaped places and events because horses and chariots raced "around" the turning posts.
As Rome aged, going to the circus became the single most popular form of entertainment. In the second century AD, Juvenal wrote in his Satires, "The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things—bread and circuses." The Latin word circenses here would be more properly translated as "races." Nonetheless, the "circus" rapidly evolved into much more elaborate games than mere chariot races, eventually ballyhooing the wholesale slaughter of animals and human beings among their featured events. The Emperor Augustus, for example, claimed to have staged 10,000 gladiatorial combats in his career. And when the Colosseum was built in Rome in 80 AD, one hundred days of games were dedicated to its opening, during which over 4,000 tame animals and 5,000 wild animals were slaughtered. The new amphitheatre was even designed to permit flooding so that full sea battles could be fought to the death, for the enjoyment of the public. Such events were hardly anything like what we go to the circus for today.
On the other hand, the Colosseum did exhibit some concepts that would later be incorporated into the modern circus. Its oval shape allowed 50,000 spectators to surround the spectacle from seats close to the action. On hot sunny days, a huge canvas, stitched together with colorful patches, was stretched from poles over part of the arena, to create shade for the public and add to the festive mood. This velarium, as it was called, is our first record of a "big top."
Nonetheless, for all the major festivals, spectacle on its grandest scale was staged at the Circus Maximus, which seated 150,000 spectators, one sixth of the entire population of Rome. By comparison, the New Orleans Superdome can accommodate only 95,000 people, and the record attendance in a Barnum & Bailey tent was a mere 16,728, set in 1924 in Concordia, Kansas. N Twelve Colosseum arenas would have fit inside the 1900 by 259 foot arena floor alone of the Circus Maximus, and after it had been remodelled by Augustus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus called it one of most beautiful and admirable buildings in Rome. It is little wonder that we are mistakenly drawn into attributing the origin of the modern circus to this spectacular building.
Festivals and holidays took up half the Roman calendar, and for each holiday a circus was held. So circus fans could indulge in their favorite habit to their hearts' content. The biggest circus event was the Ludi Romani, games held annually over a ten- to sixteen-day period in the middle of September to honor the god Jupiter. Elaborate and spectacular circus parades were held to promote the festivities and lead the populace to the Circus, and Dionysius has left us a detailed description of one he witnessed: legions of young men on horseback and on foot; charioteers; athletes; dancers in scarlet tunics and bronze belts, with swords, helmets and spears; flute and lyre players; satyrs, mimicking the warrior dancers; incense burners; floats carrying images of gods, and thousands of sacrificial animals. The great circus parades of the last century in America would have been dwarfed by such a procession.
The chariot races immortalized on screen in William Wyler's Ben Hur were held in the Circus Maximus. It's possible that Lew Wallace, who wrote the original book in 1880, was inspired by imitations of the ancient Roman chariot races that he had seen featured by the huge early American circuses. In the original, each race was seven laps around the course, for a total of about five miles, and lasted approximately fifteen minutes. Few or no rules restrained the chariot drivers from seeking to win at all costs. Drivers were culture heroes, the Roman equivalent of our sports heroes and movie stars, and the best were worshipped by tens of thousands of fans.
We know that these races were interspersed with other entertainments as well. In addition to the criminals and Christians who were condemned to die by some spectacularly gruesome means, there were acrobats, runners, gladiators, boxers, wrestlers, elephant and camel races, trained animal exhibitions and animal fights, and lots of equestrian events. A Roman post-riding event exhibited standing riders astride two horses, a skill often exhibited by equestrians in modern circuses. In still another form of racing, riders reined two horses together, and leapt from one to the other, perhaps at the end of each lap. N And in the "Troy Game," another equestrian event, two squadrons of noble Roman youths paraded before the audience and performed a complicated drill and a sham battle. N
Many of these events do seem to have a remote connection to the circus as we know it. However, it can't be denied that the grim blood-letting of the Roman circus spectacle was even more fascinating to the public, and it was not to be a passing fancy. The slaughter that typified the Roman circuses continued for over four centuries. All around the Mediterranean, wherever Roman influence was felt, ancient Greek theatres were converted to permit more elaborate staging of spectacles, and new amphitheatres and circuses were built. Evidence suggests that up to seven new circuses were built in the fourth century alone. N Elaborate chariot races were held not only in Rome, but in Spain and the Northwest and eastern provinces. N Only with the full Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fifth century did the circuses begin to disappear. Not only were they suppressed as being morally depraved, but the leisure class which had supported such activities could no longer afford them. And finally, when the Roman Empire collapsed altogether under attack by Attila the Hun and the Visigoths in 455 AD, the institution, the place, and the word circus disappeared from public use altogether. For the next thousand years, the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum, and other structures like them all over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, served only as stone quarries for newer and less ambitious building projects.
The Roman parades, the chariot races, and the less bloodthirsty events of the old Roman circuses have often been recreated, albeit in scaled-down versions, in the opening spectacles and stunts of modern circuses from the Franconis in France to the Ringlings in America. In 1890, Imre Kiralfy staged a gigantic "Nero Spec" for the Barnum & Bailey show, featuring sea battles, chariot races, triumphant marches, casts of thousands, and of course a conflagration scene. P.T. Barnum and his partners built the first Madison Square Garden in New York to house just such a performance. Only since the staging of such events, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, has it become fashionable to attribute the source of the modern circus to Ancient Rome.
Section E. Roman Mimes
On the other hand, in the heyday of Rome there were additional forms of
public entertainment, along side of the circus. One of them proved to be just
as popular, far more enduring, and much more deserving to the title of ancestor
to the modern circus. While Pompey was promoting his bloody circuses, he was
also building the first permanent theatre structure in Rome in 55 BC. Others
soon followed, most notably the Theatre Marcellus, in 11 BC. It was the home of
comedies, Atellan farces, tragedies, and the mime shows. While the latter were
originally used as encore pieces to more formal theatrical presentations,
gradually they became so popular as to drive out their theatrical competition.
Roman mimes very probably had inherited their comic traditions from the Dorian
colonies in Sicily. They bore no resemblance to the silent pantomimists we have
come to associate with the contemporary word mime. In fact they seem to have
much more in common with the modern artists of the circus. Small companies of
men and women called histriones performed as acrobats, dancers, clowns, and
actors for audiences gathered at the theatre, on the streets, and at private
dinner parties. In the
Satyricon, Petronius describes one such dinner party in approximately 80 AD:
|Finally the acrobats arrived. One was a silly idiot who stood there
holding a ladder and made his boy climb up the rungs, give us a song and dance
at the top, then jump through blazing hoops, and hold up a large wine-jar with
|Only Trimalchio was impressed by all this: art wasn't appreciated, he
considered, but if there were two things in the world he really liked to watch,
they were acrobats and horn-players. All the others were not worth a damn.
The young slave-acrobat slipped and fell onto the couch of his host, Trimalchio, who instead of throwing him to the lions for his clumsiness, freed him.
Mime performances were largely improvised little playlets, usually farcical, combined with all kinds of acrobatic stunts. Some of the mime companies were not so small, and approached the size of a full modern circus troupe. One troupe in the third century, for example, had sixty members, including rope walkers, trapezists, jugglers, contortionists, sword swallowers, fire eaters, stilt walkers, animal trainers, flute players, and of course, the clowns.
Their little playlets were usually much bawdier than modern clown acts, although some of the more risqué contemporary acts have probably come close to their old models. The clowns operated then much as today's Auguste and tramp clown work together in the circus, as straight man and stupidus, as the Romans called the poor fool who served as victim. The stupidus, or sannio, was usually a talented leader in the mime troupe. One such was Genesius, who was martyred in the Colosseum in 303 AD. Although he became the patron saint of the theatre, he was more of a circus man than an actor. Typically he would have worn a patchwork cloak and a long pointed dunce cap which were the uniform of the mimic fool, and which in all likelihood are the direct ancestors of the pointed cap and polka dotted suit that were still being worn by early twentieth-century circus clowns.
In later mime performances, trained animal acts were also featured. According to Plutarch, for example, an unusually talented dog appeared in the leading role of a farce which required it to be poisoned, play dead, recover, and greet the audience. Lou Jacobs used to do a similar routine with "Knucklehead," and "PeeWee" in later years, with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, "shooting" instead of poisoning the dog, who was disguised as a rabbit. Bears also acted in Roman farces, and there are even reports of elephant rope-walking during the period of Nero's successor. N
The continuing tradition of women being involved as full participants in mime activities, including at the managerial level, is particularly noteworthy. Unlike their counterparts in the formal theatre, mimes, clowns, jugglers, rope walkers, and acrobats had never been limited to male participation, even in Greece. Theodora herself, who was to become Empress of the Eastern Empire in the sixth century, was a mime in her youth. N It's very hard to account for this continuing lack of chauvinism in the mime tradition, especially when we consider that the theatrical profession would remain an all-male bastion from the Greeks through the English Elizabethan age. Some have suggested that the status of both women and mimes was so low that it didn't matter. If women chose to perform as mimes, it was not considered surprising that they should choose a low life comparable to prostitution; the phenomenon was so insignificant that it merited no social restrictions. Another less demeaning explanation lies in the fact that itinerant players, then as now, came from many varied and worldly cultural traditions. Some of the best mimes in Rome were not Roman; they came from Greece and Syria. This allowed them to cast a skeptical eye on regional religious and social laws and limitations, to which the more formal established theatre had to adhere. The mimes, the genuine "circus" people in the modern sense of the word, were, after all, in the business of violating limitations and expectations, just as we have suggested their ancesters had been since the dawn of social interaction. Perhaps because they were not associated with the norm of Roman society, mimes were not expected to conform to the social customs which restricted the role of women.
Historical traditions notwithstanding, we suggest that when Rome fell, the mimes did not! The reasons are similar to those which permitted women to participate in the art: mimes were outsiders by nature. Unlike the charioteers and gladiators, they were not associated with any particular arena; they were not cultural icons, nor were they saddled with particularly Roman values. With no "establishment" role to play, they adapted, first to Christianity, and then to the Visigoths, because they were and are most of all survivors. Besides, the new "barbarians" could hardly have been all that much more barbaric than the Romans had shown themselves to be in their circuses. As they moved into the medieval ages, then, mimes and other popular performers simply had to readjust to more self-employment than they had been accustomed to in the golden years of Rome. That practice of adaptation, of adjustment to the times, still continue among circus people today.
Section F. The Dark Ages
The medieval age was clearly anything but "dark" for Western popular entertainers. Walls tumbled, new trade routes with the East were established, and armies marched, helping to provide a further mix of cultural traditions. Arabs and Vikings invaded Europe, and the Crusaders invaded the Holy Land. And wherever trade routes developed, so did the roads on which circus people travelled. In fact, bankers and mountebanks were the two parasites that accompanied every big medieval trading fair. The two words both derive from the French word banc (bench), upon which the money changers and entertaining promoters stood to deliver their pitches. It was a period rich in opportunities for adding exotic new material to the repertories of the small bands of mountebanks, minstrels, troubadours and jongleurs. They travelled widely throughout Europe, just as their counterparts were travelling about Asia Minor, North Africa and China. There were new influences, such as the arrival in Europe of Chinese plate spinning, but the minstrels were essentially the same kinds of people who had performed the Roman mimes, doing variations of the same kinds of things, if under a new name. They were often accomplished poets who sang songs of courtly love, but they also served as ringmasters. They either presented or themselves performed as sword-swallowers and balancers, magicians, acrobats, jugglers, curers, contortionists, actors, jesters, puppeteers, and trainers of horses, goats, pigs and various less likely animals. The itinerant troupes played for the public on town squares, gathering their audiences like the Pied Piper. Sometimes they were paid by the mayor for their efforts, and at other times they had to pass the hat. Or they played in banquet halls for the rich lords and kings who were eager to keep their subjects happy.
Persecution of the players on moral grounds was not unknown; but so long as they represented no political threat, and their humor did not grow too blasphemous, they were tolerated and even employed by both church and state. There was at least one ecclesiastic fraternity of fools founded by the church, for instance, to combat the fear of death during the Black Plague; the Company of the Fool of Arrau, under the patronage of St. Sebastian and the Virgin Mary, presented masquerades and parades designed to lift the spirits of the people. The annual Feast of Fools, sometimes even featuring a parody of the mass, celebrated by a "Boy Bishop" or the "Lord of Misrule," was held in many parts of Europe up to the sixteenth century. During those January festivities, no custom or high officer in church or kingdom was immune to mockery. At a time when very little was being written down, when the average man did not live past forty and life was difficult in the extreme, the fools, troubadors, and minstrels managed to amaze people and make them laugh and feel good; and the people loved them for it, even when they got fleeced.
In our examination of the roots of the modern circus, a second medieval practice merits just as much attention as the travelling minstrels. With the age of chivalry also came increased emphasis on horsemanship, to which the period owes its name. Horses eventually were to provide the core around which the circus would be reinvented. Knights in shining armor rode highly trained steeds into battle and against dragons, whether real or imagined. When at peace, they competed on horseback in the lists, in jousting tournaments that were almost as full of pageantry as the old Roman circuses. Educated horses that could do tricks were frequently on display by the minstrel troupes, and eventually at the country fairs that grew to be so popular particularly in England and France. Perhaps the most famous of such animals was a horse named Morocco, owned by an Englishman named Banks. Morocco could dance, count, distinguish colors and people, return gloves to their rightful owner, whose name had been whispered in his ear, and even climb the steps to the steeple at St. Paul's cathedral. Wayne Franzen's horse Tonto is among those still performing some of the same tricks today. By 1600, the tradition had already been established that a highly trained horse spoke for the prestige of its owner. The smarter the horse, the more people would pay to be entertained by the animal, and the more impressed they would be with the talents and skills of its owner. The enterprise was not without risk: Ben Jonson reported that both Morocco and Banks were burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft by the pope in Rome.
Sub-Section 1. Commedia dell'Arte
By the end of the sixteenth century, with the Renaissance well under way in Italy and Elizabethan England at the peak of new artistic expression, two phenomena had developed which particularly deserve our attention: in England, the development of the bear-baiting rings and theatres, which for the first time in centuries gave their potential audiences permanent locations existing solely to provide a regular schedule of entertainments; and in Italy, the emergence of the Commedia dell' Arte.
Scholars continue to debate the possible origins of the Commedia dell' Arte, but the similarities to the ancient itinerant travelling performers of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Roman mimes, and the medieval minstrels would seem to make their ancestry all too clear. No one labelled these new troupes "commedia dell' arte" until the eighteenth century, but their art was firmly established by the 1550's. Small travelling companies of Italian professional players performed short plays, primarily for the common people of Italy, first on the streets, and later in the new state theatres. Most, but not all, of their scenarios were farcical, and they involved the same character-types in varying comical situations. The 800 or so commedia scenarios which have survived to the present have proven to be excellent source material for modern clowns and comedians. Scenarios were only loose outlines of a given situation. They might have included a few set speeches which had to be memorized. There were also a series of lazzi, slapstick-like and highly energetic sight gags, prat falls, and tricks which tied the plot elements together, and which the audience expected to see in every performance. But everything else was improvised by the actors.
The popularity of the commedia dell' arte troupes was enormous, and their long-range effect on the world of popular entertainment is without parallel. Their influence is expressed by Shakespeare and Moliere, in Vaudeville and burlesque routines, in TV situational and late night improvisational comedies. Literally every type of clown and comedian can be traced to some variation of a stock commedia character. And in turn, many commedia characters are at least indirect descendents of earlier performers.
All but the inamoratti, the young lovers, wore very distinctive masks and costumes. Among the "straight-man" professional characters, the doctor, or Il Dottore, for instance, was a pretentious windbag who had already been established as a common stock clown in ancient Dorian mimes. The mustachioed Spanish captain, El Capitano, all braggard but pure coward, wore the wide ruffled spanish collar which we associate now with early nineteenth- and twentieth-century circus clowns. Finally, the old miser and lecher, Pantaleone, from whom we derive our modern word pantaloons for the costume he wore, had a familiar balding head, hooked nose and pot belly. It was but a new name for a stock character already often seen on ancient Greek vase paintings.
It is in the foolish servants of the above characters that we find the most similarities to modern clowns. They were called zanni, from which we derive our word "zany," meaning silly or clownishly crazy. The similarity to the sannio of the Roman mimes can't fail to be noticed. There were many zanni, but we are particularly concerned with four. The character of Pulcinella, with hunchback and hooked nose, and roots in ancient Greek puppetry, eventually produced the English puppet character of Punch. His friend Pedrolino in France eventually became Pierrot; with his ruffled collar and white suit with big buttons, he was the model for the clean-cut white-faced clown. The cunning and cynical Brighella, who lacked all scruples and seemed dangerously tinged with evil, like Batman's "The Joker," is perhaps a source for many of the more aggressive Ringling clowns, as well as the ruthless Benny Le Grand, who travelled with the Cirque du Soleil. And finally, there was the most popular of all the zanni, Harlequin himself, who is often portrayed as the joker in a deck of cards. He wore a black mask and a diamond patterned costume and frequently carried a slapstick. The ultimate trickster, Harlequin was highly acrobatic, both cunning and stupid, and always at the center of any intrigue.
In addition to the zanni, there were also the faithful confidantes and servant-maids, like Columbina. They and the female inammorata, descendents of the Roman mimae were still played by professional actresses, unaffected by more sex-restrictive policies such as those practiced by the established theatre in England.
Sub-Section 2. Bear-Baiting
England was indeed slow to change in this regard. As late as 1754, well after actresses were appearing regularly on the English stage, a troupe of Italian players, including at least one female rope-dancer, were violently attacked for the "unchaste, shameless, and unnatural tumbling" of their women. Nonetheless, to England fell the specific role of combining all the various elements and reinventing the circus itself. This process began to gain momentum as early as 1560, when we know that there were at least two circular buildings in Bankside, across the Thames from London, that were devoted to the sports of bear and bull baiting.
Like the Roman circuses of over a thousand years earlier, the Bear Garden and its twin are not a particularly wholesome source for the family circus. Nonetheless they played a key part in its development. The primary activity involved chaining a large bear, or perhaps a feisty young bull, to a stake in the center of a ring, where large mastiff dogs were encouraged to attack it. The dogs were particularly courageous, and they would continue to attack over and over again until they were too weak from loss of blood to stand. Bets were taken on how many dogs would be killed before the bear or bull died. Interspersed with these main events were other acts, which by now are familiar to us as ancient arts. There were vaulters, and rope dancers, and fencing exhibitions, and even a company of apes performing on horseback.
The relevance of the bear rings lies in the fact that they assembled a wide variety of animal and human performers, including every imaginable variation of human physique from giants to midgets. They formed one big variety show that was probably not all that different in spirit from nineteenth-century sideshows and carnivals in America, except that cock fights took the place of the larger animals. Significantly, itinerant performers were no longer limited to street corners and country festivals; there were permanent places dedicated for their performances. Secondly, bear-baiting formalized the tradition of an audience seated all around a central ring, close to the action. The Bear Garden itself was a round building, with three tiers of seating, and the ring was approximately fifty-five feet in diameter. Finally, the bear-baiting rings, together with the one private and six public playhouses that had been established by 1605, also reawakened the long-losttradition of regular attendance at a stable place of entertainment.
Although it was a habit abhorred by the Lord Mayor of London and his Puritan friends, such places were extremely popular with Londoners struggling through the filth of daily existence. The two sporting rings were not enough, and more space was needed. Phillip Henslowe, manager of the Bear Garden, speculator, entrepreneur, and diarist, built the Rose Theatre nearby in Bankside in 1587, and it was joined by the Globe in 1599, rebuilt from the lumber of James Burbage's Theatre. The latter was England's first permanent playhouse, which had originally been raised in 1576 in London. When the mayor threatened to close it, Burbage's men, including William Shakespeare, allegedly tore it down in the middle of the night, moved it across the Thames to Bankside, and rebuilt it as the Globe, possibly now in the same circular shape of its established neighbor, the Bear Garden. When the regular theatre season was closed, both the Rose and the Globe were inevitably also used for popular juggling and acrobatic entertainments. When the Globe burned down in 1613, Henslowe converted the Bear Garden into the Hope Theatre, which was used both for plays, on a portable stage, and for the popular sporting entertainments, with the stage removed.
English clowning also blossomed during the Elizabethan and Jacobean age. The "Clown," as he appeared in a variety of Shakespearean plays, developed a simpler, less sophisticated country bumpkin personality than his counterpart on the continent. On the other hand, much about the character of this fool suggested that he might be wiser than everyone around him. A great lover of food and booze of all varieties, and usually the victim of a shrewish wife, he was played on stage by the likes of Will Kempe, Richard Tarleton, and Robert Armin, an actor in Shakespeare's company. The typical English clown was known by many names, including Merry Andrew, Simple Simon, Jack Pudding, and Pickle Herring. Shakespeare's representations of Falstaff, Lear's Fool, Hamlet's grave digger, Macbeth's porter at the gate, and Olivia's jester, Feste, are all variations on the character of the English clown. In describing Feste in Twelfth Night, Viola summarizes the universal paradox of the English clown: "This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, And to do that well craves a kind of wit." N
The Puritans were outraged by the popularity of all of the theatres and bear-baiting rings in Bankside on the grounds that such places generated open displays of immorality. Nineteenth-century historian Thomas Macaulay quipped that the Puritans hated bear-baiting so much not because of the pain it gave to the animals, but because of the pleasure it gave to the people. They were further piqued by the support that both Queen Elizabeth and King James I had extended to the players. And the disposition of the Lord Mayor could not have been soothed by the knowledge that all those theatres clustered in Bankside were outside of his taxing jurisdiction. Eventually, in 1642, the Puritans succeeded in killing the king, establishing the Commonwealth, and banning all performances of any kind, in bear and bull rings, in theatres, or on the streets, for the next eighteen years. In so doing, one of the plans they succeeded in thwarting was that of an elephant showman named John Williams. He had twice proposed to build in London a huge "amphitheatre," for the exhibition of exotic animals and all kinds of human skills. It seems that the circus just missed being born in the seventeenth century.
During the Commonwealth, some popular performers were imprisoned, but most of them simply moved out of London and into the countryside to wait out the Puritan mood of the government. When the English court was restored in 1660, Charles II returned from his exile in France with a whole new variety of entertainments. English clowns and their friends emerged from hiding to join the multi-talented performers from the continent, who brought with them two especially strong traditions: the Commedia dell' Arte, now in full blossom, and a mature respect for fine horsemanship.
In both England and France during the next century, laws were in effect which indirectly were of considerable significance in the development of circus arts. Legitimate theatres were licensed by their governments and tightly protected from competition by outside performers. By the end of the century, for example, the Italian Commedia dell' Arte troupes were banned from France, allegedly because of their immorality. Faced with every conceivable kind of bureaucratic ban on theatrical material, popular performers in both countries were forced to be inventive. Both the renewed popularity of the puppet show and the French tradition of silent mime developed specifically because unlicensed performers were forbidden to speak dialogue from a stage. Performers thrived at country fairs, with their carnival-like atmosphere and a location outside the restrictive regulations of the big cities. New forms of entertainment, such as the English pantomime, with its songs and silent clowning, were born as alternatives to the highly regulated theatres. And by the end of the eighteenth century, the circus would finally come into its own.
Section G. The Father of the Modern Circus
Among all the activities that we would call circus-related today, it was horsemanship that most caught the public fancy in the eighteenth century, and in several generations the English were to develop it into a fine art. Legendary high schools of horsemanship were being formed all over Europe, including Vienna's Spanish Riding School in 1735. A number of prominent English riding schools had been established by 1760, which gave popular exhibitions of trick riding. Among the first equestrian stars of the era was a young Sergeant-Major just discharged from His Majesty's Light Dragoons. Philip Astley had a reputation for superb horsemanship and bravery against the French in the Seven Years War. In 1768, he and his wife advertised a demonstration of horsemanship in a little field called Halfpenny Hatch. It was located on the south bank of the Thames, where people had congregated for restriction-free popular entertainments for centuries.
The Astleys conducted neither the only nor the first of such exhibitions, but the young veteran displayed showmanship and panache, as he gallopped around the ring. His stance with one foot in the saddle and the other on the horse's head, swinging his sword around his head, earned him instant fame. Even more importantly, Astley was also an entrepreneur with an extraordinarily fine business sense. In order to bring his audiences back on a regular basis, he quickly added variety to his performances, including our old friends the clowns, the tumblers, the rope walkers, the dare devils, and the illusionists. He created an educated horse demonstration, reminiscent of Morocco. He was responsible for developing the "Tailor's Ride to Brentford," an act combining clowning and horsemanship which survives in many variations to this day. Astley played Billy Button, an inept little tailor who is determined to ride to the village of Brentford as quickly as possible in order to cast his vote for a popular underdog of a politician named Wilkes. The problem is that he can't even get onto his horse. When he finally does succeed in mounting, the horse won't move, but then it gallops off so fast he is thrown off again. The act concludes with the horse chasing the clown around the ring.
With his talents for riding, clowning, and business, Astley successfully developed his little equestrian variety show into an entertainment empire. He first built a covered grandstand for his riding ring, and then in 1779 he built the first indoor ring, Astley's Amphitheatre Riding House. Now he could have night performances, as well as full protection from the elements. Rapidly expanding his enterprise, he began an ambitious touring program, and built several new amphitheatres around the country. Astley also performed in the first known circus tent in Liverpool, in 1788, but curiously he rejected the idea of canvas after only one season. N It is not clear why it would be left for the Americans to establish the tradition of circus tents a half a century later. It is likely, however, that at least some of the hastily built amphitheatre-circuses that were built in the next twenty to thirty years were wooden structures with canvas roofs, an inexpensive way to span a large center ring. Many were considered temporary, or even portable circus buildings, that could be moved to other locations and reconstructed.
Since performances at the new theatres and other such interior structures now had to be lit with candles or oil lamps, they were prone to frequent fires, and Astley's enterprises were no exception. Back in London, he stubbornly went through many amphitheatres destroyed by fire. He rebuilt each one bigger and more elaborate than the last for the staging of bigger and more elaborate entertainments and displays of exotic animals. His Royal Amphitheatre, originally built in 1804, combined a forty-four-foot diameter circus ring with a separate raised proscenium stage. Such amphitheatres signaled the invention of the dubious art of hippodrama, combining horsemanship with legitimate theatre. Shakespeare's Richard III was staged at Astley's, for instance, in 1856, undoubtedly adding a completely new dimension to Richard's famous battlefield cry, "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" N
The forty-four-foot ring diameter, with a subsequent minor reduction to forty-two feet, or thirteen meters, has become the industry standard dimension for the circus ring. It was probably determined by Astley to be the smallest practical size for circling horses. It must have also been influenced by the economics of engineering a roof over such a span, since his ring was at least 25 percent smaller than it had been in his outdoor riding school.
Philip Astley built nineteen amphitheatres in his lifetime, including many on the European continent. The circus has never recognized national boundaries, but it is a significant tribute to Astley's diplomatic skills that in a time of almost perpetual war between France and England, he was a favorite of both the French royal family and the revolutionary citizens. Defying a bureaucratic law which prohibited the staging of any two spectacles at the same time on any permanent stage, Astley stubbornly resorted to mounting a portable stage on horseback and parading his circus through the Parisian boulevards full of cheering throngs. His eventual Paris amphitheatre was never closed, even during the Reign of Terror: he was asked to leave France only when she officially went to war with England. He returned in 1802, and Napoleon soon threw him in jail when he declared yet another English war. With the help of French circus friends, Astley escaped to England, but he later returned once more to rebuild his Paris properties.
When Philip Astley died in Paris in 1814, the family business continued with his son. John, named "the English Rose" by Marie Antoinette, had begun to ride in his father's entertainments when he was five. He survived until 1821, when the Paris Astley's was taken over and later renamed the Cirque Olympique by Antonio Franconi. Franconi had operated the amphitheatre in Astley's absence during the wars. His descendents became one of the premiere circus family dynasties of Europe. In 1845, it was Victor Franconi who would build Europe's first new outdoor hippodrome, which restaged huge Roman-type spectacles and races, and Henri Franconi who would bring his mobile hippodrome to New York in 1853.
Back in London, Astley's amphitheatre was taken over in 1823 by Andrew Ducrow, the "Colossus of Equestrians," and the brother of the clown John Ducrow, who had created Mr. Merryman at Astley's. It remained in operation under various owners until it was closed in 1893. N During his life, Philip Astley had invented no new circus skills. But he did combine all the elements that we have come to call the circus into a single entertainment. More importantly, he created an industry that spread throughout England and Europe like wildfire. For that he is traditionally credited with the title of "Father of the Circus." However, "circus" was a name he himself was never to use. Audiences simply went to the "Amphitheatre," or to "Astley's."
Sub-Section 1. Dibdin and Hughes
The first modern use of the term "circus" came in 1782 from Charles Dibdin (the Elder), a cantankerous musical composer. In seeking out a new business opportunity, Dibdin had formed a partnership with the gifted rider Charles Hughes. Hughes had just as fine a talent and reputation as Astley, and he had in fact worked for Astley for a brief period back in 1771. At that time, Hughes was already an accomplished horseman and he claimed to have performed in America and Africa in 1770. The relationship between Astley and Hughes developed into a monumental clash of egos, and in 1772 Hughes entered into a long and nasty rivalry with his former employer by opening his own neighboring riding school. The two fought bitterly; they lost few opportunities to publicly insult and accuse each other of underhandedness, and they blatantly plagiarized each other's material. Hughes perhaps got off the best salvo when he held a benefit performance for Astley's poor old father, to whom Astley was not speaking.
Dibdin and Hughes called their new 1782 enterprise the "Royal Circus." Rather than basing the name on the old Roman circus, as is commonly supposed, it is more likely that Dibdin chose the name because "circus" was a term in common usage for describing a place for riding horses around a circular path. London's Picadilly and Oxford Circuses share the same derivation. N At any rate, the Royal Circus was a twin to Astley's amphitheatre in both design and purpose, but more ambitious in scope. The roof could be opened, for instance, to allow smoke to escape from fire works exhibitions, as well as from the large number of candles needed to light the stage and the ring. Most notably, though, it is the new name which was significant. The word caught the public fancy, and soon "circuses" were being built everywhere, far outnumbering even the proliferating amphitheatres.
Dibdin himself didn't last long in the circus business, but his name was to have further impact on the world of the circus in the next generation. It was his son, Charles Dibdin the younger, the manager of the Sadler's Wells Theatre, who first spotted young Joseph Grimaldi's talent, and thus nurtured the most famous clown in the world. Although he was never to appear in a circus, Grimaldi became the model of all circus clowns to come, as we shall see in Chapter 7.
Meanwhile, Charles Hughes had gone on to become instrumental in the spread of the circus throughout the world. His trip to Russia in 1790, where both he and his horses were favorites of Catherine the Great, formed the basis for the Russian circus. He was more horseman than businessman, however, and when he returned to England in 1793, he found that his competition from Astley and others was now insurmountable. In a quarrel with the magistrates, he lost his license and, in 1797, Charles Hughes died a broken man. Eight years later, the Royal Circus burned to the ground. Its immediate reincarnation was bigger and grander than before, but ultimately the enterprise failed. In 1810, the ring was filled in with benches, and it became the Surrey Theatre.
Charles Hughes also figured prominently in the spread of the circus to America, to which we will turn our attention in the next chapter. He was himself apparently among several expert showmen who performed trick riding exhibitions in the colonies in the 1770s and could well have been the first English equestrian to do so. Others who had contributed to making the art of horsemanship all the rage in America included John Sharp in Boston and M. F. Foulks, Thomas Pool, and Jacob Bates in Philadelphia and New York. Pool was probably English, but later claimed to be American-born, taking fashionable advantage of the new American patriotism. Bates introduced Astley's "Tailor's Ride to Brentford" to America in 1772. In that same year back in England, a young man named John Bill Ricketts was serving his apprenticeship with Charles Hughes's riding school.