The History of the Circus
We all love the circus and the unique performances that have become synonymous with it, but the exact origin of circus entertainment is largely unknown to the general public. It has long been engrained in the public consciousness that the circus developed its familiar brand of entertainment during the days of the Roman Empire. However, in actuality this form of entertainment was actually far removed from what we enjoy today.
The modern version of the circus originated in 18th century England and was largely thanks to a man named Philip Astley, a veteran of the Seven Years War who became an entertainer following his military service. Astley’s area of expertise was in performing specialised horse riding stunts. In 1768 Astley began performing these stunts in a circular arena where he performed these stunts was known as the circle, or ‘circus’, which had a diameter of 42 feet, the size that has since become the global standard for circus rings.
By 1770, Astley had assembled a successful troupe of other artists along with his equestrian shows. This included acrobats, jugglers and tightrope walkers. It was around this time that he also introduced that most famous of circus entertainers, clowns. The clown is a character originally formed in English Renaissance theatre and it brought some much needed light comic entertainment to Astley’s circus proceedings through a variety of chaotic performances.
Astley’s circus soon became an international phenomenon, and in 1782 the first Paris circus, the Amphiteatre Anglois was opened. Many other international circus organisations soon followed and soon every major European city soon boasted at least one permanent circus, boasting a wooden arena with stunning architecture. In 1797 John Bill Ricketts opened the first United States circus and soon this nation would change the world’s perception of the circus forever.
The United States’ travelling circuses were of prolific use in the early 19th century as few circuses were able to generate enough revenue when situated in one place. By traveling around the country an eager audience was always guaranteed.
It was in America that the first documented use of a large canvas tent housing a circus was used. New York circus entrepreneur Joshuah Purdy Brown is credited with replacing the common wooden structure in such a way. This humble yet outlandish approach created a unique look for the circus trade that circus performers across the world soon adopted.
It was around this time that animal performances were introduced to the circus repertoire after a cattle dealer named Hachaliah Bailey bought a baby elephant for exhibition across America. Circus managers saw the public’s reaction to this exotic creature and realised the potential that animals have in attracting audiences. Soon menageries were a staple of circus performances, although circuses had difficulty in cornering the market, as 135 enterprising farmers and menagerie-owners came together and established the Zoological Institute, an organisation which sought to control the nation’s menageries and then tour the country showing off these animals without the need for incorporating circus related entertainment.
The first circus to market animals was the P.T. Barnum museum, which was a collaborative effort between the entertainers William Cameron Coup and Phineas Taylor Barnum, marketed under the name of Menagerie & Circus traveling show. It was the inclusion of a human abnormalities show that gave this effort its unofficial name of the ‘Sideshow’. Since circus shows were programmes that mostly didn’t feature speech, there was international appreciation for such shows thanks to the lack of a language barrier. This international travel was not exclusive to America as travelling circuses were by now known all over the globe. The popularity of travelling circuses peaked in Europe in the 20th century between the two World Wars, with particular appreciation in Germany.
Although television and cinema took away much of the public’s interest in the circus, a new lease of life was injecting into the circus format in the 20th century when Russia’s Soviet State College of Circus and Variety Arts became a major figure in 20th century circus thanks to the introduction of the Soviet State College of Circus and Variety Arts, more commonly referred to as the Moscow Circus School. This was due to a range of innovative acts that showcased new levels of talent and became so popular that Russian circuses were one of the few Soviet organisations able to travel outside of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
However, many other national circuses came to prominence during this century, such as the French government’s Centre National des Arts du Cirque, a circus college influenced by Soviet circus. Circus training schools and colleges were also organised in other countries across the globe.
Circuses remain an international attraction to this day, and have even experienced a resurgence of popularity in recent years thanks to many cinema chains screening circus performances.
Craig Roberts is an entertainment executive specialising in the circus. He recommends booking IA Productions for arranging circus entertainment for exclusive corporate events.