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The Victorian Circus


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It is known that there were hundreds of circuses operating in mid Victorian times around 1850-1860. Circuses were a part of culture and a unique part of western culture and what is known as Victorian culture and Victorian culture had important influences on Modern Culture. The skills whether that of the performers or the specific engineering and design work done in preparing the circus were important. It is known that there were aquatic circuses where the circus ring was flooded with water. It is known too that in Roman times, amphitheatres were flooded with water so that mock sea battles could be staged. This article aims to describe the unique feel and culture of the time. It aims to elaborate on what is meant by the lewd and sometimes grotesque nature of circuses. Were circuses close to theatre and burlesque in some degree?

You can imagine the whole commercialism and excitement of Victorian circuses. The skills and daring involved was exciting and you can feel a strange freedom and beauty in this world. There was a certain American gentleman Richard Sands who ran a circus. He was an acrobat as well as what was known as a ‘ceiling walker’. It is difficult to imagine ceiling walkers now. Firstly, the modern person might question whether such an ability is possible i. e. to walk on ceilings. Surely this can only be done through computers and some kind of illusionary effect. But Victorian circuses in this respect were not about illusion. They were about real skill and they aimed to evoke real excitement, a real circus effect. Richard Sands who it is known visited England from America in 1842 also brought a large stud of horses and equestrians. His circus was certainly well organised and its performers whether acrobats or equestrians were highly skilled. This was the 1840s, the early Victorian period. It is too difficult and presumptuous to mention circuses as part of a whole cultural development. The nineteenth century continued on the great Industrial Revolution and it is obvious that new inventions and developments were used in circuses to develop new skills as well as new ways of captivating and entertaining an audience yearning for such enthralling circus acts.

Richard Sands was apparently able to walk on ceilings because of rubber suction pads attached to his feat. The Sands Circus returned to England in the 1850s and he did this act during this time. Unfortunately he was killed when performing this act in America because of loose plaster in the ceiling. Still what I am trying to evoke is a degree of danger in the circus but it wasn't danger in the sense of recklessness. The audience wanted to see danger performed in a structured setting and this setting was the circus. The colour, the animals, the acrobats added to a new type of performance. This wasn't just theatrical performances or performances akin to plays in theatre houses. It was a raw theatricality that only circuses can evoke. It was real human performance involving acts deliberately aimed at captivating the audience.

One of the central elements of Victorian Circus was Astley's Amphitheatre. It is important to mention Philip Astley, a cavalry officer turned circus-manager who brought the circus to a new level. And it is Philip Astley who the famous Astley's Amphitheatre is named after. Astley's is considered the first real circus but it began before Queen Victoria came to the throne. You may wonder why the term ‘amphitheatre’ was used. Note that the setting for the circus is not a theatre but an amphitheatre. Look back at famous amphitheatres in history! Think of amphitheatres like the open-air amphitheatres of the Roman era, . Maybe the word ‘amphitheatre’ was used because it denoted excitement, true ‘circus’ excitement ; This was how a circus was meant to be. It seems too that Mr Astley's theatre was mentioned in the Old Curiosity Shop by Dickens. If you look online at Victorian prints, you can find prints of Astley's Circus and perhaps you can deduce from this that Astley's Circus was an important part of the Victorian World in England at least.

It is known that Philip Astley, who is considered the founder of modern circuses, opened a riding school in 1768. His main aim, it seems, was to develop a school for trick riders or horse riders who would perform daring feats on horseback. Astley developed an arena for the performing horse-men. He saw that the arena or performing area should be a particular shape with the audience around. Because of its circular shape, he called the area a circus. Still it is not confirmed that he called the arena a circus. He certainly saw that the performing area needed to be of a certain shape I. e. circular so that horse-riders could perform in an optimum way and so that the audience too could see everything. This is the important thing about a circus! The circus is ‘close’ to the audience. The audience are meant to see everything. The performers perform for the audience. They perform around the audience. . They perform above the audience. The audience is meant to see. Victorian theatre had this basic aim, for the audience to be close to the performers. And Victorian architects developed music halls and theatres on this premise. However circuses came before the large-scale construction of Victorian theatres. It is best not to emphasise the circus shape because the shape is really perhaps a common-sense shape for a raw theatrical performance such as the circus. And you shouldn't of course over-analyse what is common-sense!

The amphitheatre was situated on Westminster Bridge Road in Lambeth, London. As a piece of architecture, Astley's Amhitheatre was certainly stunning and had rich effects . It was built in 1796 and thus before the Victorian Age. Still Astley's Amphitheatre was burned down many times and refurbished too and you can argue that the theatre opened in 1770 when the first theatre was built. However it was destroyed by fire in the early 1790s. It was known variously as the Royal Saloon and the Royal Grove and the building only became known as Astley's Amphitheatre in 1795. Astley refurbished the building and made the building a centre for his new circus acts and that is why the date 1795 is used. It was thus built with obvious Georgian and Regency influences. However it is still an important theatre to mention. In the Victorian age itself, the place was an important centre for circus acts. The building had many names over time. It changed its name to Davis's Royal Amphitheatre in 1823 and then the Royal Amphitheatre (Astley's) in 1825. Then it had further name changes before returning to the name Astley's Theatre in 1863. It was finally known as Sanger's Grand National Amphitheatre in 1883 before the building was demolished as unsafe. Note how the name Astley's was associated with it throughout its history and you can feel thus its rich association with circus.

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