In 1768 a certain Philip Astley, ex-cavalry officer of the British army, walked out into a meadow on the outskirts of London, took a length of rope and laid out a circle. In that arena he began performing equestrian numbers and shortly thereafter employed a bunch of clowns and acrobats to spice up the event. It was the beginning of circus as we know it, according to history and Wikipedia. One of the editors of CircusMagazine has written an ode to the relativity of written history and our urge to celebrate things.
[This article was published in Dutch in CircusMagazine #55 – June 2018 // Author: Liv Laveyne // Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
250 years later, the British are celebrating this jubilee with bells and whistles and the mandatory badges declaring themselves — not bereft from a touch of chauvinism — as inventors of the circus. ‘Uhh, and the Romans?’ I hear you ask (you who at some point in your life have opened a history book). On the website of the jubilee, www.circus250.com, they treat the influence of those pizza-makers as a historical footnote: “Yes, ‘circus’ does come from Latin, where it was adapted from the ancient Greek work ‘kirkos’, but in those times it simply meant ‘circular’.” The text continues (pardon my Latin) linea recta, to recount the romantic version mentioned here in the introduction. This is of course, to say the least, a bit of a simplification…
For even if all that remains today of the Circus Maximus in Rome is an elliptical patch of grass with the remnant of a tribune, it was, for eleven centuries (from 600 BC until 500 AD), the place to be for Romans in search of entertainment. They not only cheered on the breakneck chariot races, wagons pulled forward by four, sometimes even eight horses (for those who prefer to never open a history book, see the film The Hunger Games), but also clamoured for the more acrobatic equestrian forms, horsemen leaping from back to back of horses in full gallop. Or looking on with wonder at the wild animals on display, the elephants and camels, as they performed their tricks for the admiring throngs.
If we declare this to be the beginning of the circus, that would imply forgetting any celebrations of the 250th jubilee today. And in this version of history we’ve forgotten to mention the horse-races in the hippodromes of the Ancient Greeks, and Pharaoh Ptolemeus II, who had a habit of presenting exotic animals to the masses during festivities, and the acrobats we note on Egyptian pottery (the step from the topless female acrobat in 1300 BC to the performance ANECKXANDER by Alexander Vantournhout & Bauke Lievens in 2015 is a relatively small one). And that’s not to mention the flourishing commedia dell’arte of Italy in the sixteenth century, with the birth of the Zanni, bringing clowning and juggling into the narrative framework, giving them a permanent place in this, the origin of present-day circus theatre. And what should we do with the traditions of the Far East and the Arab world, for which our Eurocentric history books have never really had any space?
So, is there then nothing to celebrate this year? Of course there is. It is thanks to Philip Astley that circus enjoyed its renaissance as a spectacle for the masses in the eighteenth century. In the middle ages jugglers, acrobats, animal tamers and jesters travelled about alone or in small groups, playing in the streets, at fairs or in the royal courts, while at the same time being branded by the church as pagan – placed in the same category as scoundrels and thieves (and here’s one for lovers of flora and fauna: ‘circus’ is also the genus label for the birds of prey known as harriers, who are renowned for their stealing of young chicks… thieves among thieves). In that sense it’s a rather ironic turn of history that it was a military man, in the person of Philip Astley (1742-1814), he whom we celebrate this year, who was responsible for the revival of the circus. ‘Military’ is in dressage the old term for what we today know as ‘Eventing’.
Contrary to our usual customs for the socially prominent, we aren’t celebrating his 250th birthday nor the day he passed away (because then we would have had to have celebrated in 1992 – when we had our hands full with Basic Instinct and the breaking up of Charles and Diana, or wait until 2064, and who knows what will be left of Great Britain in that impending post-Brexit era, or even of Europe itself by then). No, this year we are celebrating 250 years of circus because of an advertisement which appeared in one of London’s newspapers on the 6th of April 1768, with the less than inspiring header ‘Feats of horsemanship’. The advert was placed by Astley, a man of imposing posture and an even more imposing voice, who in a former life ‘broke’ horses for the British army, retiring with the rank of sergeant-major and a parting gift from the army – his white stallion, Gibraltar. He subsequently started up a horse riding school in a meadow in Lambeth, a borough on the southern side of London, together with his wife Patty (apparently a first-class amazon in her own right but of whom, like most women in history, little more is known).
The story in itself was not yet remarkable, until Astley decided in 1768 to put on afternoon shows in which he performed breakneck tricks on horse-back. The circular arena that he first created by laying down a length of rope (at least according to the romantic version of events, though it seems that several people had already done that before him) was partly a commercial decision – as he could then more easily mark out the space and charge money to enter it – and partly a practical one: a circle makes it easier for the audience to get a full view of the proceedings, and the centrifugal force of riding in a circle facilitates staying on one’s feet on the back of a horse. The formula proved to be a big success and a year later on a piece of land nearby he built his first wooden amphitheatre (initially without a roof, which was later added in 1779) to provide his audience with a bit more luxury. The show at that time remained solely an equestrian event, but Astley, embracing the motto of any enterprising businessman – ‘to stand still is to regress’ – started to sniff around in the theatres of London for what else was popular at the time. He saw that the general public was particularly fond of the jugglers, tight-rope walkers, acrobats, and their visual physical numbers, as well as the pantomimes with their clowns. It wasn’t until 1770 that he began to incorporate those acts into his equestrian show (so truth be told we should actually wait a few more years to celebrate 250 years of circus). Astley’s mix of horse riding, acrobatics and clowning hit the mark. He travelled all over England with his colourful company of performers, as well as across the continent (with performances at the court of Marie Antoinette in Paris), commissioning the construction of temporary wooden ‘amphitheatres’ along the way. It earned him the name Amphi Astley. At the age of 38, too old to continue to perform the tricks himself, he took on the role of ringmaster, becoming the very first circus director.
Astley himself never put the name circus to what he was doing. That was a title conjured up by his competition, a former rider from his earlier shows, Charles Hughes, who in 1782 opened the Royal Circus in London. For those interested in dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s: we can hereby equally celebrate the 250th anniversary of the circus in 2032. Credit to whom credit is due is unfortunately also relative. Although the English have every right to be proud of Astley, it is a rather recent phenomenon. The statue in his town of birth, Newcastle-under-Lyme, is only three years old, and it wasn’t until Easter of this year that a plaque appeared to mark the site of his first amphitheatre. A rather tardy commemoration of the colourful figure who endowed us not only with entertainment but also with imagination.
In her novel Burning Bright, Tracy Chevalier (also author of the filmed novel Girl with a pearl earring) describes the (fictional?) meeting between the poet, illustrator and revolutionary William Blake and Philip Astley. When Blake criticises Astley for offering only illusion to his audience, Astley ripostes: “What you are saying, sir, if I understand you, is that you are taking ideas in your head and making them into something you can see and hold in your hand; while I am taking real things – horses and acrobats and dancers – and turning them into memories. Well then sir, I would say that the world needs us both, don’t it?” Which brings us to the relativity of history: ‘History is not what has happened, but what people remember.’ So what about this 250 year celebration? Luckily circus lives on in so many memories that we can safely declare every day to be a cause to celebrate.