Advertisement for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1900
TypesClassical Circus, New Circus, Contemporary circus, Social Circus
Ancestor artsDrama

A circus is a company of performers who put on diverse entertainment shows that may include clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, dancers, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists, and unicyclists as well as other object manipulation and stunt-oriented artists. The term circus also describes the field of performance, training and community which has followed various formats through its 250-year modern history. Although not the inventor of the medium, Newcastle-under-Lyme born Philip Astley is credited as the father of the modern circus.[1]

In 1768, Astley, a skilled equestrian, began performing exhibitions of trick horse riding in an open field called Ha'Penny Hatch on the south side of the Thames River, England.[2] In 1770, he hired acrobats, tightrope walkers, jugglers and a clown to fill in the pauses between the equestrian demonstrations and thus chanced on the format which was later named a "circus". Performances developed significantly over the next fifty years, with large-scale theatrical battle reenactments becoming a significant feature. The format in which a ringmaster introduces a variety of choreographed acts set to music, often termed 'traditional' or 'classical' circus, developed in the latter part of the 19th century and remained the dominant format until the 1970s.

As styles of performance have developed since the time of Astley, so too have the types of venue where these circuses have performed. The earliest modern circuses were performed in open-air structures with limited covered seating. From the late 18th to late 19th century, custom-made circus buildings (often wooden) were built with various types of seating, a centre ring, and sometimes a stage. The traditional large tents commonly known as "big tops" were introduced in the mid-19th century as touring circuses superseded static venues. These tents eventually became the most common venue. Contemporary circus is performed in a variety of venues including tents, theatres, casinos, cruise ships and open-air spaces. Many circus performances are still held in a ring, usually 13 m (43 ft) in diameter. This dimension was adopted by Astley in the late 18th century as the minimum diameter that enabled an acrobatic horse rider to stand upright on a cantering horse to perform their tricks.

A shift in form has been credited with a revival of the circus tradition since the late 1970s, when a number of groups began to experiment with new circus formats and aesthetics, typically avoiding the use of animals to focus exclusively on human artistry. Circus companies and artistes within this movement, often termed 'new circus' or 'cirque nouveau', have tended to favour a theatrical approach, combining character-driven circus acts with original music in a broad variety of styles to convey complex themes or stories. Since the 1990s, a more avant garde approach to presenting traditional circus techniques or 'disciplines' in ways that align more closely to performance art, dance or visual arts has been given the name 'contemporary circus'. This labelling can cause confusion based upon the other use of the phrase contemporary circus to mean 'circus of today'. For this reason, some commentators have begun using the term 21st Century Circus to encompass all the various styles available in the present day. 21st Century Circus continues to develop new variations on the circus tradition while absorbing new skills, techniques, and stylistic influences from other art forms and technological developments. For aesthetic or economic reasons, 21st Century Circus productions may often be staged in theatres rather than in large outdoor tents.


First attested in English 14th century, the word circus derives from Latin circus,[3] which is the romanisation of the Greek κίρκος (kirkos), itself a metathesis of the Homeric Greek κρίκος (krikos), meaning "circle" or "ring".[4] In the book De Spectaculis early Christian writer Tertullian claimed that the first circus games were staged by the goddess Circe in honour of her father Helios, the Sun God.[5]


It has been suggested that this section be split out into another article titled History of circus. (Discuss) (November 2023)
Sells Brothers Circus with Great Danes
The made-for-television "Super Circus" (1954)

The modern and commonly held idea of a circus is of a Big Top with various acts providing entertainment therein; however, the history of circuses is more complex, with historians disagreeing on its origin, as well as revisions being done about the history due to the changing nature of historical research, and the ongoing circus phenomenon. For many, circus history begins with Englishman Philip Astley, while for others its origins go back much further—to Roman Empire times.


In Ancient Rome, the circus was a roofless arena[6]: 2  for the exhibition of horse and chariot races, equestrian shows, staged battles, gladiatorial combat, and displays of (and fights with) trained animals. The circuses of Rome were similar to the ancient Greek hippodromes, although circuses served varying purposes and differed in design and construction, and for events that involved re-enactments of naval battles, the circus was flooded with water; however, the Roman circus buildings were not circular but rectangular with semi circular ends. The lower seats were reserved for persons of rank; there were also various state boxes for the giver of the games and his friends. The circus was the only public spectacle at which men and women were not separated.[7] Some circus historians such as George Speaight have stated "these performances may have taken place in the great arenas that were called 'circuses' by the Romans, but it is a mistake to equate these places, or the entertainments presented there, with the modern circus".[8] Others have argued that the lineage of the circus does go back to the Roman circuses and a chronology of circus-related entertainment can be traced to Roman times, continued by the Hippodrome of Constantinople that operated until the 13th century, through medieval and renaissance jesters, minstrels and troubadours to the late 18th century and the time of Astley.[9][10]

The first circus in the city of Rome was the Circus Maximus, in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills.[7] It was constructed during the monarchy and, at first, built completely from wood. After being rebuilt several times, the final version of the Circus Maximus could seat 250,000 people; it was built of stone and measured 400m in length and 90m in width.[11] Next in importance were the Circus Flaminius and the Circus Neronis, from the notoriety which it obtained through the Circensian pleasures of Nero. A fourth circus was constructed by Maxentius;[7] its ruins have helped archaeologists reconstruct the Roman circus.

For some time after the fall of Rome, large circus buildings fell out of use as centres of mass entertainment. Instead, itinerant performers, animal trainers, and showmen travelled between towns throughout Europe, performing at local fairs such as the Bartholomew Fair in London during the Middle Ages.[6]: 4–6 

Modern format

This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources in this section. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.Find sources: "Circus" – news · newspapers · books · scholar · JSTOR (April 2018) (Learn how and when to remove this message)

Astley and early British circus

Astley's Amphitheatre in London, c. 1808
Circus Ronaldo

The origin of the modern circus has been attributed to Philip Astley, who was born 1742 in Newcastle-under-Lyme, England. He became a cavalry officer who set up the first modern amphitheatre for the display of horse riding tricks in Lambeth, London, on 4 April 1768.[12][13][14] Astley did not originate trick horse riding, nor was he first to introduce acts such as acrobats and clowns to the English public, but he was the first to create a space where all these acts were brought together to perform a show.[15] Astley rode in a circle rather than a straight line as his rivals did, and thus chanced on the format of performing in a circle.[16] Astley performed stunts in a 42 ft diameter ring, which is the standard size used by circuses ever since.[15] Astley referred to the performance arena as a circle and the building as an amphitheatre; these would later be known as a circus.[17] In 1770, Astley hired acrobats, tightrope walkers, jugglers, and a clown to fill in the pauses between acts.[15]

Elephant trainer (1903)

Astley was followed by Andrew Ducrow, whose feats of horsemanship had much to do with establishing the traditions of the circus, which were perpetuated by Hengler's and Sanger's celebrated shows in a later generation. In England circuses were often held in purpose-built buildings in large cities, such as the London Hippodrome, which was built as a combination of the circus, the menagerie, and the variety theatre, where wild animals such as lions and elephants from time to time appeared in the ring, and where convulsions of nature such as floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions were produced with an extraordinary wealth of realistic display.[18] Joseph Grimaldi, the first mainstream clown, had his first major role as Little Clown in the pantomime The Triumph of Mirth; or, Harlequin's Wedding in 1781.[19] The Royal Circus was opened in London on 4 November 1782 by Charles Dibdin (who coined the term "circus"),[20] aided by his partner Charles Hughes, an equestrian performer.[21] In 1782, Astley established the Amphithéâtre Anglais in Paris, the first purpose-built circus in France, followed by 18 other permanent circuses in cities throughout Europe.[22][23] Astley leased his Parisian circus to the Italian Antonio Franconi in 1793.[24] In 1826, the first circus took place under a canvas big top.[25]

Trapeze artists, in lithograph by Calvert Litho. Co., 1890

Ricketts and the first American circus

The Englishman John Bill Ricketts brought the first modern circus to the United States. He began his theatrical career with Hughes Royal Circus in London in the 1780s, and travelled from England in 1792 to establish his first circus in Philadelphia. The first circus building in the US opened on 3 April 1793 in Philadelphia, where Ricketts gave America's first complete circus performance.[26][27] George Washington attended a performance there later that season.[28]

Circus tent, Italy (1951)

Expansion of the American format

James Anthony Baliey

In the Americas during the first two decades of the 19th century, the Circus of Pepin and Breschard toured from Montreal to Havana, building circus theatres in many of the cities it visited. Victor Pépin, a native New Yorker,[29] was the first American to operate a major circus in the United States.[30] Later the establishments of Purdy, Welch & Co., and of van Amburgh gave a wider popularity to the circus in the United States.[18] In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown was the first circus owner to use a large canvas tent for the circus performance. Circus pioneer Dan Rice was the most famous pre-Civil War circus clown,[31] popularising such expressions as "The One-Horse Show" and "Hey, Rube!". The American circus was revolutionised by P. T. Barnum and William Cameron Coup, who launched the travelling P. T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie & Circus, the first freak show, in the 1870s. Coup also introduced the first multiple-ring circuses, and was also the first circus entrepreneur to use circus trains to transport the circus between towns. By the 1830s, sideshows were also being established alongside travelling circuses.[6]: 9 

Circus parade around tents, in lithograph by Gibson & Co., 1874


In 1838, the equestrian Thomas Taplin Cooke returned to England from the United States, bringing with him a circus tent.[32] At this time, itinerant circuses that could be fitted-up quickly were becoming popular in Britain. William Batty's circus, for example, between 1838 and 1840, travelled from Newcastle to Edinburgh and then to Portsmouth and Southampton. Pablo Fanque, who is noteworthy as Britain's only black circus proprietor and who operated one of the most celebrated travelling circuses in Victorian England, erected temporary structures for his limited engagements or retrofitted existing structures.[33] One such structure in Leeds, which Fanque assumed from a departing circus, collapsed, resulting in minor injuries to many but the death of Fanque's wife.[34][35] Traveling circus companies also rented the land they set up their structures on sometimes causing damage to the local ecosystems.[36] Three important circus innovators were the Italian Giuseppe Chiarini, and Frenchmen Louis Soullier and Jacques Tourniaire, whose early travelling circuses introduced the circus to Latin America, Australia, Southeast Asia, China, South Africa, and Russia. Soullier was the first circus owner to introduce Chinese acrobatics to the European circus when he returned from his travels in 1866, and Tourniaire was the first to introduce the performing art to Ranga, where it became extremely popular.

Lion tamer, in lithograph by Gibson & Co., 1873

After an 1881 merger with James Anthony Bailey and James L. Hutchinson's circus and Barnum's death in 1891, his circus travelled to Europe as the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth, where it toured from 1897 to 1902, impressing other circus owners with its large scale, its touring techniques (including the tent and circus train), and its combination of circus acts, a zoological exhibition, and a freak show. This format was adopted by European circuses at the turn of the 20th century.

The influence of the American circus brought about a considerable change in the character of the modern circus. In arenas too large for speech to be easily audible, the traditional comic dialogue of the clown assumed a less prominent place than formerly, while the vastly increased wealth of stage properties relegated to the background the old-fashioned equestrian feats, which were replaced by more ambitious acrobatic performances, and by exhibitions of skill, strength, and daring, requiring the employment of immense numbers of performers, and often of complicated and expensive machinery.[18]

Painting by Venezuelan Arturo Michelena, c. 1891, depicting a backstage area at the circus

From the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, travelling circuses were a major form of spectator entertainment in the US and attracted huge attention whenever they arrived in a city. After World War II, the popularity of the circus declined as new forms of entertainment (such as television) arrived and the public's tastes changed. From the 1960s onward, circuses attracted growing criticism from animal rights activists. Many circuses went out of business or were forced to merge with other circus companies. Nonetheless, a good number of travelling circuses are still active in various parts of the world, ranging from small family enterprises to three-ring extravaganzas. Other companies found new ways to draw in the public with innovative new approaches to the circus form itself.


In 1919, Lenin, head of Soviet Russia, expressed a wish for the circus to become "the people's art-form", with facilities and status on par with theatre, opera and ballet. The USSR nationalised Russian circuses. In 1927, the State University of Circus and Variety Arts, better known as the Moscow Circus School, was established; performers were trained using methods developed from the Soviet gymnastics programme. When the Moscow State Circus company began international tours in the 1950s, its levels of originality and artistic skill were widely applauded.

Freak show circus


Circuses from China, drawing on Chinese traditions of acrobatics, like the Chinese State Circus are also popular touring acts.

New Circus

Main article: New Circus

Cirque du Soleil performing Dralion in Vienna, 2004

New Circus (originally known as cirque nouveau) is a performing arts movement that originated in the 1970s in Australia, Canada, France,[37] the West Coast of the United States, and the United Kingdom. New Circus combines traditional circus skills and theatrical techniques to convey a story or theme. Compared with the traditional circus, this genre of circus tends to focus more attention on the overall aesthetic impact, on character and story development, and on the use of lighting design, original music, and costume design to convey thematic or narrative content. Music used in the production is often composed exclusively for that production, and aesthetic influences are drawn as much from contemporary culture as from circus history. Animal acts rarely appear in new circus, in contrast to traditional circus, where animal acts have often been a significant part of the entertainment.

Early pioneers of the new circus genre included: Circus Oz, forged in Australia in 1977 from SoapBox Circus (1976) and New Circus (1973);[38] the Pickle Family Circus, founded in San Francisco in 1975; Ra-Ra Zoo in 1984 in London; Nofit State Circus in 1984 from Wales; Cirque du Soleil, founded in Quebec in 1984; Cirque Plume and Archaos from France in 1984 and 1986 respectively. More recent examples include: Cirque Éloize (founded in Quebec in 1993); Sweden's Cirkus Cirkör (1995); Teatro ZinZanni (founded in Seattle in 1998); the West African Circus Baobab (late 1990s);[39] and Montreal's Les 7 doigts de la main (founded in 2002).[40] The genre includes other circus troupes such as the Vermont-based Circus Smirkus (founded in 1987 by Rob Mermin) and Le Cirque Imaginaire (later renamed Le Cirque Invisible, both founded and directed by Victoria Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin).

The most conspicuous success story in the new circus genre has been that of Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian circus company whose estimated annual revenue exceeds US$810 million in 2009,[41] and whose cirque nouveau shows have been seen by nearly 90 million spectators in over 200 cities on five continents.[42]

Contemporary Circus

Main article: Contemporary Circus

The genre of contemporary circus is largely considered to have begun in 1995 with 'Le Cri du Caméléon', an ensemble performance from the graduating class of the French circus school Le Centre National des Arts du Cirque (CNAC), directed by Joseph Nadj. In contrast to New Circus, Contemporary Circus (as a genre) tends to avoid linear narrative in favour of more suggestive, interdisciplinary approaches to abstract concepts. This includes a strong trend for developing new apparatus and movement languages based on the capacities, experience and interests of individual performers, rather than finding new ways to present traditional repertoire.

Social Circus

Main article: Social circus

Beyond the performance aspect of circus, is the Social Circus field, catalysed by Reg Bolton. Social Circus engages communities through circus practice and activity to provide health and well-being benefits.[43]


Ticket Sale of Sirkus Finlandia in Jyväskylä, Finland
Fire breathers risk burns, both internal and external, as well as poisoning in the pursuit of their art

A traditional circus performance is often led by a ringmaster who has a role similar to a Master of Ceremonies. The ringmaster presents performers, speaks to the audience, and generally keeps the show moving. The activity of the circus traditionally takes place within a ring; large circuses may have multiple rings, like the six-ringed Moscow State Circus. A circus often travels with its own band, whose instrumentation in the United States has traditionally included brass instruments, drums, glockenspiel, and sometimes the distinctive sound of the calliope. Performers have been traditionally referred to as artistes, although in recent years the term artists has also come into regular use. To some performers from multi-generational circus families, the term artiste is still preferred as it is considered to confer higher status than artist. Conversely, some performers from the circus school training route taken by many of the newer generations prefer the term artist as it is considered to be less pretentious than artiste. The physical and creative skills that circus artist/es perform are known as disciplines, and are often grouped for training purposes into the broad categories of juggling, equilibristics, acrobatics, aerial and clowning. These disciplines can be honed into individual acts, which can be performed independently and marketed to many different prospective circus employers, and also used for devising solo or collaborative work created specifically for a single project.


See also: List of circus skills

Worldwide laws on animal use in circuses[44]
   Nationwide ban
   Partial ban[a]
   Ban on import/export
   No ban
  1. ^ certain animals are excluded or the laws vary internally

Common acts include a variety of acrobatics, gymnastics (including tumbling and trampoline), aerial acts (such as trapeze, aerial silk, corde lisse), contortion, stilt-walking, and a variety of other routines. Juggling is one of the most common acts in a circus; the combination of juggling and gymnastics that includes acts like plate spinning and the rolling globe come under the category equilibristics, along with more classical balance disciplines such as tightwire, slackline and unicycle. Acts like these are some of the most common and the most traditional. Clowns are common to most circuses and are typically skilled in many circus acts; "clowns getting into the act" is a very familiar theme in any circus. Famous circus clowns have included Austin Miles, the Fratellini Family, Rusty Russell, Emmett Kelly, Grock, and Bill Irwin. The title clown refers to the role functions and performance skills, not simply to the image of red nose and exaggerated facepaint that was popularised through 20th Century mass media. While many clowns still perform in this styling, there are also many clowns who adopt a more natural look.

Daredevil stunt acts, freak shows, and sideshow acts are also parts of some circus acts, these activities may include human cannonball, chapeaugraphy, fire eating, breathing, and dancing, knife throwing, magic shows, sword swallowing, or strongman. Famous sideshow performers include Zip the Pinhead and The Doll Family. A popular sideshow attraction from the early 19th century was the flea circus, where fleas were attached to props and viewed through a Fresnel lens.

Animal acts

Female lion tamer and leopard
Elephants from Cole Brothers Circus parade through downtown Los Angeles, 1953
Circus horse act

A variety of animals have historically been used in acts. While the types of animals used vary from circus to circus, big cats (namely lions, tigers, and leopards), foxes, wolves, polecats, minks, weasels, camels, llamas, elephants, zebras, horses, donkeys, birds (like parrots and doves), sea lions, bears, monkeys, and domestic animals such as cats and dogs are the most common.

The earliest involvement of animals in circus was just the display of exotic creatures in a menagerie. Going as far back as the early eighteenth century, exotic animals were transported to North America for display, and menageries were a popular form of entertainment.[45] The first true animals acts in the circus were equestrian acts. Soon elephants and big cats were displayed as well. Isaac A. Van Amburgh entered a cage with several big cats in 1833, and is generally considered to be the first wild animal trainer in American circus history.[30] Mabel Stark was a famous female tiger-tamer.

Controversy and laws

It has been suggested that this section be split out into another article titled Circuses and animal cruelty. (Discuss) (March 2021)
Circus baby elephant training
Elephant act at a 2009 circus in Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico. In December 2014, as a response to reports of animal mistreatment, the Mexican Congress passed a law banning the use of animals in any circus in the country.[46] The law set fines for violations and required circuses to submit lists of the wildlife they possessed, which would then be made available to zoos interested in taking the animals.[46]

Animal rights groups have documented many cases of animal cruelty in the training of performing circus animals.[47][48] The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) contends that animals in circuses are frequently beaten into submission and that physical abuse has always been the method for training circus animals. It is also alleged that the animals are kept in cages that are too small and are given very little opportunity to walk around outside of their enclosure, thereby violating their right to freedom.

United States

John Ringling North at the White House, 1925

According to PETA, although the US Animal Welfare Act does not permit any sort of punishment that puts the animals in discomfort,[49] trainers will still go against this law and use such things as electric rods and bullhooks.[50] According to PETA, during an undercover investigation of Carson & Barnes Circus, video footage was captured showing animal care director Tim Frisco training endangered Asian elephants with electrical shock prods and instructing other trainers to "beat the elephants with a bullhook as hard as they can and sink the sharp metal hook into the elephant's flesh and twist it until they scream in pain".[50]

On behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality of the Netherlands, Wageningen University conducted an investigation into the welfare of circus animals in 2008.[51] The following issues, among others, were found:

Based on these findings, the researchers called for more stringent regulation regarding the welfare of circus animals. In 2012, the Dutch government announced a ban on the use of wild circus animals.[52]

In testimony in U.S. District Court in 2009, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus CEO Kenneth Feld acknowledged that circus elephants are struck behind the ears, under the chin and on their legs with metal tipped prods, called bullhooks. Feld stated that these practices are necessary to protect circus workers. Feld also acknowledged that an elephant trainer was reprimanded for using an electric shock device, known as a hot shot or electric prod, on an elephant, which Feld also stated was appropriate practice. Feld denied that any of these practices harm elephants.[53] In its January 2010 verdict on the case, brought against Feld Entertainment International by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals et al., the Court ruled that evidence against the circus company was "not credible with regard to the allegations".[54] In lieu of a USDA hearing, Feld Entertainment Inc. (parent of Ringling Bros.) agreed to pay an unprecedented $270,000 fine for violations of the Animal Welfare Act that allegedly occurred between June 2007 and August 2011.[55]

A 14-year litigation against the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to an end in 2014 when The Humane Society of the United States and a number of other animal rights groups paid a $16 million settlement to Feld Entertainment; however, the circus closed in May 2017 after a 146-year run when it experienced a steep decline in ticket sales a year after it discontinued its elephant act and sent its pachyderms to a reserve.[56][57]

On 1 February 1992 at the Great American Circus in Palm Bay, Florida, an elephant named Janet (1965 – 1 February 1992) went out of control while giving a ride to a mother, her two children, and three other children. The elephant then stampeded through the circus grounds outside before being shot to death by police.[58] Also, during a Circus International performance in Honolulu, Hawaii, on 20 August 1994, an elephant called Tyke (1974 – 20 August 1994) killed her trainer, Allen Campbell, and severely mauled her groomer, Dallas Beckwith, in front of hundreds of spectators. Tyke then bolted from the arena and ran through the streets of Kakaako for more than thirty minutes. Police fired 86 shots at Tyke, who eventually collapsed from the wounds and died.[59]

In December 2018, New Jersey became the first state in the U.S. to ban circuses, carnivals and fairs from featuring elephants, tigers, and other exotic animals.[60]


In 1998 in the United Kingdom, a parliamentary working group chaired by MP Roger Gale studied living conditions and treatment of animals in UK circuses. All members of this group agreed that a change in the law was needed to protect circus animals. Gale told the BBC, "It's undignified and the conditions under which they are kept are woefully inadequate—the cages are too small, the environments they live in are not suitable and many of us believe the time has come for that practice to end." The group reported concerns about boredom and stress, and noted that an independent study by a member of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University "found no evidence that circuses contribute to education or conservation."; however, in 2007, a different working group under the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, having reviewed information from experts representing both the circus industry and animal welfare, found an absence of "scientific evidence sufficient to demonstrate that travelling circuses are not compatible with meeting the welfare needs of any type of non-domesticated animal presently being used in the United Kingdom.[61]" According to that group's report, published in October 2007, "there appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or any worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments."[62]

A ban prohibiting the use of wild animals in circuses in England was due to be passed in 2015, but Conservative MP Christopher Chope repeatedly blocked the bill under the reasoning that "The EU Membership Costs and Benefits bill should have been called by the clerk before the circuses bill, so I raised a point of order". He explained that the circus bill was "at the bottom of the list" for discussion.[63] The Animal Defenders International non-profit group dubbed this "a huge embarrassment for Britain that 30 other nations have taken action before us on this simple and popular measure".[64] On 1 May 2019 Environmental Secretary Michael Gove announced a new Bill to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses.[65] The Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019 came into effect on 20 January 2020.[66]


A petition from RSPCA Cymru urging the Welsh Government to ensure an outright ban on the use of wild animals in circuses; October 2015

A bill to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in Wales was introduced in June 2019, and subsequently passed by the Welsh Parliament on 15 July 2020.[67] Over 6,500 responses were made by the people of Wales, to the public consultation on the draft Bill, 97% of which supported the ban.


The use of wild animals in travelling circuses has been banned in Scotland. The Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Act 2018 came into force on 28 May 2018.

Barnum in 1851


Tigers in a transport cage in a travelling circus

There are nationwide bans on using some if not all animals in circuses in Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, India, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey.[68][69][70] Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Canada, and the United States have locally restricted or banned the use of animals in entertainment.[69] In response to a growing popular concern about the use of animals in entertainment, animal-free circuses are becoming more common around the world.[71] In 2009, Bolivia passed legislation banning the use of any animals, wild or domestic, in circuses. The law states that circuses "constitute an act of cruelty." Circus operators had one year from the bill's passage on 1 July 2009 to comply.[72] In 2018 in Germany, an accident with an elephant during a circus performance, prompted calls to ban animal performances in circuses. PETA called the German politicians to outlaw the keeping of animals for circuses.[73]

A survey confirmed that on average, wild animals spend around 99 to 91 percent of their time in cages, wagons, or enclosure due to transportation. This causes a huge amount of distress to animals and leads to excessive amounts of drooling.[74]

City ordinances banning performances by wild animals have been enacted in San Francisco (2015),[75] Los Angeles (2017),[76] and New York City (2017).[77]

Greece became the first European country to ban any animal from performing in any circus in its territory in February 2012, following a campaign by Animal Defenders International and the Greek Animal Welfare Fund (GAWF).[78]

On 6 June 2015, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe adopted a position paper in which it recommends the prohibition of the use of wild animals in travelling circuses.[79][80]

Despite the contemporary circus' shift toward more theatrical techniques and its emphasis on human rather than animal performance, traditional circus companies still exist alongside the new movement. Numerous circuses continue to maintain animal performers, including UniverSoul Circus and the Big Apple Circus from the United States, Circus Krone from Munich, Circus Royale and Lennon Bros Circus from Australia, Vazquez Hermanos Circus, Circo Atayde Hermanos, and Hermanos Mayaror Circus[81] from Mexico, and Moira Orfei Circus[82] from Italy, to name just a few.


Circus building
Paper postcard of the Old Kharkiv Wood Circus
A tent of Sirkus Finlandia

In some towns, there are circus buildings where regular performances are held. The best known are:

In other countries, purpose-built circus buildings still exist which are no longer used as circuses, or are used for circus only occasionally among a wider programme of events; for example, the Cirkusbygningen (The Circus Building) in Copenhagen, Denmark, Cirkus in Stockholm, Sweden, or Carré Theatre in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

International awards

The International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo[84] has been held in Monaco since 1974 and was the first of many international awards for circus performers.

In art, music, films, plays, books, and video games

This section does not cite any sources. Please help improve this section by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (June 2024) (Learn how and when to remove this message)

See also: Circus music

The Circus (1891), by Georges Seurat
Circus seals
Circus music being played in the Netherlands, 1948

Erich Kästner's children's books Der kleine Mann [de] 1963 (The Little Man) and Der kleine Mann und die kleine Miss [de] 1967 (The Little Man and the Little Miss) are largely set in a circus where the orphaned young protagonist grows up as a ward of the show's magician.

The atmosphere of the circus has served as a dramatic setting for many musicians. The most famous circus theme song is called "Entrance of the Gladiators", and was composed in 1904 by Julius Fučík. Other circus music includes "El Caballero", "Quality Plus", "Sunnyland Waltzes", "The Storming of El Caney", "Pahjamah", "Bull Trombone", "Big Time Boogie", "Royal Bridesmaid March", "The Baby Elephant Walk", "Liberty Bell March", "Java", Strauss's "Radetsky March", and "Pageant of Progress". A poster for Pablo Fanque's Circus Royal, one of the most popular circuses of Victorian England, inspired John Lennon to write Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! on The Beatles' album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The song title refers to William Kite, a well-known circus performer in the 19th century. Producer George Martin and EMI engineers created the song's fairground atmosphere by assembling a sound collage of collected recordings of calliopes and fairground organs, which they cut into strips of various lengths, threw into a box, and then mixed up and edited together randomly, creating a long loop which was mixed into the final production.[85] Another traditional circus song is the John Philip Sousa march "Stars and Stripes Forever", which is played only to alert circus performers of an emergency.

Plays set in a circus include the 1896 musical The Circus Girl by Lionel Monckton, Polly of the Circus written in 1907 by Margaret Mayo, He Who Gets Slapped written by Russian Leonid Andreyev 1915 and later adapted into one of the first circus films, Katharina Knie written in 1928 by Carl Zuckmayer and adapted for the English stage in 1932 as Caravan by playwright Cecily Hamilton, the revue Big Top written by Herbert Farjeon in 1942, Top of the Ladder written by Tyrone Guthrie in 1950, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off written by Anthony Newley in 1961, and Barnum with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics and book by Mark Bramble, Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck written by Jay Torrence in 2006.

Circus Orcastra, c.1903
Music Circus tent front (2007)

Following World War I, circus films became popular. In 1924 He Who Gets Slapped was the first film released by MGM; in 1925 Sally of the Sawdust (remade 1930), Variety, and Vaudeville were produced, followed by The Devil's Circus in 1926 and The Circus starring Charlie Chaplin, Circus Rookies, 4 Devils; and Laugh Clown Laugh in 1928. German film Salto Mortale about trapeze artists was released in 1931 and remade in the United States and released as Trapeze starring Burt Lancaster in 1956; in 1932 Freaks was released; Charlie Chan at the Circus, Circus (USSR) and The Three Maxiums were released in 1936 and At the Circus starring the Marx Brothers and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man in 1939. Circus films continued to be popular during the Second World War; films from this era included The Great Profile starring John Barrymore (1940), the animated Disney film Dumbo (1941), Road Show (1941), The Wagons Roll at Night (1941) and Captive Wild Woman (1943).

Tromba, a film about a tiger trainer, was released in 1948. In 1952 Cecil B. de Mille's Oscar-winning film The Greatest Show on Earth was first shown. Released in 1953 were Man on a Tightrope and Ingmar Bergman's Gycklarnas afton (released as Sawdust and Tinsel in the United States); these were followed by Life Is a Circus; Ring of Fear; 3 Ring Circus (1954) and La Strada (1954), an Oscar-winning film by Federico Fellini about a girl who is sold to a circus strongman. Fellini made a second film set in the circus called The Clowns in 1970. Films about the circus made since 1959 include Disney's Toby Tyler (1960), the B-movie Circus of Horrors (also in 1960); the musical film Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962); A Tiger Walks, a Disney film about a tiger that escapes from the circus; and Circus World (1964), starring John Wayne. In Hanna-Barbera's first animated film Hey There, It's Yogi Bear! (1964), Cindy Bear is held captive in a circus where she is cruelly forced to perform until Yogi and Boo-Boo rescue her. Mera Naam Joker (1970), a Hindi drama film directed by Raj Kapoor which was about a clown who must make his audience laugh at the cost of his own sorrows. In the anime film Jungle Emperor Leo (1997), Leo's son Lune is captured and placed in a circus, which burns down when a tiger knocks down a ring of fire while jumping through it. The Greatest Showman, a musical film loosely based on the life of P. T. Barnum, was released in 2017.

The TV series Circus Humberto, based on the novel by Eduard Bass, follows the history of the circus family Humberto between 1826 and 1924. The setting of the HBO television series Carnivàle, which ran from 2003 to 2005, is also largely set in a travelling circus. The circus has also inspired many writers. Numerous books, both non-fiction and fiction, have been published about circus life. Notable examples of circus-based fiction include Circus Humberto by Eduard Bass, Cirque du Freak by Darren Shan, and Spangle by Gary Jennings. The novel Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen tells the fictional tale of a circus veterinarian and was made into a movie with the same title, starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. Science fiction writer Barry B. Longyear wrote a trilogy about a circus of the future: City of Baraboo; Elephant Song; and Circus World.

Circus is the central theme in comic books of Super Commando Dhruva, an Indian comic book superhero. According to this series, Dhruva was born and brought up in a fictional Indian circus called Jupiter Circus. When a rival circus burnt down Jupiter Circus, killing everyone in it, including Dhruva's parents, Dhruva vowed to become a crime fighter. A circus-based television series called Circus was also telecast in India in 1989 on DD National, starring Shahrukh Khan as the lead actor.

In the third case of the video game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice for All, the main character, Phoenix Wright, investigates a murder at a circus, working as the defence attorney of an egotistical magician.

See also


  1. ^ "Philip Astley - Circopedia". Retrieved 15 May 2023.
  2. ^ St Leon, Mark (2011). Circus! The Australian Story. Melbourne Books. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-877096-50-1.
  3. ^ circus, Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, on Perseus
  4. ^ krikos, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  5. ^ Tertullian, Septimus Florens (1931). De spectaculis (Latin text with English translation). Translated by Terrot Reaveley Glover. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Loeb Classical Library.
  6. ^ a b c Nickell, Joe (2005). Secrets of the sideshows. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-7179-2. OCLC 65377460.
  7. ^ a b c Chisholm 1911, p. 390.
  8. ^ Speaight 1980, p. 11.
  9. ^ Croft-Cooke, Rupert; Cotes, Peter (1976). Circus: A World History. London: Paul Elek. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-236-40051-5.
  10. ^ Dagron, Gilbert (2011). L' Hippodrome de Constantinople: Jeux, Peuple et Politique. Paris: Éditions Gallimard. ISBN 978-2-07-013378-9.
  11. ^ "History of the Ludi". Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  12. ^ Marius Kwint, "Astley, Philip (1742–1814)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, January 2008 accessed 7 January 2014
  13. ^ Speaight 1980, p. [page needed].
  14. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary lists the 1791 book The History of the Royal Circus about Philip Astley's troupe as the first written use of the word to describe the modern circus.
  15. ^ a b c "The circus comes to the Circus". BBC News. Retrieved 13 December 2014.
  16. ^ Joe Nickell (2005). "Secrets of the sideshows". p.8. University Press of Kentucky, 2005
  17. ^ Stoddart, Helen (2000). Rings of Desire: Circus History and Representation. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 13–15. ISBN 978-0-7190-5234-7.
  18. ^ a b c Chisholm 1911, p. 391.
  19. ^ McConnell Stott|, Andrew (2009), The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, Canongate Books, p. 28.
  20. ^ "The First Circus"; Victoria and Albert Museum
  21. ^ Mr Philip Astley's Introduction to The First Circus in England Archived 8 November 2008 at the Wayback Machine. PeoplePlay UK. Retrieved 18 March 2007.
  22. ^ Philip Astley (British circus manager), Encyclopædia Britannica.
  23. ^ Leathers, Victor L. (1959). British Entertainers in France, University of Toronto Press, 1959, p. 29.
  24. ^ Banham, Martin (1995). The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.216.
  25. ^ Glenday, Craig (2013). Guinness World Records 2014. Guinness World Records Limited. ISBN 978-1-908843-15-9.
  26. ^ "Historical Markers". Explore PA History. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  27. ^ "Person: Ricketts, John Bill". The Circus in America, 1793 – 1940. Archived from the original on 3 May 2012. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  28. ^ "PHMC: Historical Markers Program: Ricketts' Circus". Archived from the original on 19 December 2007.
  29. ^ "Circus in America TimeLine: 1801 – 1824". The Circus in America, 1793 – 1940. Archived from the original on 25 March 2007. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  30. ^ a b "Introduction". The Circus in America, 1793 – 1940. Archived from the original on 1 May 2006. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  31. ^ David Carlyon. Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of
  32. ^ William L. Slout (1998). Olympians of the Sawdust Circle: A Biographical Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century American Circus. Wildside Press LLC. pp. 60–. ISBN 978-0-8095-1310-9. Retrieved 9 June 2013.
  33. ^ Griffin, J. "Frost, Thomas (1881), "Circus Life and Circus Celebrities." London: Chatto and Windus". Archived from the original on 14 December 2010. Retrieved 9 April 2011.
  34. ^ Leeds Intelligencer, 4 March 1854, p. 5, col. 3.
  35. ^ Victoria and Albert Museum (7 March 2011). "Victorian Circus". V&A. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
  36. ^ Bagley, Sherri (2019). "Big Top Or Crops?". The UncommonWealth: Voices from the Library of Virginia. Archived from the original on 18 August 2021. Retrieved 18 August 2021.
  37. ^ « Historique de la célèbre crise », Jean-Pierre Thiollet, École ouverte, n°85, February 1982,
  38. ^ St Leon, Mark (2011). Circus! The Australian Story. Melbourne Book. pp. 239–248. ISBN 978-1-877096-50-1.
  39. ^ "Circus Baobab". Circus Baobab. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  40. ^ "The 7 Fingers". Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  41. ^ Collins, Glenn (28 April 2009). "Run Away to the Circus? No need. It's Staying Here". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 September 2009.
  42. ^ "About Cirque du Soleil". Cirque du Soleil. Archived from the original on 25 September 2009. Retrieved 30 September 2009.
  43. ^ Social Circus Retrieved 13 September 2023. ((cite web)): Missing or empty |title= (help)
  44. ^ "Circus bans". Stop Circus Suffering. Retrieved 3 November 2019.
  45. ^ "The history of circus in the US, HistoryMagazine". Archived from the original on 14 April 2012. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  46. ^ a b "Wild things: Mexico struggles to find new homes for outlawed circus animals". Fox News Latino. Archived from the original on 21 May 2015. Retrieved 19 May 2015.
  47. ^ "Circus Incidents: Attacks, Abuse and Property Damage" (PDF). Humane Society of the United States. 1 June 2004. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 May 2008. Retrieved 23 May 2008.
  48. ^ "Circuses". 17 February 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  49. ^ "Animal Welfare Act and Animal Welfare Regulations". Archived from the original on 16 April 2009. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  50. ^ a b "Circuses: Three Rings of Abuse". Archived from the original on 26 July 2010. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  51. ^ "19 february 2008 – Projectvoorstel Ministerie LNV onderzoek welzijn circusdieren" (PDF). 19 February 2008. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  52. ^ "Dutch government announces ban on the use of wild animals in circuses". 1 November 2012. Archived from the original on 14 May 2013. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  53. ^ Circus CEO says elephants are struck, but not hurt[dead link]
  54. ^ Court Record, United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Civil Action No 03-2006 (EGS)
  55. ^ Leigh Remizowski, "USDA Fines Ringling Bros. Circus Over Treatment of Animals, Archived 18 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine" CNN 29 November 2011.
  56. ^ Heath, Thomas (16 May 2014). "Ringling Circus prevails in 14-year legal case; collects $16M from Humane Society, others". The Washington Post. Retrieved 12 June 2017.
  57. ^ (1) Wang, Amy B (15 January 2017). "Animal activists finally have something to applaud at Ringling Bros. circus: Its closure". The Washington Post. Retrieved 12 June 2017. In 2015, Ringling Bros. announced it would stop using elephants in its shows. The lumbering mammals delivered their final performances last May — dancing, spinning and standing on pedestals at the command of the ringmaster — and then were retired to a reserve in central Florida. The move exacerbated the show's demise; the elephants' departure ultimately expedited what was a 'difficult business decision'. 'Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop', Kenneth Feld said in a statement Saturday. 'This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.'
    (2) Brulliard, Karin (21 May 2017). "Thunderous applause, tears as the 'greatest show on Earth' takes a final bow". The Washington Post. Retrieved 12 June 2017. ... Ringling had become the target of animal protection groups that claimed it mistreated its elephants, and the two sides soon locked in a 14-year legal battle so cutthroat it involved secret informants paid by animal groups and a former CIA official who was paid by Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, to spy on activists and a journalist. The litigation ended with several animal groups paying a $16 million settlement to Feld. While the animal activists never prevailed against Ringling in court, they were victorious outside. The allegations of elephant abuse prompted municipalities around the country to ban elephant bullhooks — a sharp metal tool used by handlers — or to prohibit wild animal performances altogether, as Los Angeles recently moved to do. After Ringling retired its last pachyderms to a company-owned elephant conservation center in Florida, ticket sales declined much more than Feld expected, and the company announced in January that Ringling would close for good.
  58. ^ St. Petersburg Times (6 May 1993). "Elephant incidents in recent years". Retrieved 19 April 2010.
  59. ^ "Hawthorn Corporation". Archived from the original on 13 October 2004.
  60. ^ Megan Burrow, "New Jersey becomes first state to ban wild animal circus acts", North Jersey Record, 15 December 2018.
  61. ^ "UK Politics Protect circus animals call". BBC News. 26 October 1998. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  62. ^ "Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses: The Report of the Chairman of the Circus Working Group". UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. October 2007. Retrieved 24 February 2010.
  63. ^ "Anger after bill to ban wild animals in circuses is blocked by MP Chris Chope". Bournemouth Echo. 14 November 2014. Retrieved 22 May 2017.
  64. ^ "Cameron urged to keep circus ban promise as Conservative MP blocks bill for eighth time". Animal Defenders International. Retrieved 22 May 2017.
  65. ^ "Gove delivers legislation to ban wild animals in circuses". UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. May 2019. Retrieved 8 May 2019.
  66. ^ "4 – Extent, commencement and short title". Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  67. ^ "Use of wild animals in circuses to be banned in Wales after Bill passed". Welsh Government. 15 July 2020. Retrieved 23 April 2021.
  68. ^ "Leġiżlazzjoni Malta".
  69. ^ a b International., Animal Defenders. "Worldwide circus bans". Animal Defenders International. Retrieved 22 May 2017.
  70. ^ "Turkish parliament approves animal rights bill". Anadolu Agency. 9 July 2021. Retrieved 11 August 2021.
  71. ^ "Elephant Rampages" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 April 2008. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  72. ^ "Bolivia bans use of animals in circuses". Associated Press. 31 July 2009. Retrieved 31 July 2009. [dead link]
  73. ^ "Circus elephant falls into audience in Germany". The Independent. 8 July 2018. Retrieved 31 July 2018.
  74. ^ "Circus captivity is beastly for wild animals". New Scientist. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  75. ^ Berg, Emmett (21 April 2015). "San Francisco board approves wild animal performance ban". Reuters. Retrieved 23 June 2017.
  76. ^ Good, Kate (26 April 2017). "Los Angeles Bans Use of Wild Animals for Entertainment". One Green Planet. Retrieved 23 June 2017.
  77. ^ Pacelle, Wayne (21 June 2017). "New York City bans use of wild animals in circuses". Retrieved 23 June 2017.
  78. ^ Greece bans animal circuses, Animal Defenders International
  79. ^ "FVE position on the use of animals in travelling circuses" (PDF). Federation of Veterinarians of Europe. FVE/013/pos/007. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 September 2015.
  80. ^ Winter, Stuart (5 August 2015). "Vets call for complete ban on wild animal acts in circuses across Europe". Retrieved 8 August 2015.
  81. ^ Duckman, Hank (1 January 2006). "Hermanos Mayar Circus by Hank Duckman". Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  82. ^ "Moira Orfei Circo official website". Archived from the original on 23 April 2012. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  83. ^ "The Cirque Jules Verne Website". Archived from the original on 12 October 2011. Retrieved 18 November 2013.
  84. ^ "International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo". 15 April 2012. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  85. ^ Turner, Steve, "A Hard Day's Write." HarperCollins(1984).


Further reading