A circus is an entertainment or spectacle usually consisting of trained animal acts and exhibitions of human skill and daring.
The word “circus” has the same root as circle and circumference, recalling the distinctive environment in which such entertainment is presented—the ring, a circular performance area usually bounded by a short fence (or “curb”). The ring may be enclosed in an arena, in a building designed for circus performances, or in a tent, and it is generally surrounded by tiers of seats for spectators.
Circus shows may include clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, dancers, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists, unicyclists, as well as other object manipulation and stunt-oriented artists.
The circus is nearly as old as civilization itself. Paintings of twirling acrobats adorned the walls of Egyptian tombs dating to 1250 BC, the blood of man and beast drenched the sands of the Circus Maximus in Ancient Rome, and the feats of ropewalkers in medieval Europe were believed to be acts of sorcery and banned by the Church.
The origin of the modern circus has been attributed to Philip Astley, who was born 1742 in Newcastle-under-Lyme, England. He became a cavalry officer who set up the first modern amphitheatre for the display of horse riding tricks in Lambeth, London, on 4 April 1768. He later added other acts, such as acrobats, a clown and a band to his performances. However, the term ‘circus’ to describe this type of exhibition was coined by Astley’s contemporary and rival Charles Dibdin, who opened The Royal Circus in
London in 1772.
As styles of performance have developed since the time of Astley, so too have the types of venues where these circuses have performed. The earliest modern circuses were performed in open-air structures with limited covered seating.
The Englishman John Bill Ricketts brought the first modern circus to the United States. He began his theatrical career with Hughes Royal Circus in London in the 1780s, and travelled from England in 1792 to establish his first circus in Philadelphia. The first circus building in the US opened on 3 April 1793 in Philadelphia, where Ricketts gave America’s first complete circus performance. George Washington attended a performance there later that season.
Victor Pépin, a native New Yorker, was the first American to operate a major circus in the United States. Later the establishments of Purdy, Welch & Co., and of van Amburgh gave a wider popularity to the circus in the United States.
In 1919, Lenin, head of Soviet Russia, expressed a wish for the circus to become “the people’s art-form”, with facilities and status on par with theatre, opera and ballet. The USSR nationalized Russian circuses. In 1927, the State University of Circus and Variety Arts, better known as the Moscow Circus School, was established – 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.
Circuses from China, drawing on Chinese traditions of acrobatics, like the Chinese State Circus are also popular touring acts.
The International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo has been held in Monaco since 1974 and was the first of many international awards for circus performers.
Contemporary circus is a genre of performing arts developed in the late 20th century in which a story or theme is conveyed through traditional circus skills. Animals are rarely used in this type of performance,
and traditional circus skills are blended with a more character-driven approach. Compared with the traditional circuses of the past, the contemporary approach tends to focus more attention on the overall aesthetic impact, sometimes on character and story development, and on the use of lighting design, original music, and costume design to convey thematic or narrative content.
The first circus in the city of Rome was the Circus Maximus, in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. It was constructed during the monarchy and, at first, built completely from wood. After being rebuilt several times, the final version of the Circus Maximus could seat 250,000 people – it was built of stone and measured 400 m in length and 90 m in width.
From the late 18th to late 19th century, custom-made circus buildings (often wooden) were built with various types of seating, a centre ring, and sometimes a stage. The traditional large tents commonly known as “big tops” were introduced in the mid-19th century as touring circuses superseded static venues. These tents eventually became the most common venue.
Contemporary circuses perform in a variety of venues including tents, theatres and casinos. Many circus performances are still held in a ring, usually 13 m (42 ft) in diameter. This dimension was adopted by Astley in the late 18th century as the minimum diameter that enabled an acrobatic horse rider to stand upright on a cantering horse to perform their tricks.
Clowns have always been an integral part of the circus, offering a source of amusement for patrons and providing relief from the array of animal acts and performances by acrobats and novelty artistes. The American circus term for a clown’s act is “gag”; Europeans refer to it as an “entrée”, and amateur clowns sometimes refer to it as a “skit” or “sketch”. Gags are the clown’s written and rehearsed performances.
The greatest number of performers in a circus act was 263 plus c.175 animals, in the 1890 Barnum Bailey Circus (USA) during its tour of the USA.
The largest audience for a circus performance was 52,385 for Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus, at the Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA on September 14, 1975.
The largest circus audience in a tent was 16,702 (15,686 paid), for Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey, at Concordia, Kansas, USA on 13 September 1924.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus (USA) is also the world’s longest running, with Barnum Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, established in 1870 and later merging with the Ringling Brothers in 1919. At their height, the circus carried 150 clowns, travelling three trains with a staff of 1,500 to 2,500 people.