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
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