Circus acts go back thousands of years. Wall paintings from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman times show acrobatic performers leaping and tumbling. The word “circus” is Latin for circle or ring. The Romans used it to describe the circular arenas in which they held chariot races and other entertainments.
THE ANCIENT ART OF CLOWNING
Ancient Greek and Roman plays sometimes included a silent character whose job was to fool about, mimicking the other actors and making the audience laugh. There were no theatres during medieval times (the Middle Ages, around ad 400 to 1450) in Europe, but nobles employed similar characters at court to entertain them. These jesters were sometimes copied by small travelling bands of actors, who juggled and did simple acrobatics at country fairs. English medieval mystery plays also often featured a trickster character whose antics could fool even the devil. During the 16th and 17th centuries, as theatres were set up in Europe, clowns appeared on stage and became even more popular. A masked, acrobatic clown character called Harlequin became famous in Italy from the late 16th century. In the 17th century, a type of English clown called Pickelherring, who wore oversized shoes and clothes and a fancy collar (ruff) around his neck, became a firm favourite, and was popular in Germany too. The white-faced character, Pierrot, first appeared in France in the late 17th century.
THE BEGINNINGS OF THE MODERN CIRCUS
In the 18th century, horse-riders who did daring tricks were popular performers in Europe. These trick-riders inspired an English cavalry officer Philip Astley after he had left the army. In 1768, Astley opened a riding school in London near Westminster Bridge, where he taught and performed trick-riding shows. He set up a circular arena—earlier trick-riders had discovered that travelling in a circle was the best way to keep their balance while galloping on horseback. Philip Astley worked out that the perfect circle width was 12.8 metres. (This later became the standard size for all circus rings.) Astley soon added other performers to entertain the audience between riding displays, such as a clown, an acrobat and a juggler. The modern circus was born.
Astley’s show was so successful that in 1772 he took his performers on tour around Europe. He set up permanent circuses in major cities such as Paris in France and St Petersburg in Russia. In 1793, another English trick-rider, John Ricketts, set up similar circuses in the United States in cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Boston. All these permanent shows were based around spectacular riding displays and were held indoors in suitably large buildings.
Meanwhile, some individual performers, such as tightrope walkers and strong men, began to band together into their own small companies. They travelled from place to place, living in brightly painted caravans. At first, they held their shows in open spaces and simply passed a hat round to collect payment from their audiences. From the 1820s, they started to set up tents to perform in and charge fixed fees.
Many new types of circus act were invented during the 19th century. In about 1831, animal tamers stunned audiences by showing wild animals doing tricks. In 1859, a Frenchman called Jules Léotard developed a daring act on a flying trapeze. Towards the end of the century, circus people added sideshows with exciting exhibits such as “the bearded lady” and games such as coconut shies. When the travelling circus arrived in town, the performers paraded through the streets in their colourful costumes.
“THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH”
In 1869, an American called William Cameron Coup organized a circus so big that it staged shows in two rings at the same time. He formed a partnership with a showman called P. T. Barnum and in 1871 they opened a huge circus in Brooklyn, New York. They advertised it as “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Ten years later, Barnum teamed up with another circus organizer called James Anthony Bailey. They formed a circus so large that it staged shows in three rings at the same time. Barnum and Bailey’s show was one of several circus companies bought by the Ringling Brothers from 1907 to 1929. The Ringling Brothers established a huge circus complex that used about 300 tents to stage a show and had its own generators to produce electricity.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Communist governments of China and Russia established the circus as an official state art. They set up special schools to train people in circus skills and established government-funded companies of spectacular performers. Today, the Chinese State Circus regularly goes on tour and stuns audiences all over the world.
From around the middle of the 20th century, people in Western countries began to think that it was cruel to train animals to do tricks. Audiences in Europe and the United States went less and less to shows that displayed performing lions, elephants, horses and dogs. Circus companies focused instead on developing their human performers’ feats of skill, strength and daring. One of the most successful circuses in the world today is the Canadian-based company, Cirque du Soleil. It mixes elements of the traditional circus like clowning with fresh acts such as acrobatic bungee-jumping, and involves dazzling theatrical effects, such as atmospheric music, stunning lighting shows and imaginative costumes.