Travelling show-people of the Middle Ages, thimbleriggers, artistes, acrobats, freaks and exotic animals that had never been seen before roamed the countryside. Village people must have gathered together for their arrival, which may have been a refreshing novelty in the inhabitants’ lives, because all of them could count on some unusual spectacles. The circus that we know today developed in the 18th century, owing to Sergeant Major Philip Astley, who was a talented equestrian horse trainer and showman. He founded his riding school in London in 1768, where he showed his knowledge on a 19-meter-diametrical amphitheatre, a circular arena. This arrangement of the circus that became traditional since then was the invention of earlier equestrian acrobats. The ring became smaller since then; the international standard is now 13 meters diameter.
After the second season, Astley completed the repertory with acrobats’, rope-dancers’ and magicians’ shows, thus the modern circus was born. Astley opened the first circus in Paris as well, where he had a rival Charles Hughes immediately. Hughes founded the Royal Circus of London and left for a tour with it in Russia in 1793. In the meantime, one of his students founded the first circus in America, which launched the age of travelling circuses there. Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup’s circus was the most famous travelling circus and ‘museum’, where odd animals and physically deformed people were introduced to the amazed audience.
The classic programme of circuses used to consist of equestrian acrobats’ shows primarily for a long time, but later ground acrobats and jugglers got bigger and bigger attention. The golden age of European travelling circuses was between the two World Wars; by that time equestrian acrobats were almost completely ousted. The 20th century reform of circus programmes started in Russia: foreign artists escaped due to socializations, the circus school was founded in Moscow and its students were driven towards gymnastics. Due to the development period afterwards, animal shows began disappearing from the modern circus (fortunately). Several big circus dynasties were born in Hungary; the two most famous ones are: the Hungarian National Circus and the Eötvös Circus that is the oldest travelling circus in Hungary. The Capital Circus of Budapest – the only stone circus in Central Europe – is 127 years old now.
Bright colours, jumbo clown shoes, clumsy motions, flaring makeup and the excessiveness of extremes. Clowns are constant characters of circus performances. They jest, make you laugh and nettle each other or the audience, but not everybody likes them. Coulrophobia – the fear of clowns – is an existing phenomenon, though it is not considered a separate symptom by psychiatrists. Nevertheless, researches are going on to discover what might cause this great antipathy and fear by their sight for certain people. Clowns have entertained people since the ancient times, they were there in rulers’ courts of medieval times, on fairs as well, and could ridicule things that would have cost the life for another person. They could unveil people’s low-minded and secret desires to the audience, but of course with a funny garnishing. This darker side of them might have given inspiration to a great number of contemporary authors and film directors to place clowns in intimidating contexts. Everyone knows stories like that. Maybe the most famous one is Stephen King’s film It, with a clown called Pennywise. Besides clowns, pop culture draws a lot on the circus theme. In the past few years, several series borrowed elements from the grotesque world of the early American travelling circuses.
The genre of the circus is changing. The new circus is more and more based on human skilfulness, spectacular and artistic attractions. It tells stories, mingles with the theatre and reacts to it. An increasing number of theatre performances demonstrate acrobatic and circus elements.
Translated by Zita Aknai