History of the Circus by Linda Simon

History of Circus by Linda Simons

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A History of the Circus – highly recommended. 

The Greatest Shows on Earth (Linda Simon – 2014)

This is a circus subject book that is very well written by the American Linda Simon. I usually feel anxious about circus books but this one is exceptional, and well balanced in every way. The approach of the writer is as an observing reporter without bias or criticism so from my point of view it does not deserve a critique but I would like to refer to a few passages that substantiate my own beliefs about the concept that is circus.

The writer briefly covers the origins of the various visual abilities from the ancient world via the Roman arenas, to the rough street entertainments in the middle ages, that also included the actors that were all included within parts of the fairs without using the title ‘circus’. This was so but ‘circus’ as an independent entity has long since developed to form itself with progressions and public wants – to its own form, alongside the established theatre and then the Music Hall and then to Variety. It did so losing the original links and now has a huge history of its own made clear in the pages of this book. Today we have the street circus, and the carnival and theatre circus but these are from circus and not from the fairs.

The writer being American covers much of the beginnings of circus there very well, with its brash original huge carnival approach but she also covers very well its roots in England and the period with complete fairness of detail.

Part one of the book covers Trick Riders and starts with Philip Astley’s day, with the ‘theatre’ being the pinnacle – the building then the added stage – that he and others wished to stay close to. Astley had the right connections and drew the crowds to expect displays with horses and riders including him. She keeps referring to ‘theatre in the round’. Astley did not call his entertainments ‘circus’ (page 32) nor did it occur to him to use wild animals, which at that time and earlier were exhibits in sideshows in fairs. (Quote)  ‘Astley’s Amphitheatre Riding House was a performing arts destination that would one day be called Vaudeville’ (in Great Britain – Variety!). On another page there is reference to ‘circus actors’! All the old circus acts that I can remember including my family thought of themselves as Circus/Variety artistes but circus is also acting many parts – see Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey – and the many costume disguises other than the actual talent of the act but that thought never occurred to me, yes why not circus actors? The large American circuses that later inspired Billy Smarts ‘New World’ circus contained, as we know, big parade track scenes with many artistes in various costumes to promote the subject passing the seating, with singing and acting.

Whatever circus fans and others might say, circus is far removed from the fairground. The lifestyles of one from the other are very different and that is more than obvious. Circus acts do work open air in galas, mostly wire or trapeze with arena clowns, and fairs may make up the main attraction but they are not working together. The philosophy is different, circus people usually get up early and go to bed earlier that the showmen who may get up later and work on to 1 a.m.

With this book being American I would have expected ‘Big Top’ to be paramount yet the two words are little used whilst ‘tent’ and ‘tents’ are. One chapter is called ‘the big tents’. The writer deliberately and extensively names people artistes and acts, with finer details that must interest both the novice and the circus hearted. In all respects the book is very educational.

Commedia dell’arte CLOWNS

Chapter seven is ‘clowns’ a subject close to my career in circus. A good point is made from one circus proprietor to Grimaldi,’if you want to be a successful clown, first you must be an acrobat, then a trapeze artiste and a tumbler’.This is so true. It is much more than make up and persona as the British press seems to promote. I do feel annoyance that the leading lights who represent circus here cannot promote circus clowning to the level it should be. Of course the chapter is full of intellectual quotes and analysis of the meaning of the clown. All credible if some past history, and the progressions made to the film with Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy the best of slapstick clowning, nice quotes like ‘a successful clown must possess more intellect,’ and ability than a comedian.

She writes that all the clowns with Barnum and Bailey must work without patter (talk) (no patter or face the sack!), so all routines must be silent routines (1880s). In contrast my grandfather Harry Fossett was a fine ‘talking clown/comedian’ and was well known as such. I saw one small circus in Spain years ago where the single clown and the compere were exchanging patter to huge laughter – it must have been very funny but I could not understand the gags not being able to speak Spanish. She refers to some modern style of clowning designed to provoke discomfort and fear. This to me is wrong or certainly wrong for an audience who wish to be cheered. I cannot approve of this kind of humour even if it is well done as some of it is. I fear that clowning in Great Britain is perceived as base by the public and certainly the press, something to be mocked and ill thought of. Sad, it is a great art when done by great artistes and British circus should inspire the return of great clowning and slapstick and get away from the constant ‘it is to fill in spaces’.

Personally my first introduction to the circus ring was to perform the comedy riding aged 14. (After two days of practice – such was the expectations then!), and later assisting other clowns like Harry Cody, Edgar Cook and Spider Austin. I then ventured into a balancing specialty and stiltwalking with Sanger’s clutching a rope tied between the two main king poles. Comedy is one of the hardest things to succeed with and I have no intellectual philosophy other than to try gags and routines that make people laugh and if a new gag fails throw it out and try again. No matter how one performs a gag newer ways of doing it come naturally. I only listen to the audience specially the children and ignore everybody else! The paying public are the experts and know what they want. My father was a big critic about clowning and clown comedy and it was hard to make him laugh – some modern clowning has the same effect on me!


What is traditional circus? Who knows? I wonder what it is. If I am not sure how can someone in any town know? This circus book makes clear that traditional circus could mean the old exciting publicity ‘death defying acts and feats of daring’. In other words to attract the crowds artistes and animal presenters face death! The public come to see the high wire act fall. Surely this is well out of date now. I say attract the audience with fine art and ability unmatched anywhere else. I feel sure this is modern circus. The attraction is the skill, and the novelty, the class and the beauty. Circus is by its own creativity a fluid thing. British circus voices are obsessed with talk of tradition and traditional and they contradict the issue for many traditions are best past and lost for example, my father teamed with Jim Zola, performed an acrobatic hand balancing act with, I am afraid, the wrong Duffy’s circus! It had no seating! Apparently in 1912 patrons would attend either standing around the ring or bring chairs to the show. That was ‘traditional’ in those days in Ireland. My father suggested, ‘Let Jim and myself take turns taking part in the (daily) parade and we will make some seating’. This they did during the season.

It is the unique atmosphere of the circus that is like nothing else and this is its appeal to the public although some shows try to ditch this ‘atmosphere!’ Good music must be in the package by a band even better. Good presentation and lighting, a balance of pace and slow, with pathos and excitement. A good show producer is required who knows how to put a programme together. Newer shows without animals are turning to the past – the amphitheatre stye but I feel the public still seem to expect to find an old circus approach and likeable meaning, not too precise, a bit imperfect, and more relaxed. Perhaps ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ might explain the point? Persons less than perfect become more likeable. Perfection in one sense means ‘them and us,’ of course I do not mean amateurism, just human. Old circus had a good way of saying we are of the public -especially the working class. Billy Smart would sit outside of the front entrance to welcome the crowds wearing his big hat. He was a ‘Londoner’.

The book points to all forms of circus and the many new wave ideas. I feel a bit suspicious of those but then the book tells me how over 200 years, many promoters were trying endless new approaches and ideas so in that sense there was never a ‘traditional circus’!

I think that the circus wild animal lobby has succeeded in driving a wedge between the public and circus – baby out with the bathwater – it may be that they will have to accept that wild animals are not the great attraction in Britain. I think if they did this there is a great future for the return to more equestrian circuses and a truer balance of old circus with the new.

Author: Tom Sandow

born into showbusiness - full life entertaining, management, agency, engager of acts and artistes - show producer presenter.

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