Philip Astley: Father of the Modern Circus

Today we celebrate Philip Astley (1742-1814), generally acknowledged to be the father of the modern circus, and by extension, one could argue, all the modern variety forms, be it vaudeville, minstrelsy, sideshow, burlesque etc etc etc. The reason for the the “modern” qualification will be obvious to any aficionado of the ancient world, or at the very least, gladiator pictures. Rome had its own “circus” institution, although it was quite different from the modern one. The word merely means “circle”: circus in Latin, and the very similar “kyklos” in Greek. (The latter is where the Ku Klux Klan got its name from. But that’s a major digression).

The modern circus takes place in a large circular performing space because that is ideal for trick riding. It was a technique that Astley, already a skilled horseman from his years in the British cavalry, learned from a teacher named “Old Samson.” Astley and his wife Patty put on their first demonstration of their equestrian skills (already a popular form of entertainment) in a London field in 1868. He enhanced the show by showing off feats of swordsmanship. The following year he built a crude stadium with stands for his outdoor shows, which were growing ever more popular. The initial idea was to publicize his riding school, for he also gave lessons. In 1770, as his audiences grew, he added tumblers, jugglers, clowns, musicians, tightrope walkers, and other riders to the presentation, thus giving birth to what we think of as the modern circus. In 1773 he built Astley’s Amphitheatre, a lavish, deluxe, permanent structure in which to house his entertainments. He eventually established 18 such structures in cities throughout Europe, thus paving the way for the art form he created to spread throughout the word and down the centuries.

For much more on this trailblazer, check out The Philip Astley Project. 

To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous