4/1/13 - the circus is born

In today's selection -- in 1768, when British ex-military horseman Philip Astley combined his dazzling equestrian skills with the antics of itinerant fairground performers or saltimbanques, the circus as we know it was born. It became a central form of entertainment for the newly formed middle-classes of Europe and America. Astley built nineteen different circuses across Europe and became one of newly booming London's prominent personalities in the emerging Industrial Age:

"[In the British army], Astley learned to pluck a pistol from the dirt at full gallop and to slide himself perilously under the belly of a horse. He practiced slipping out of his saddle to avoid an enemy bullet, lowering himself against the horse's haunch. In the mili­tary, soldiers referred to such stunts as 'trick riding.' Later, when these exercises composed the beating heart of the circus, they were collectively called vaulting or voltige. Instead of snatching pis­tols from bloody dirt, riders plucked lace handkerchiefs from sawdust. Instead of dodging enemies, they hurdled colorful silk ribbons held aloft by quaking clowns. The practicality was gone. What mattered was dar­ing and flamboyance. ...

"[After the Seven Year's War], at the age of twenty-six, ambitious, experienced, and indomita­bly energetic, Astley decided to strike out with his own [equestrian show]. ... [His show] survived by offering riding les­sons in the morning and public shows [of his daring horseback feats] in the afternoon. ... [After a good first season], in preparation for his second summer, Astley did what any burgeoning capitalist would do: he expanded. ... The capital improvements, however, had shackled Astley financially. To break even, he needed a tremendously successful second season.

"This was easier said than done. With each passing year, more eques­trians were setting up shop in the city. To stay on top, he needed some­thing unique, something novel. He needed to distinguish himself. He found his answer in the theaters across town.

"Concurrent to his own rise, the city was experiencing a theatrical revolution of sorts, the biggest boom since Shakespeare's career nearly two hundred years before. For centuries, the city's theatrical action had been confined to the so-called legitimate venues subsidized and indirectly managed by the king, the Theatre Royal and the King's Playhouse. With the Industrial Revolution came wage increases and the standardization of working hours, and a new theater-going population: the working class. To cater to them, a new sort of venue emerged: the commercial, or 'ille­gitimate,' theater. Unlike the royal houses, these theaters survived on ticket and beer sales, and so tailored their entertainments to fit the clien­tele. In place of high drama, they offered far less heady, more spectacular fare, often imported from the fairgrounds. ...

"For the saltimbanques -- that class of itinerant entertainers -- the rise of the commercial venues marked a turning point in history, a shift at least as important as the rise of the fairgrounds two centuries before. By inviting the saltimbanques onto their stages during the interludes between longer comedies and melodramas, theater directors essentially sanctioned their profession for the first time. Granted, the theaters were ramshackle and crude compared with the royal venues, but they were theaters just the same, complete with advertisements, infrastructure, and a stable cli­entele. Instead of cadging donations in a muddy field, a performer could play to a paying crowd with a roof over his head. It was the first step on the road to cultural integration.

"Astley regularly frequented commercial venues and couldn't help noticing their success. Soon he found himself ruminating on their model of dramas punctuated by entertaining interludes. He realized his own equestrian shows could profit from a similar system: his 'feats of horsemanship' interspersed with 'feats of activity,' old fairground acts he'd loved as a boy. ...

"Astley's timing was impeccable. Less than a decade before, King George II had started closing the city's fairgrounds, citing a lack of sani­tation. Disinclined to return to the itinerant life, the fairground perform­ers flocked to Astley for work. Under their influence his shows diversified even more. In 1773, a poster testifies to his addition of a 'sagacious dog' capable of responding to a question such as 'Does Beauty or Virtue in the Fair Sex more attract our Affections?' In 1776, he found a slack-rope walker who could spin on his line like a 'roasted pig.'

"In time, the show became an amalgam of exoticism, spectacle, wonder, skill, and fascination. There were 'Philosophical Fireworks' and 'Men piled upon Men.' There was Signor Bossignol, the bird imitator, and a wire-walking monkey named General Jackoo. Throughout, however, horses remained the show's focus. ...

"Philip Astley created the circus as we know it. But he wasn't an artist. He was a businessman, a master of promotion and pastiche. ... During his fifty-year career, he became a central figure in London society. He built four different circuses, including his Royal Amphitheatre, with purport­edly the biggest stage in London. He also toured extensively. In 1774, he introduced the circus to Paris, where he first performed in a manege on the Rue des Vieilles Tuileries. In 1788, he pitched a 'Royal Tent' in Liverpool, the first big top.

Astley's Amphitheatre in London circa 1808.

"All told, Astley constructed nineteen circus buildings across Europe, as far east as Belgrade, and in the process he denned the circus as we know it. He determined the circus's colors (red and gold, from the British cavalry), its music (brass military marches), the size of the ring (forty-two meters), and even the smell (sawdust, which he used to cover the ground when he took the old mill on Westminster Bridge). Astley also inspired a wave of followers who carried the circus around the world."


Duncan Wall


The Ordinary Acrobat


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2013 by Duncan Wall


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