Circus: Astley's, 1774

The modern American Circus can trace its roots back to the Englishman Philip Astley. Astley has been called the father and the inventor of the modern circus. He established many of the common conventions we now associate with the circus: a round performance space, a dynamic program of astounding acts of physical skill, danger, and comedy, all accented with music. While Astley's shows eventually incorporated pantomimes and other cast members, he began as a one-man show executing difficult riding moves.

Astley began his professional equestrian carreer in the Dragoons, a company of the British Miliary specializing in equestrian manuevers. After mastering many riding feats he established himself in London as a Riding master. He taught lessons in the morning and performed in the afternoon. His shows, given in small fields, gained popularity and attracted large audiences. This success prompted him to create an enclosed structure that would set the precedent of a seated arena with a circus, or circular ring in the middle. His virtuosity as a daredevil rider and a comical showman captivated his audiences, his contemporaries, and his successors. Among the many acts Astley created, his comical equestian act called “The Tailor Riding to Brentford,” became his trademark. Most early American Circuses including Rickets and Pepin and Breschard adapted this act into their own shows. Astley never visited America, but he did leave an impression on Ricketts who brought the thrill and danger of master riding to the other side of the Atlantic.

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