( United States: c. 1785-Present)
Del Ivan Janik
P. T. Barnum is said to have remarked that "elephants and clowns are the pegs upon which circuses are hung" ( Ogden100), and in the twentieth century in America and Europe the definition seems to hold true; the words "circus" and "clown" have become almost inextricably intertwined. It was not always so: the modern circus began as a predominantly equestrian exhibition, and the tradition of clowning that is now identified primarily with the circus was mainly a theatrical entertainment well into the nineteenth century. While aspects of modern circus clowning can be traced back to medieval and even classical foolery, the ritualistic and even religious overtones of these antecedents have to a certain extent been smoothed out, if not erased. If the circus clown is still in some small way a cultural or social commentator who offers a release valve for some of the tensions of everyday life, he or she is today primarily a provider of light entertainment.
Philip Astley, an English military horseman who was born in 1742, is generally credited as the inventor of the modern circus. In 1766 he left the army and opened a riding school in Lambeth; by 1770 he had opened the Amphitheatre Riding House, "a simple wooden structure, with a great circular ring open to the sky and enclosed by railings, overlooked by covered grandstands 120 feet long." Mornings were devoted to riding lessons, but in the afternoon Astley would present programs of entertainment that emphasized equestrian stunts but included acrobatics, tightrope and slack-wire artists, and dancing dogs ( Murray