Spectacles of Song and the “Reconstructing Early Circus” Database by Leith Davis

Leith Davis is Professor of English at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She is the author of Acts of Union: Scotland and the Negotiation of the British Nation (Stanford UP, 1998) and Music, Postcolonialism and Gender: The Construction of Irish Identity, 1724-1874 (Notre Dame UP, 2005) as well as co-editor of Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004) and Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture (Ashgate, 2012). She is currently working on a monograph entitled Mediating Cultural Memory in Britain and Ireland, 1688-1745 which explores the articulation of what Pierre Nora calls “spectacular” sites of cultural memory within the context of a shifting media ecology of the eighteenth century. She is a co-founder of the Department of English’s MA with Specialization in Print Culture and served as Director of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Scottish Studies from 2008-2015.


Equestrian acrobatics, French jugglers, learned horses, trained bees, “philosophical fireworks,” and musical automatons. These are just some of the acts that were featured at Phillip Astley’s Amphitheatre and Riding School, the venue which has come to be known as the first modern circus. Opened in 1768 near Ha’penny Hatch in Lambeth, Astley’s changed locations within London over the following decades, inspiring competition in other locations in the British archipelago as well as in Europe and North America, including the Royal Circus, Equestrian and Philharmonic Academy in Surrey (1782), Jones’s Equestrian Amphitheatre in Whitechapel (1786), Swan’s Amphitheatre in Birmingham (1787), the Equestrian Circus in Edinburgh (1790), and Ricketts’s Equestrian Pantheon in Boston (1794) and Montreal (1797). Responding to what Richard Altick has identified as the ‘insatiable appetite for novelty’ in the late eighteenth century, circus grew to include more and more varieties of entertainment, including the performance of songs: comic, sentimental, and national songs all appeared at the various circus venues (Altick, 1978: 3). My current project, “Spectacles of Song: National Routes and Transnational Roots of Early Circus” traces the development of these songs as they circulated between circuses in Great Britain and North America, examining how they were adapted to local circumstances. What was different about the way in which songs from the pantomime “Harlequin Highlander,” for example, were performed at circus venues in London, Edinburgh, Philadelphia and Montreal?

“Spectacles of Song” is based on the premise that an examination of songs in circus venues gives us an opportunity to rethink our understanding of song in the Romantic era. Like other objects at the time that existed at the interstices of the ephemeral and the material, circus songs challenge the boundaries between performance and print. In The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, Diana Taylor suggests that ‘taking performance seriously’ as ‘a system of learning, storing, and transmitting knowledge . . . allows us to expand what we understand by “knowledge”’ (2003: 16). As Taylor observes:

By shifting the focus from written to embodied culture, from the discursive to the performatic, we need to shift our methodologies. Instead of focusing on patterns of cultural expression in terms of texts and narratives, we might think about them as scenarios that do not reduce gestures and embodied practices to narrative description (Ibid).

In their performatic mode, circus songs, too, need to be taken seriously as markers of “expressive, embodied culture.” I suggest, however, that the appeal of circus songs as they were advertised and presented night after night at Astley’s – and at other circus venues — was a function not just of their performance by singing bodies. Rather, their attraction derived from their intermedial status as they circulated between stage and page, between gestures and texts. Circus songs were sometimes based on earlier performed or printed works; they gained further currency from being associated with particular singers in the context of the variety of shows at the circus venues; and, in their material forms as engraved music, as items in song collections and as slip songs, they facilitated new kinds of private, semi-private and public performances that were not necessarily connected to the memory or anticipation of their performance onstage. Because of their connection with the circus, a constantly evolving form of illegitimate entertainment consisting of ‘an indiscriminate blend of lyrical genres, cheerfully disrespectful of cultural hierarchies’ circus songs, at least in their early manifestations in the late eighteenth century, were unique, possessing different associations from, for example, songs featured at the legitimate theatres or pleasure gardens (Kwint, 2002: 80). As multi-modal vectors of entertainment, however, circus songs can be considered as items in a core sample, as it were, drawn from the extensive layers that made up the complex landscape of song culture in the Romantic era (for an excellent overview of popular song during the Romantic era see Cox Jensen, 2015).

As the first stage of this larger project, I created a database entitled “Reconstructing Early Circus: A Database of Entertainments at Astley’s Amphitheatre, 1768-1833” https://dhil.lib.sfu.ca/circus/ and presented a paper entitled “Spectacles of Sound: Songs, Song Culture and the Early Circus” at the “Song & the City, 1790–1840”conference organized by Ian Newman as part of the “Music in London 1800-1851” project.

“Astley’s Amphitheatre” colored plate from Microcosm of London, 1808. *57-1633, Houghton Library, Harvard University

For the database, I drew on a little-known archive now housed at the British Library, “Astley’s Cuttings from Newspapers,” which I used in the creation of a digital humanities project entitled “Reconstructing Early Circus: A Database of Entertainments at Astley’s Amphitheatre, 1768-1833”(https://dhil.lib.sfu.ca/circus/). The “Reconstructing Early Circus” database includes transcriptions of the materials from “Astley’s Cuttings from Newspapers” in a searchable form, allowing users to trace the development of particular features of the entertainments over time as well as Astley’s strategies for marketing them. While it is important to bear in mind that the advertisements do not necessarily reflect the actual performances that occurred at Astley’s (there were no frequent changes to the program as it was advertised), they do give us a sense of what was considered appealing to audiences at the time. An examination of the materials from the archive and database in conjunction with consideration of a variety of printed materials which included the songs allows us to see how Astley’s functioned as a unique node in a complex and expanding network of song culture in the nation’s capital during the Romantic era.

Reference list

Altick, Richard. (1978). The Shows of London. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cox Jensen, Oskar. (2015). Napoleon and British Song, 1797-1822. Houndmills: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Kwint, Marius. (2002). “The Legitimization of the Circus in Late Georgian England,” Past & Present 174: 1.

Taylor, Diana. (2003). The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.

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