circus [Lat.,=ring, circle], historically, the arena associated with the horse and chariot races and athletic contests known in ancient Rome as the Circensian games. The Roman circus was a round or oval structure with tiers of seats for spectators, enclosing a space in which the races, games, and gladiatorial combats took place. Underneath were dressing rooms, dens for wild beasts, and rooms where properties were stored. The Circus Maximus, presumably built in the reign of Tarquin I (c.616-c.578 B.C.), and rebuilt by Julius Caesar, was reported by Pliny in his Natural History to have a capacity of 250,000, though this figure is suspiciously large. Other famous circi of Rome were the Circus Flaminius (221 B.C.); the Circus Neronis, of Caligula and Nero, at which many Christians perished; and the Circus Maxentius. The circus of Septimius Severus at Constantinople and many others were often scenes of riot and bloodshed between factions of charioteers. The games, aside from races, were brutal and bloody, and for this reason the Greeks, even under Roman domination, never really accepted the circus.

The modern circus, which originated in performances of equestrian feats in a horse ring strewn with sawdust, dates from the closing years of the 18th cent. The circus is traditionally a nomadic tent show, with trained animals, acrobats, and clowns. The main tent, known as the big top, is often surrounded by various concessions and sideshows with "freaks" and wild animals. Even before 1830, traveling circuses were common in the United States and in England. After 1873 two rings were used in the main tent and the three-ring circus, as we know it today, was initiated by James A. Bailey. The most celebrated circus in America was "The Greatest Show on Earth" of P. T. Barnum, which, in merging with Bailey's, became Barnum and Bailey's. On Bailey's death in 1907 the circus was purchased by Ringling Brothers, and in 1919 the two circuses were combined. Since 1969, Ringling Brothers has had two large circuses on tour that play mostly indoors and visit almost every major U.S. city annually.

The traveling circus, in its heyday from 1880 to 1920, declined in the 1950s and 60s. By the 1980s, however, more than 30 circuses were touring the United States and Canada. Outstanding among contemporary circuses are two small and sophisticated shows, the New York City-based Big Apple Circus and the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil. The latter is the most elaborate and best known exponent of the form called cirque nouveau. A type of modern circus without animal acts, it is characterized by a mixture of traditional circus arts with poetic spectacle, music, and dance and is practiced by a number of European and Canadian troupes.

See studies by H. R. North and A. Hatch (1960); E. C. May (1932, repr. 1963); C. P. Fox and T. Parkinson (1970); M. Murray (1956, repr. 1973); G. Speight (1980); L. D. Hammarstrom, John Ringling North and the Circus (1992).

A circus is most commonly a traveling company of performers that may include acrobats, clowns, trained animals, trapeze acts, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, unicyclists and other stunt-oriented artists. The word also describes the performance that they give, which is usually a series of acts that are choreographed to music. A circus is held in an oval or circular arena with tiered seating around its edge; in the case of traveling circuses this location is most often a large tent called the big top.

History of the circus

Origin of the circus

In Ancient Rome the circus was a building for the exhibition of horse and chariot races, equestrian shows, staged battles, displays featuring trained animals, jugglers, and acrobats. The circus of Rome is thought to have been influenced by the Greeks, with chariot racing and the exhibition of animals as traditional attractions. The Roman circus consisted of tiers of seats running parallel with the sides of the course, and forming a crescent around one of the ends. The lower seats were reserved for persons of rank; there were also various state boxes, eg. for the giver of the games and his friends. In Ancient Rome the circus was the only public spectacle at which men and women were not separated. The Latin word circus comes from the Greek word kirkos meaning “circle or ring”.

The first circus in Rome was the Circus Maximus, in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. Next in importance to the Circus Maximus in Rome was the Circus Flaminius, the Circus Neronis, from the notoriety which it obtained through the Circensian pleasures of Nero. A fourth, the Circus of Maxentius, was constructed by Maxentius; the ruins of this circus have enabled archaeologists to reconstruct the Roman circus.

Following the fall of Rome, Europe lacked a large and animal rich circus. Itinerant showmen traveled the fair grounds of Europe. Animal trainers and performers are thought to have exploited the nostalgia for the Roman circus, traveling between towns and performing at local fairs. Another possible link between the Roman and modern circus could have been bands of Gypsies who appeared in Europe in the 14th century and in Britain from the 15th century bringing with them circus skills and trained animals.

In China's Eastern Han Dynasty scholar Zhang Heng was one of the first to describe acrobatic theme shows in the royal palaces in his writing "Ode to the Western Capital". A grand acrobatic show was held by Emperor Wu of Han in 108 BC for foreign guests. Most western text describe the circus as a "Chinese Circus". The Far East generally see it as a separate performance art called Chinese variety art, and is not believed to be a direct predecessor to "Western Circus" despite many stunts and performances being similar.

Development of the circus

The modern concept of a circus as a circular arena surrounded by tiers of seats, for the exhibition of equestrian, acrobatic, and other performances seems to have existed since the late 18th century. The popularity of the circus in England may be traced to that held by Philip Astley in London, the first performance of his circus is said to have been held on January 9, 1768. One of Astley's major contributions to the circus was bringing trick horse riding into a ring, though Astley referred to it as the Circle. Later, to suit equestrian acts moving from one circus to another, the diameter of the circus ring was set at 42 feet (13 m), which is the size ring needed for horses to circle comfortably at full gallop. Astley never called his performances a 'circus'; that title was thought up by his rival John Hughes, who set up his Royal Circus a short distance from Astley's 'Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts' in Lambeth, London. Astley was followed by Andrew Ducrow, whose feats of horsemanship had much to do with establishing the traditions of the circus, which were perpetuated by Henglers and Sangers celebrated shows in a later generation. In England circuses were often held in purpose built buildings in large cities, such as the London Hippodrome, which was built as a combination of the circus, the menagerie and the variety theatre, where wild animals such as lions and elephants from time to time appeared in the ring, and where convulsions of nature such as floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been produced with an extraordinary wealth of realistic display.

Antonio Franconi, the founder of the French circus, is credited by many to be a co-creator of the modern circus, along with Philip Astley.

The first circus building in the United States opened in 1793 in Philadelphia with a performance by John Bill Ricketts. George Washington attended a performance there later that season. In the Americas of the first two decades of the 19th century, The Circus of Pepin and Breschard toured from Montreal to Havana, building circus theatres in many of the cities they visited. Later the establishments of Purdy, Welch & Co., and of van Amburgh gave a wider popularity to the circus in the United States. In 1825 Joshuah Purdy Brown was the first circus owner to use a large canvas tent for the circus performance. Circus pioneer Dan Rice was probably the most famous circus and clown pre-Civil War, popularizing such expressions as "The One-Horse Show" and "Hey, Rube!". The American circus was revolutionized by P. T. Barnum and William Cameron Coup, who launched P. T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie & Circus, a traveling combination of animal and human oddities, the exhibition of humans as a freak show or sideshow was thus an American invention. Coup was also the first circus entrepreneur to use circus trains to transport the circus from town to town; a practice that continues today and introduced the first multiple ringed circuses.

In 1840 the equestrian Thomas Cooke returned to England from the United States, bringing with him a circus tent. Three important circus innovators were Italian Giuseppe Chiarini, and Frenchmen Louis Soullier and Jacques Tourniaire, whose early travelling circuses introduced the circus to Latin America, Australia, South East Asia, China, India, South Africa and Russia. Soullier was the first circus owner to introduce Chinese acrobatics to the European circus when he returned from his travels in 1866 and Tourniaire was the first to introduce the performing art to Ranga where it became extremely popular. Following Barnum's death his circus merged with that of James Anthony Bailey, and travelled to Europe as Barnum & Bailey "Greatest Show On Earth" where it toured from 1897 to 1902, impressing other circus owners with its large scale, its touring techniques including the tent and circus train and the combination of circus acts, zoological exhibition and the freak show. This format was adopted by European circuses at the turn of the 20th century.

The influence of the American circus brought about a considerable change in the character of the modern circus. In arenas too large for speech to be easily audible, the traditional comic dialog of the clown assumed a less prominent place than formerly, while the vastly increased wealth of stage properties relegated to the background the old-fashioned equestrian feats, which were replaced by more ambitious acrobatic performances, and by exhibitions of skill, strength and daring, requiring the employment of immense numbers of performers and often of complicated and expensive machinery.

In 1919, Lenin, head of the USSR, expressed a wish for the circus to become 'the people's art-form', given facilities and status on a par with theatre, opera and ballet. The USSR nationalized the Soviet circuses. In 1927 the State University of Circus and Variety Arts, better known as the Moscow Circus School was established where performers were trained using methods developed from the Soviet gymnastics program. When the Moscow State Circus company began international tours in the 1950s, its levels of originality and artistic skill were widely applauded, and the high standard of the Russian State circus continues to this day.

Circuses from China, drawing on Chinese traditions of acrobatics, like the Chinese State Circus are also popular touring acts.

The International Circus Festival of Monaco has been held in Monte Carlo since 1974 and was the first of many international awards for circus performers.

Contemporary circus

In the 1960s and 1970s, the circus began to lose popularity as people became more interested in alternative forms of entertainment. Some circuses have stayed afloat by merging with other circus companies. There are numerous circuses that maintain a mix of animal and human performers, these include Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, Circus Krone from Munich, Circus Royale from Australia and the Big Apple Circus. Circus Circus, a Las Vegas circus themed casino and the largest permanent big top in the world, also presents human and animal performances.

Cirque nouveau / New Circus is a performing arts movement that developed in the 1970s, simultaneously in France, Australia the West Coast of the U.S. and the U.K . There are no animals used in this type of circus and influences are drawn as much from contemporary culture as from circus history. Examples include Circus Oz forged in Australia in 1977 from SoapBox Circus and New Circus, both founded in the early 70's, The Pickle Family Circus founded in San Francisco in 1975, and more recently Circus Burlesque from the U.K in 1980 and Nofitstate circus in 1984 from Wales, Cirque du Soleil founded in Quebec, Canada in 1984, Archaos in 1986, Club Swing in 1994, through to more recent examples such as Teatro ZinZanni, founded in Seattle in 1998, Quebec's Cirque Éloize, Les 7 Doigts de la Main, also know as The 7 Fingers , and the West African (French Guinea - Guinée) Circus Baobab in the late 90's. The form includes other circus troupes such as the Le Cirque Imaginaire, later renamed Le Cirque Invisible both founded and directed by Victoria Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, the Tiger Lillies, Circus Monoxide, Acrobat, Dislocate, RANGA Circus (now CIRCA), and Throwdown, while The Jim Rose Circus and The Happy Sideshow are both interesting takes on the sideshow. The Moscow State Circus is a non animal circus.

Swedish nouveau circus company Cirkus Cirkör was founded 1995. U.S. Company PURE Cirkus under the Genre of Cirque Noir, was founded in 2004, and in Northern England, (United Kingdom), combining punk, rap, dance music, comedy, and daring stunts, Skewed Circus delivers "pop-circus" genre entertainment to young urban audiences who have not had the opportunity to visit traditional circuses.

The circus performance

A traditional circus performance is led by a ringmaster who has a role similar to a Master of Ceremonies. The ringmaster presents performers, speaks to the audience, and generally keeps the show moving. The activity of the circus takes place within a ring; large circuses may have multiple rings, like the six ringed Moscow State Circus. A circus traditionally has its own band.

Circus acts

Common acts include a variety of acrobatics, gymnastics (including tumbling and trampoline), aerial acts (such as trapeze, aerial silk, corde lisse), contortion, stilts and a variety of other routines. Juggling is one of the most common acts in a circus; the combination of juggling and gymnastics is called equilibristics and include acts like plate spinning or the rolling globe.

Clowns are common to most circuses and are typically skilled in many circus acts; "clowns getting into the act" is a very familiar theme in any circus. Famous circus clowns have included Austin Miles, the Fratellini Family, Emmett Kelly, Grock and Bill Irwin.

Daredevil stunt acts and sideshow acts are also parts of some circus acts, these activities may include human cannonball, chapeaugraphy, fire eating, breathing and dancing, knife throwing, magic shows, sword swallowing or strongman. Famous sideshow performers include Zip the Pinhead and The Doll Family. A popular sideshow attraction from the early 19th century was the flea circus, where fleas were attached to props and viewed through a Fresnel lens.

Animal acts

A variety of animals have historically been used in acts. While the types of animals used vary from circus to circus, big cats, elephants, horses, birds, sea lions and domestic animals are the most common.

The earliest involvement of animals in circus was just the display of exotic creatures. As far back as the early eighteenth century, exotic animals were transported to North America for display, and menageries were a popular form of entertainment. The first true animals acts in the circus were equestrian acts. Soon elephants and big cats were displayed as well. Isaac A. Van Amburgh entered a cage with several big cats in 1833, and is generally considered to be the first wild animal trainer in American circus history. Mabel Stark was a famous female tiger-tamer.

Recently the use of animals in the circus has been a matter for controversy, as animal-welfare groups have documented multiple instances of animal cruelty, used in the training of performing animals. Elephants in particular have been of some problem recently as is demonstrated by "Tyke" (1974 – August 20, 1994) a circus elephant who on August 20, 1994 in Honolulu, Hawaii, killed her trainer, Alex Campbell, and mauled her groomer, Dallas Beckwith causing severe injuries during a Circus International performance before hundreds of horrified spectators at the Neal Blaisdell Center. Tyke then bolted from the arena and ran through downtown streets of Kakaako for more than thirty minutes. Police fired 86 shots at Tyke who eventually collapsed from the wounds and died.

In 1998 in the UK, The Circus Animal Working Party, chaired by MP Roger Gale, studied animal conditions and treatment in UK circuses. All members of this Party agreed that a change in the law was needed to protect circus animals. Mr Gale, Conservative MP for Thanet North, told the BBC, "It's undignified and the conditions under which they are kept are woefully inadequate - the cages are too small, the environments they live in are not suitable and many of us believe the time as come for that practice to end." Also cited in the study were concerns about boredom and stress, as well as noting that an independent study by a member of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University "found no evidence that circuses contribute to education or conservation."

Sweden, Austria, Costa Rica, India, Finland, Singapore, Switzerland, and Denmark have already restricted the use of animals in entertainment. The UK and Scottish Parliaments have committed to ban certain wild animals in travelling circuses. In response to a growing unease from the public about the use of animals in entertainment, the formation of animal free circuses have begun cropping up around the globe, and animal free circuses have begun to be more wide-spread.

Circus music, films and plays

The atmosphere of the circus has served as a dramatic setting for many musicians and writers. The famous circus theme song is actually called "Entrance of the Gladiators", and was composed in 1904 by Julius Fučík. Other circus music includes "El Caballero", "Quality Plus", "Sunnyland Waltzes", "The Storming of El Caney", "Pahjamah", "Bull Trombone", "Big Time Boogie", "Royal Bridesmaid March", "The Baby Elephant Walk", "Liberty Bell March", "Java", Strauss's "Radetsky March", and "Pageant of Progress".

Plays set in a circus include the 1896 musical The Circus Girl by Lionel Monckton, Polly of the Circus written in 1907 by Margaret Mayo, He Who Gets Slapped written by Russian Leonid Andreyev 1916 and later adapted into one of the first circus films, Caravan written in 1932 by Carl Zuckmayer, the revue Big Top written by Herbert Farjeon in 1942, Top of the Ladder written by Tyrone Gutheris in 1950, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off written by Anthony Newley in 1961, and Barnum with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics and book by Mark Bramble.

Following the First World War circus films became popular; in 1924 He Who Gets Slapped was the first film released by MGM; in 1925 Sally of the Sawdust (remade 1930), Variety, and Vaudeville were produced, followed by The Devil's Circus in 1926 and The Circus starring Charlie Chaplin, Circus Rookies, 4 Devils; and Laugh Clown Laugh in 1928. German film Salto Mortale about trapeze artists was released in 1930 and remade in the United States and released as Trapeze starring Burt Lancaster in 1956; in 1932 Freaks was released; Charlie Chan at the Circus, Circus (USSR) and The Three Maxiums were released in 1936 and At the Circus starring the Marx Brothers and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man in 1939. Circus films continued to be popular during the Second World War, The Great Profile starring John Barrymore was released in 1940, the animated Disney film Dumbo, Road Show and The Wagons Roll at Night in 1941 and Captive Wild Woman in 1943.

The film Tromba, about a tiger trainer was released in 1948 and in 1952 Cecil B. de Mille's Oscar winning film The Greatest Show on Earth was first shown. Released in 1953 were Man on a Tightrope and Ingmar Bergman's Gycklarnas afton released as Sawdust and Tinsel in the United States; Life is a Circus; Ring of Fear; 3 Ring Circus and La strada an Oscar winning film by Federico Fellini about a girl who is sold to a circus strongman; Fellini made a second film set in the circus called The Clowns in 1970. Films about the circus made since 1959 include B-movie Circus of Horrors, musical Billy Rose's Jumbo, A Tiger Walks a Disney film about a tiger that escapes from the circus and Circus World starring John Wayne.

In the film Jungle Emperor Leo, Leo's son, Lune, is captured and placed in a circus, which burns down when a tiger knocks down a ring of fire while jumping through it.

Circus Buildings

In some towns, there are circus buildings. The best known are

In other countries, purpose-built circus buildings still exist which are no longer used as circuses, or are used for circus only occasionally among a wider programme of events; for example, the Circus Schumann in Copenhagen, Denmark or Cirkus in Stockholm, Sweden.

See also



  • Croft-Cooke, Rupert and Cotes, Peter. 1976. Circus: A World History. Elek. London ISBN 0-236-40051-7
  • Johnson, William M. 1990. The Rose-Tinted Menagerie. Iridescent Publishing
  • National Museum of Performing Arts, Theatre Museum. Circus Guided Tour

External links

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