141027 History Talk: 27th Oct 2014 History of the Circus

Date: Monday 27th October 2014 10:30

Location: Salón de Actos, Espai la Senieta, Moraira (next to the large free car park)

Subject: History of the Circus

Lecturer: Mike Rendell


When Philip Astley left the army in 1768 with the rank of Sergeant Major he was already a hero – he had captured an enemy standard at the Battle of Emsdorf – the very first time when battle honours had been awarded. He had rescued the Duke of Brunswick when he had fallen before enemy lines. He had built a reputation as the horse whisperer of his age – but what was he to do in civilian life? The answer was that he became the first person to present the public with a totally new style of entertainment – the circus. By morning he gave riding lessons in Lambeth, and in the afternoon performed “trick riding” skills – riding three or four horses at once, riding at speed and picking up a sword from the ground, jumping and juggling on horseback, getting his horses to perform  the minuet etc.
He settled on a ring of 42 ft diameter – the tightest circle at which a horse can gallop at full speed without changing gait, and with the added advantage that centrifugal force would keep the standing rider pressed into the rump of the horse so as not to fall off. It is still the standard size of circus ring today.
He introduced clowning, rope walking, and human pyramids. He used fireworks, and brought in an orchestra and within a few years had built an empire, with permanent buildings in London Dublin and Paris, and down to Vienna and Belgrade. Royalty showered him with accolades and gifts – especially Marie Antoinette, as well as the Duke of York. In his time he was the Richard Branson of his day – probably the most instantly recognized face in the entire country. He was a spectacular showman, who milked the Press for all the publicity he could get.
And yet he was barely educated, was a bullying tyrant, and  had the girth of a tree trunk…and as he always built in wood his premises always burned down to the ground! But he inspired all the other circus traditions which followed – only HIS circus never had wild animals. Mind you, he did have a trained monkey called Jackoo who could juggle on horseback, and a pig which could  read minds and tell the time! He trained his horse to take off its own saddle, and to pour water from a kettle to make a cup of tea. An amazing guy!
He died exactly 200 years ago, in October, which is why the date of the talk is especially relevant! My talk will be the story of his life, an explanation of his amazing equestrian skills – and an introduction to the history of the circus – and an explanation of why we call our theatres “Hippodrome”.
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