Compared to the diverse selection of concerts, sporting events and theatrical shows, you may think the circus has lost its charm. But, if you look at the numbers, this eighteenth century family favorite tells a different story. In 2013, Feld Entertainment – owners of The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus – generated revenues in the tune of 1 billion dollars. That’s not all. Cirque du Soleil is another company that produces circus style entertainment all over the world. It crossed the 1 billion dollar mark in revenues the same year. This proves two things. One, the circus has come a long way from simple trick riding, acrobatics, strongman display and a clown for comedic relief/distraction. Two, it is still one of the most watched forms of entertainment in the world. Thousands of circus tickets are sold every day to people all around the world. To understand this phenomenon, an examination of its history is necessary.
History of the Circus
Even though the circus can trace its roots to Roman times, the history of the modern circus starts with Philip Astley. A former Sergeant-Major, Astley had a remarkable talent as a horse breaker and trainer. After his discharge, he decided to use his talents in show business. The first modern circus can be attributed to his efforts. He took his act all over Europe where, with increasing success, he imitated the trick riders. Astley may have been the first to introduce circus as an art and entertainment form, but it was an English equestrian Jacob Bates from the German states who made his mark as far as America and Russia.
After Bates came the emulators. Performers like Price, Coningham, Faulkes, ‘Old’ Sampson and Johnson established themselves in London. It was at this time Astley got the inspiration to develop an act. In 1768, he opened a riding school in Westminster Bridge. In the morning he taught riding and in the afternoon he entertained audiences with his horsemanship. Astley built a circular arena which he called the circle or circus which later came to be known as the ring. Many historians would give Astley credit for the invention of the ring when in fact it was devised earlier by other performers.
Circus Opens for Business
By 1770, Astley was known more for his performances than for his teaching abilities. Around this time Astley diversified his performance and added new attractions. These included rope dancers, jugglers and acrobats. These acts performed around equestrian displays gave the show a well rounded structure. The character of a clown was also introduced who filled the breaks between the acts entertaining the audiences with tumbling, juggling, trick riding and rope dancing. It was with the introduction of other acts and performers, the first modern circus was born. The acts included in the circus may have changed over the years, however its genesis was that of displays of equestrian and performances showcasing strength and agility.
The first circus, Amphitheatre Anglois, opened its doors in 1782 in Paris. In the same year, Charles Hughes emerged as one of its first competitors who opened an amphitheater and riding school in London. He called it The Royal Circus and Philharmonic Academy. In 1793 two important events occurred. First, Hughes performed for the court of Catherine The Great in St Petersburg in Russia. Second, the same year, one of Hughes pupil John Bill Rickets gave the American audience its first circus. Since then, circus has become a part of the American culture.
Circus as an Entertainment Art Form
One of the main reasons why circus has such a huge international draw is that it doesn’t require a language to understand or enjoy. This visually performing art form is an easy export to other countries as it only needs talented performers. Circus production companies, early on, realized this fact and began touring extensively. This led to the introduction of the American Travelling Circus at both national and international venues.
The circus from its inception to its latest form came full circle in a little over half a century when Thomas Cooke in 1836 took the American Travelling Circus to England. Since the eighteenth century till present, circus has gone through a number of changes. However, it hasn’t lost its charm for audiences of all ages. This is why, holidays or not, circus tickets are always in high demand all over the world.