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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: February 2013

14 - Circus

from Part IV - What?

The circus might not at first glance appear to have much to do with either theatre or history. It mainly shows actual physical feats, not theatrical make-believe, story-telling or play-acting. It seems to inhabit a time of its own, separate from the course of events, ever the stuff of family outings and childhood nostalgia. Hasn’t the circus always been there? Even in the wake of the animal-free New Circus movement of the 1990s, and the advent of stylishly choreographed and expensive metropolitan shows such as the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, the great majority of the world’s circuses still peddle candy-floss and clowns, parping horns and miniature bikes, and sometimes sorry menageries. Nell Stroud, writer, performer and director of the successful neo-Edwardian-style Gifford’s Circus in England (see Fig. 19), has authored a children’s book on circus history, but assures me that, for the most part, circus people are not very interested in the subject. An honours degree in Circus Studies has for some years now been offered by Circus Space in London, but students receive only one lecture on circus history, with the theoretical emphasis firmly on the critical analysis of performance. By contrast, in art schools, the history of art and design has long been a mainstay of the classroom and indeed serves as the benchmark for progress and modernisation in these fields. It is my view that most circuses fail to engage in a conscious dialogue with their own past and so risk becoming slaves to a dwindling repertoire of hackneyed traditions. Attempting to rectify this situation, the journalist Tony Montague is, at the time of writing, currently working on a production for another Canadian company that draws upon key episodes of early circus in North America, but feels that this is quite a solitary and pioneering task.

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The Cambridge Companion to Theatre History
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Further reading
Assael, Brenda. The Circus and Victorian Society (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2005).
Chevalier, Tracy. Burning Bright (London: Harper Collins, 2007).
Russell, Gillian. The Theatres of War: Performance, Politics and Society, 1793–1815 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Saxon, Arthur H.Enter Foot and Horse: A History of Hippodrama in England and France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).
Saxon, Arthur H.The Life and Art of Andrew Ducrow and the Romantic Age of the English Circus (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1978).
Saxon, Arthur H.P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man, 2nd edn (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
Leon, Mark. Circus: The Australian Story (Melbourne: Melbourne Books, 2011).
Stoddart, Helen. Rings of Desire: Circus History and Representation (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).
Stroud, Nell. Josser: Days and Nights in the Circus (London: Virago, 2000).