Welcome to a new series! A side effect of researching genealogy for my ‘Identity Detective’ series of novels is a rediscovered fascination with history. As a result I am reading more historical novels – perhaps you’ve noticed this in my book reviews – and am re-discovering different periods of history. This new series on my blog will consider historical settings for novelists and will feature ideas, places to start researching, useful archives, inspirational photographs, and novels to read. First, Circus.
Circus is an ancient tradition crossing boundaries, continents, cultures and disciplines from dance to comedy to trick riding, animals and narrative. The primary origin is Rome where the ancient Roman amphitheatres were called ‘circuses’ after the Latin word for ‘circle’. These performances included gladiatorial combats, chariot races, the slaughter of animals, mock battles and other blood sports. For a novelist, the circus setting is infinitely switchable between genres. There are novels about circuses and vampires, circuses and spies, and of course horror. Pennywise in It by Stephen King has to be one of the most horrifying fictional clowns. The research resources are endless, too numerous to list here. Traditions vary by country – Russian, American, French, British, Chinese and African. The Russian style of circus is more narrative and dance-based, compared with its western cousins. The setting can be historical or contemporary. Many circuses operated in fixed locations, other travelled constantly on the road. Cirque du Soleil continues the circus tradition today, concentrating on acrobatics, dance and clowns.
The origin of the modern circus
In 1768, rider Philip Astley performed in an open field in London, near what is now Waterloo railway station. He rode in a circle and chanced upon this circular format which became known as circus. Clowns were added to entertain the audience between equestrian performances. After two seasons, jugglers, tumblers and tightrope walkers had joined the show. Trick-riding was already a popular entertainment but Astley’s use of the circular arena had two advantages: it made it easier for the audience to see the riders, and the circular shape of the ring generated centrifugal force for the riders enabling them to balance while standing on the backs of galloping horses.
By the late 18th century, the circus had spread throughout Europe and to the United States. In 1793, John Bill Ricketts presented exhibitions in Philadelphia and New York including trick riding, rope walkers, tumblers, pantomimes and a clown.
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, billed as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ [USA]
Moscow State Circus [Russia]
Cirque du Soleil [Canada]
Billy Smart’s [UK]
Slava’s Snowshow [Russia]
The most famous circus theme song is ‘Entrance of the Gladiators’, composed in 1904 by Julias Fučík. Watch and listen on You Tube.
Beneath the Big Top: a social history of the circus in Britain by Steve Ward
Serious Play: modern clown performance by Louise Peacock
The Greatest Shows on Earth: a history of the circus by Linda Simon
Freak Show: presenting human oddities for amusement and profit by Robert Bogdan
The Life of PT Barnum by PT Barnum
You Tube is your new best friend. There is a wide choice of clips too numerous to list, including Billy Smart’s Circus in the 1950s, a 1961 Ringling Brothers cannon launch, and performers dressed as chickens in a black-and-white clip from Barnum & Bailey.
Watch this BBC documentary Who Killed the Circus?
The online archive of The Stage, the UK’s theatre and entertainment magazine, dates back to the magazine’s inception in 1880.
Film clips of circus at British Pathé include a performance by Billy Smart’s elephants in 1968, and a circus performance in 1967 on board HMS Albion.
The V&A Museum has a collection of circus posters, illustrations, costumes and even equipment including a brown leather belt or teaching longe used in the training of acrobats in the late 19th century.
The Circus Historical Society is an American resource including photos, videos, links, and research by state.
Online circus encylopaedia Circopedia includes circus histories, biographies, illustrations and oral histories.
The British Library in London has vast records, searchable online, of circus information including books, programmes, journals and recordings.
This post is inspired by an article in the August 2017 issue of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ magazine. More details here.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Thinking about writing a novel about a #circus… start #researching here https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3eF via @SandraDanby