The Circus


A circus is an arena for acrobatic exhibitions and animal shows. Usually

circular and surrounded

by tiers of seats for spectators, a circus may be in the open air but is

usually housed in a permanent

building or sheltered by a tent. The term circus is also applied to the

performance itself and to the troupe

of performers. The entertainment offered at a circus generally consists of

displays of horsemanship;

exhibitions by gymnasts, aerialists, wild-animal trainers, and performing

animals; and comic pantomime by

clowns.

The first modern circus was staged in London in 1768 by Philip Astley, a

former sergeant major

in the English cavalry, who performed as a trick rider. Beginning with a

visit to Paris in 1772, Astley

introduced the circus in cities throughout continental Europe and was

responsible for establishing

permanent circuses in a number of European countries as well as in England. A

circus was first presented

in Russia in 1793 at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. By the early 19th

century several permanently

based circuses were located in many larger European cities. In addition,

small traveling shows moved from

town to town in caravans of covered wagons in which the performers lived. The

traveling shows were

usually simple affairs, featuring a fiddler or two, a juggler, a ropedancer,

and a few acrobats. In the early

circuses such performers gave their shows in open spaces and took up a

collection for pay; later, the

performers used an enclosed area and began to charge admission. By contrast,

the permanently-based

circuses of Europe staged elaborate shows. In the earlier part of the 19th

century a main feature of the

permanent circus program was the presentation of dramas that included

displays of horsemanship.

The circus was introduced in the United States by John Bill Ricketts, an

English equestrian who

opened a show in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1792 and staged subsequent

circuses in New York City

and Boston, Massachusetts. President George Washington reportedly attended a

Ricketts circus and

sold the company a horse in 1797. The Ricketts circus remained in existence,

with several name changes,

through the first decade of the 19th century. Some of the outstanding

companies in the early history of

American circuses were the Mount Pitt circus and the troupes of the American

animal tamer Isaac Van

Amburgh, the American chemist and inventor Gilbert Spaulding, and the

American clown Dan Rice.

Throughout the 19th century the circus evolved in programming and

management. Initially,

trained horses and equestrian performances dominated circuses, but

ropedancing, juggling, acrobatic

acts, wild-animal acts, and clowning were all introduced within the first few

decades. The flying trapeze,

an important part of the modern circus, was not invented until 1859, and the

street parade and sideshow

did not become standard circus events until later in the 19th century. Tents

are believed to have come

into use in the 1820s, but it is uncertain whether they appeared first in

Europe or in the United States.

The huge multiring circus set up to accommodate thousands of spectators is a

peculiarly American

development. In 1869 William Cameron Coup organized a show of unprecedented

size that gave

performances simultaneously in two rings. Coup formed a partnership with the

American showman P. T.

Barnum, and in 1871 they opened a huge circus in Brooklyn, New York. This

circus was advertised as

"The Greatest Show on Earth." Ten years later Barnum went into partnership

with the American showman

James Anthony Bailey, one of the best organizers in the business, and two

other impresarios. The new

circus, in which Barnum and Bailey eventually became sole partners, was so

large that it staged

simultaneous shows in three rings.

In 1884 the five Ringling brothers, most notably Charles and John,

organized their first circus. In

succeeding years the Ringling brothers took over six circus companies,

including Barnum and Bailey,

which they bought in 1907. In 1929 the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey

Combined Shows, as it

was called, bought another combination of companies, the Circus Corporation

of America. At the height

of its popularity, when it was the largest touring organization in the world,

this circus complex used about

300 tents to stage a show and carried its own diesel plants to generate

electricity. After World War II

ended in 1945, however, mounting labor costs and