Friday Follies: The art of the circus

"The Circus" by George Seurat

With its bright colors, nonstop action and death-defying stunts, the circus is an irresistible draw for artists and audiences alike.

You can find circuses in movies, books, paintings and even music. Just this past holiday season, The Greatest Showman, with Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, and Zendaya, debuted on the big screen. The film is a fictionalized account of the life of Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum, who among his many diverse accomplishments established a traveling circus.

But The Greatest Showman is only one of many circus-themed films that have graced the cinema. In 1952, The Greatest Show on Earth, starring Jimmy Stewart, Charlton Heston, and Betty Hutton, was a big hit, winning an Oscar for Best Picture at the 1953 Academy Awards.  

Burt Lancaster, who as a young man worked as a circus acrobat, starred in 1956’s Trapeze, along with Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida.

And a bit more recently, the 2011 film Water for Elephants, with Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz, explored life and romance behind the scenes of a traveling circus.

Water for Elephants isn’t just a movie; it started out as a book by Sara Gruen. And Gruen isn’t the first, nor will she be the last, writer to inspired by the romantic lure of a circus.

In my post earlier this week on Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre, I described how the imagination of Regency audiences was captured by this first circus. This fascination was reflected in the literature of the time.

Jane Austen's Emma
(title page from the 1909 edition)

In Emma (published in 1815), Jane Austen used a show at Astley’s to reunite her two secondary characters, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, after her title character, Emma, had done her best to split them apart.

And in his book Sketches by Boz, (published in a series of newspapers and other periodicals from 1833-1836) Charles Dickens devoted a chapter to a description of a family enjoying a night of entertainment at Astley’s.

The same sort of scene appears in The Newcomes, Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family (1855), by William Makepeace Thackeray. The Victorian novelist also describes a family enjoying a circus performance at Astley’s, where they laughed at the clown’s jokes and thrilled at seeing the Battle of Waterloo acted out in the sawdust circus ring.  

Boomers and others who are familiar with all the songs on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) might be surprised to learn that there's a reference to a performer who once worked at Astley's in the song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”

Pablo Fanque, aka William Darby

The subject of this Lennon-McCartney tune is a Victorian traveling circus, and the song mentions Pablo Fanque, who once wowed audiences in the ring at Astley’s Amphitheatre. 

Born William Darby in Norwich, England, Fanque made history as the first non-white British circus owner in the United Kingdom. The Illustrated London News described him as “proficient in rope-dancing, tumbling, posturing, etc.” adding that he was a “skillful rider” and was considered a “very good equestrian.”

Fanque established his own circus, (Pablo Fanque's Circus Royal) which he took on tour throughout the British Isles. Here’s an 1843 poster advertising a show in Rochdale, England. Scroll through it; you can see where John Lennon got the inspiration for his lyrics.

And speaking of the song, here it is:

And to think it all started with Philip Astley!

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. The last time I saw a circus was Circus Circus in Reno in the early 1990s – small scale acts by performers who really put their all into their work. One acrobatic act, by a young couple, probably in their twenties, who took on rope climbing with all manner of balancing and twisting between them as they dual climbed a vertical rope. Then, one of the partners slipped, caught by the other one. Only briefly did they betray concern across their faces, just to be replaced with forced smiles to keep the audience from suspecting how dangerous their act must have really been. A circus life must have been a really uncertain, itinerant life going from one Big Top show to the next, and every town must have looked the same. Your only family would have been the circus performers and your only future would have been the circus. I wonder if any of the circus people had health insurance, much less life insurance? Nowadays, we have all kinds of other entertainment, like 500 TV channels and the Internet. Nothing like the realism of the circus, though.

  2. I agree! The immediacy of a circus act - and not knowing how it's going to play out - makes the experience special. Thanks for your comment!


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