Book Reviews Vol. VII No. 7

Philip Astley & the Horsemen who Invented the Circus (1768-1814)

By Dominique Jando, a Circopedia book—


What with the entire circus world focused on the250th anniversary of Philip Astley’s founding of what has come to be known  as the circus, the tendency is  to assume that Astley pulled that creative coup off single handedly.   As Dominique Jando’s  revisiting of that event under the title Philip Astley and the Horsemen who Invented the Circus,  convincingly demonstrates the creative process by which the circus was born and developed had many important contributors.  So many, in fact,  it takes some heavy concentration to keep them and  their contribution’s straight.

At the outset Jando confesses that the names and information presented in his tidy book are not new.  It has all appeared in some form or another previously.  Jando’s achievement is to bring all this information together in intelligible form under one set of covers.  “I have simply tried to gather in one place what is known of the early decades when the circus took shape, put it in historical and sociological context and connect the dots,” he writes in his foreword.

The fact that this sort of work has not been previously undertaken Jando attributes to cultural snobbishness.  The circus has always been treated as something less than art.  It is interesting that Jando acknowledges the attempts by those involved in what has come to be known as the “new Circus”  to give the form a sort of intellectual legitimacy, not without debasing its integrity in the process.

With that Jando jumps into the controversy of contemporary circus  by stating unequivocally that the circus is not an intellectual art form.  “It can indeed show a powerful metaphorical quality, but it is principally a visual art that plays to the spectator’s raw emotions, to his guts. Circus doesn’t require explanatory subtitles or convoluted  narratives, and undoubtedly great circus acts  can have a strong emotional impact without having to go through any form of intellectual rationalization.”

If nothing else this study proves that the circus never had any pretentions to intellectualism, although it has one important thing in common with another of the performing arts, the theatre, in that they developed at the same time and were closely intertwined.  They participated at the same time in the development of what is known today as show business.

The cast of characters in this saga is more far ranging than today’s preoccupation with Astley would suggest.  In addition to Sergeant Astley there are rivals and collaborators like Charles Hughes, Charles Dibdin, Antonio Franconi, Philip Lailson, and of course John Bill Ricketts.   There was also Astley’s  son John, and later there were James and George Jones, and William Davis.  Surrounding these men were the artists who performed in the various rivaling companies, many of whom were outstanding women performers.   During this pioneering period the circus’ equestrian underpinning was never breached.  Because of this the circus these men helped create enjoyed an enormous popularity at certain times in its early history as it spread to France and the New World.


Circus of the Gods

By West Hyler

ISBN 13: 9781719907569

Circus fans are unlikely to have any quarrel with the premise of West Hyler’s new book Circus of the Gods.  It is his thesis that circus artists are not merely talented humans, but gifted progeny or “lineages” as the author puts,  of the gods:  gods as in Greek and Roman.  We’re talking about Jupiter and his ilk.  Hyler’s hero can throw a quintuple somersault, so that just about settles the issue of his lineage.  As for the book’s plot, that is another matter altogether.

Hyler has good reason on which to base his ideas about the divinity of circus artists.  He has worked with them as a director at the Big Apple Circus’ Legendarium and writer of Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour.

Peter, the story’s protagonist, is the son of the late Alan Avian a famous film and stage director with whom he hopes to reconnect somehow.  His first attempt is through a hit of ecstasy.  When his father appears to him he tells him he must, now that he is about to reach his majority, fulfill his destiny.  That destiny is far more complicated than anyone who does not have divine blood coursing through his veins can entirely comprehend, but it entails getting to a secret ceremony in Los Angeles.  The catastrophic events he must fight his way through in order to get there occupy the bulk of the book.

Perhaps the author is hoping to have his story picked up by a film company and made into a fantastical action packed thrill movie.  It has all the ingredients such films have today: car chases, smash-ups, explosions, terrorist chaos, a cross-country chase through recognizable national landmarks and even the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, where chaos and mayhem prevail in exhaustive detail and folds in not just a history of the world but mankind as well.

In between the scenes of extravagant violence we have scenes in which the last remaining gods argue about what should be done with Peter.  Should he be allowed to get to the ceremony or exterminated before he can do any damage.  What exactly that might be is never clearly defined, so the conflict between the forces acting on Peter and hence the action seems a bit arbitrary, created for whatever sensationalism might be wrung from it.

But then there is a bit of a respite from all the fighting when Peter and his driver spend a night with a circus that looks a lot like the Big Apple.  Circus fans may be amused by the lack of editing here as a recognizable feature of circus life is variously described as either the pie cart or pie car.

There are also a huge number of prepositions that would have been exorcised by a more careful editing.  But they are easy enough the skip over.

Speaking of those descended from the gods, i.e. the lineages, one of the characters says: “Every lineage gets screwed by the Gods. …I think that’s why so many of us end up at the circus.  It’s a family where we take care of each other because we can’t trust anyone else.”

So now you know what makes circus people so special.

For more information contact West Hyler at circusofthegods@gmail,com

Apparently the author plans a sequel as this volume is subtitled Book One:  The Son of Venus.