England’s Dreaming: Circus- A London Institution


This June, circus director Yaron Lifschitz brings his new show, Depart, to the Lift Festival. Depart will see the tombs and stone angels of Tower Hamlets Cemetery infiltrated by circus performers, the graveyard recreated as an amorphous stage. Lifschitz’s splicing of feats of wonder and the city landscape plugs into a long, largely unsung tradition; the circus as we know it was born in London, far before the oldest resident of Tower Hamlets Cemetery had taken a first breath. And whilst Lifschitz’s work is unquestionably of the now, history suggests that this pioneering, modern take on the artform has much in common with the anarchic Londoners who first paired satire, slapstick, clowns and daredevils some three centuries before.

There’s a common misconception that the first place audiences roared as acrobats and clowns choreographed anarchy was in the circuses of Ancient Rome. The Roman Circus was more like a pre-Christian Grand Prix; an extended race track for chariots to thunder around. The other events that Hollywood has gleefully sited in Roman circuses- gladiators hacking off each other’s limbs, lions snacking on unfortunates, have little parity with the circus as we know it. The circus as a place of comedy, chaos and catastrophe started elsewhere. And while the story of circus is a nebulous beast, there’s a consensus amongst the ringmasters and charlatans that guard the history; the modern circus began, like so much other bedlam and entertainment, on the streets of 18th Century London.

In 1768 the British Empire was flourishing. Canada and India had been captured, American Independence was still only a series of discontented murmurs from overseas. Gold and goods were pouring into the capital, and the people who flocked to the city were hungry to consume whatever entertainments their new found fortunes could buy. The mid 1700s saw a lull in their pleasures. The filthy highs and blinding lows of rotgut gin, so popular with the working class in the earlier 18th Century, had been curbed by the 1751 Gin Act. Its edict put the brakes on the independent Gin Palaces that had kept the city carousing and wailing for the previous 60 years. The theatre was still wildly popular, but its review-style format of popular song, drama, and the tumbling of acrobats was undergoing a paring back at the hands of the celebrated actor and theatre manager David Garrick. Garrick was a talented, haughty purist. He demanded that the London stage maintain an obsessive focus on the bard. Hating the fripperies of clowning and acrobatics, Garrick swiftly drove such sideshows from the London stage, declaiming (with all the flamboyance of an antiquarian luvvie) that "nothing but downright starving would induce me to bring such defilement and abomination to the house of William Shakespeare."

Other entertainment was sparse, sordid and disappointing – Wilson & Caulfield’s 1869 text The Book of Wonderful Characters recalls a “pig faced woman” exhibited in a travelling fair of 1750. Spectators who had paid to see this marvel of nature were justified to feel cheated; “the lady was nothing but a bear, it’s face and neck carefully shaved, while the back and top of its head was covered by a wig, ringlets, cap, and artificial flowers in the latest fashion. The animal was then secured in an upright position into a large arm chair, the cords being concealed by the shawl, gown and other parts of lady’s fashionable dress”*

Clearly, confronted with no gin, starchy theatre, and dubious human impersonation, the masses were as ready as they’d ever be for a new form of entertainment. A tall, tubby equestrian named Philip Astley stepped into the breach.

Astley had been obsessed with horses from a young age. The son of a cabinet maker, he turned his back on the old man’s trade to pursue his calling. Aged 17 he became a member of the 15th Light Dragoons, a cavalry unit that had distinguished themselves expanding George II’s colonial ambitions in Germany during the Seven Years War. After a some years spent thundering round the battlefields of Europe and learning to ride with an uncanny skill, Astley returned to England. His military service didn’t pass unrewarded- on decommission he was presented with a white charger named Gibraltar.

 Out on civvy street, Astley, along with wife Patty and the faithful Gibraltar, decided to set himself up as master of a riding school, taking to the fields where modern Waterloo is. In between teaching pupils to ride, he performed stunts on horseback to ever increasing crowds. His big innovation was, like all the best, very simple (it also, probably, wasn’t even his own innovation, although he certainly popularised it): instead of riding in a straight line, he decided to ride in a circle. Whilst other riders would go up and down a linear track, Astley galloped round and round in front of his crowd. This had a twofold benefit – firstly it meant that Astley’s stunts never went out of the crowd’s sight. Secondly, the centrifugal force created by the circular motion enabled gave Astley a greater sense of balance, enabling more convoluted tricks. Patty sound tracked the high jinks by beating on a large bass drum. Herself an accomplished rider, soon she was joining Astley in his performances with a signature trick of her own; circling the ring on horseback with a swarm of bees covering her hands and arms like a seething, buzzing muff. The horse Gibraltar also rose to the occasion. In his 1824 autobiography The Memoirs of J. Decastro, Comedian, Decastro, an employee of Astley’s, describes the stallion as being able to perform “after the manner of a waiter at a tavern or tea garden.” This meant Gibraltar could – allegedly- remove his own saddle, fetch the tea service, and take a kettle of boiling water from the fire.



Unsurprisingly – especially when the alternative was a shaved bear in a dress – such entertainments proved increasingly popular. More so, it soon transpired, than teaching people how to ride. Astley decided to expand. In 1769 he got hold of land at the foot of Westminster Bridge. Here he built a semi-permanent wooden structure which he named ‘Astley’s British Riding School’. Reputedly a shrewd business man, Astley knew that the horse riding could be augmented with other performances – but he wasn’t sure quite what. He went out to the theatres to search out whatever entertainments were keeping the public amused, found that Garrick was turfing out the acrobats and clowns that had delighted the ‘cruder’ elements of the public, and realised he could offer these acts a home performing alongside his own feats of skill. The names came thick  and fast; Mr Merryman, the dandified pantaloon clad clown who harangued the horseriders and mugged to the audience; Baptiste Dubios- the ‘English Hercules’, a strong man who would dance on the tightrope with 2 boys tied to his feet; Signor & Singora Malizia with their menagerie of performing dogs, their highlight being to encourage a bulldog to clamp it’s jaws on a rope attached to a pulley, whereupon they would hoist the mutt thirty feet into the air and set fireworks off around the poor bugger. Whilst Garrick was squeezing the theatre into tighter narrative constraints, Astley had made a wild, tatterdemalion artform, an entertainment that bounded between fragmented, hyper-charged narratives, blurring the line between incredible feats, genuine drama and, with his penchant for somewhat inauthentic historical re-enactments (even the bulldog on the string was meant to represent some recent conflict), surreal social commentary. He had created the circus.

This is the spirit that Lifschitz returns to with Depart. His circus is emphatically non-traditional. There is no big top, and none of Astley’s poor animals – to have such would be imitating the accoutrements of Astley rather than understanding the innovation. The thing that made Astley so very popular was his ability to draw together a multiple of disciplines, and use them to tell Londoners about the world, about themselves and about nothing at all. It was art that could be read as social commentary, or could exist to excite sensation alone. In Astley’s historical retellings, a cohesive narrative was seldom of interest, he was more engaged with the spectacle, and was happy to leave linear dramatics to the theatre. This ability to combine impressionist bursts of story with compelling feats of wonder is the very thing that has made the circus so magically other-wordly, to this day. Lifschitz has made his name nourishing this other-worldliness, treating the circus as a form of physical poetry that exists beyond conventional drama. Discussing his 2009 C!rca show, he noted that “circus functions like a poetry cycle rather than a narrative… I think it is the ultimate actual real-time artform. I find that circus that makes too much of its connectivity, its threads, generally doesn’t interest me very much. I figure the juxtaposition, placement, quarrels between things are as interesting as, you know, ‘narrative’ for want of a better word. Our work isn’t narrative-based.”

And when, elsewhere, Lifschitz has talked of his desire to “make circus a deep art form, brimming with poetry, ideas and feelings,” he harks back to that other giant of the late 18th and early 19th Century circus – Joe Grimaldi.

One of the greatest artists of the 19th Century, Joe Grimaldi took to the stage in the late 1700s. His influence was, and still is, vast. Although Grimaldi was seen as more of a theatre clown than a circus clown (and there are some who put a very firm – some might argue snobbish- distinction between the two), his rise was almost certainly enabled by the shift in zeitgeist that Astley’s creation kick-started, and the two worked together late in Astley’s career. Grimaldi played the part of the white faced clown, a stock character drawn from traditional Italian pantomime, alongside other staples Pierrot and Harlequin. Through show after show Grimaldi’s legend spread. He had an uncanny ability to turn mime and song into sharp social satire and roaring belly laughs. Considered “the finest practical satyrist that ever existed,” Dibden’s mourning of Grimaldi after his death speaks volumes; “As a clown, and singer of clown songs, I despair of looking upon his like again. I never saw anyone to equal him. There was so much mind in everything he did ….. Grimaldi was All Over Clown”. Contemporaries called him “the Michelangelo of Buffoonery”- a man whose clowning was so sublime that he single-handedly popularised the mental image of clowns that endures today – an image that transcends language and culture; the white face, the smears of red make up, the interplay of the sinister and the comic, they’re all Grimaldi. We can thank him for Ronald McDonald. And yet his place in British history is muted. Have a look at who the country voted for in a 2002 BBC poll to find the 100 Greatest Briton’s (althought this probably tells you more about who choses to vote for Great Briton’s than anything else)– whilst the public saw fit to vote for cultural giants (Princess Diana, Robbie Williams), fine humanitarians (Enoch Powell), and, somewhat bewilderingly, people who aren’t British (Bob Geldof and Bono), there was no memory of Grimaldi to be seen.  The man who was once the most beloved performer in the country, the man who imprinted a London rendition of clowning onto the global imagination, has been all but forgotten by his own nation.

But the performance of Depart finally does the spirit of Grimaldi an honour. The great practitioner came from a time when the circus was revered as a unique artform, where the tumbles and leaps of a clown could break hearts and cause laughter to run to tears. This is the circus that Lifschitz is returning to London, his work a dance of thrilling moments too mercurial to be pinned to linear narrative. Both intricate and deceptively simple, Depart promises both the release of sensation, and a deeper exploration of mortality- finally London is being offered, once more, circus as complex and immediate as the roaring, chaotic metropolis that birthed it.


*Surely it would have been easier to just put a pig in a dress? Anyway, unrelated but interesting – there has been a long tradition of ‘pig faced women’ in England, apparently starting with the legend of a rich woman who, through witchcraft had had her face swapped with a pigs head. From the Wikipedia entry on Pig-Faced Women (sometimes it’s hard not to love wiki): “Following her wedding day, the pig-faced woman's new husband was granted the choice of having her appear beautiful to him but pig-like to others, or pig-like to him and beautiful to others. When her husband told her that the choice was hers, the enchantment was broken and her pig-like appearance vanished.” In the academic study The Foreign Woman in British Literature: Exotics, Aliens, and Outsiders, Toni Reed argues that the pig face has often been used to sum up both a disgust and fascination with female sexuality. Fancy! It turns out that sex and pig’s heads have something of a tradition in this country…  

Depart is on as part of the Lift Festival, June 2016. More info on the Lift website