Discovernet: Under the Big Top

Tales from Australian museums and galleries

from the collection of the Queensland Performing Arts Museum

Roll up!! Roll up!! Daring trapeze artists, agile acrobats, marvellous magicians and kooky clowns ... these are just some of the acts you can see at the circus.

Do you know how long humans have been enjoying the circus? The Chinese Circus dates back over two thousand years to the Qin Dynasty of 225 - 207BC. Chinese circus performers displayed their skill, strength and daring though a variety of incredible acrobatics as well as other acts you may not be so familiar with, including spinning plates on the end of bamboo sticks, flipping bowls with their feet and juggling pottery!

At the same time on the other side of the world, the Romans were enjoying their version of the circus. Thousands of people crowded into large open air stadiums called amphitheatres to watch lavish entertainment programs which often lasted several days! These ancient circuses were an ongoing spectacle of gladiators fighting to the death, chariot races, displays of skilled horsemanship, acrobatics, wrestling and exotic wild beasts.

For a long time after the fall of the Roman Empire, there was nothing in Europe to match the scale and decadence of these events. Many smaller troupes of performers travelled the country, entertaining people in town and villages. Some of these groups included animals in their performances - often wild animals like bears or monkeys to amaze their audiences, or more familiar animals such as horses. Hundreds of years later a new type of circus evolved, beginning with displays of trick riding and skilled horsemanship.

In 1768, an English soldier called Philip Astley used his expertise with horses to draw large crowds to shows in London. He taught riding each morning and then demonstrated his amazing skills for the public in the afternoon in a circular arena called a circle or circus, later known as the ring. Astley's shows were so popular that soon others copied him. To ensure his show remained successful, he added new elements such as acrobats, tightrope dancers, jugglers and a clown. A new form of circus was born, spreading across Europe and then America.

When the circus was introduced to America in the late 1700s, the performers, animals and equipment travelled to settlements in remote places across the country. To make things even more difficult, these far-flung towns often did not have a venue for the performance. The large scale 'travelling show' was developed, complete with wagons and a huge tent or Big Top which was erected in each new location, providing a perfect undercover venue for the circus.

America developed a circus which was quite different from its European and Asian counterparts. It incorporated song and dance, as well as the display of weird and wonderful human talents known as Freak Shows. The American circus was very successful and produced popular personalities who attracted much recognition and celebrity - much like today's movie stars! P.T Barnum was one American circus owner who's success was complete when Her Majesty Queen Victoria attended a performance.

From the mid 1800s, both European and American circus companies travelled widely. The circus is a highly visual form of entertainment and so overcame language barriers with ease. Think of the skill of an acrobat or the antics of a clown - they can be enjoyed with no need for words.

Travelling to Australia, these circuses drew large crowds and influenced the establishment of local circus families such as the Fitzgeralds and the Wirths. Other families immigrated to Australia from Europe, such as the famous Jandaschewsky clowning dynasty. In return, Australian circus stars toured overseas. May Wirth of the Wirth Family Circus was one such star - a talented trick rider who was highly successful in America as well as in her home country.

Circuses and other variety shows known as Travelling Tent Shows had to travel vast distances to reach the gold-rush settlements and other young towns in Australia. During World War II they also visited Army camps to entertain the troops. In the early and mid 1800s, the roads were often unsealed dirt tracks and there were very few railways. Children who saw the wonderful performances in towns may have dreamt of running away to join the circus, but in reality, travelling across Australia was hot, dusty and tedious. In the late 1800s the shows began to travel by train and truck, but life on the road was still very hard work.

There were many different focuses in these travelling shows, including acrobatics, music, dance, comedy and the display of the weird and wonderful. This was all part of the allure - the sense of magic, mystery and the unexpected that surrounds the Big Top. Wild animals were a vital part of the circus for this reason, being exotic and new to most of the audience, not to mention adding a little danger!

Many of the traditional elements of the circus have changed or disappeared over the years. The rise of other forms of entertainment such as film, television and radio during the 1900s saw a decline in the popularity of the circus. In the last fifty years there has been an increasing concern for animal welfare which also impacted greatly upon circuses - there is now much less use of animals in performance. Instead, modern circuses tend to focus more on human abilities and displays of daring and skill. There are other traditional circuses which still incorporate animals into their shows - most often horses, which have now been part of the Western circus for thousands of years.

These days, the circus is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Australia's Circus Oz travels the world, their original performance incorporating elements of European and Asian circus. The French Cirque du Soleil is another successful modern circus troupe and there is even an Australian circus consisting entirely of child-performers - the Flying Fruit Fly Circus!

The circus has overcome all obstacles and remains a unique and highly popular form of entertainment. It has proved it can adapt to find new ways of delighting and astounding audiences - can you think of any other form of entertainment with such a long and varied history?


Circus Oz
Find out about the dedication, inspiration and cooperation behind Circus Oz. You can even enroll in a circus workshop.

The National Circus and Physical Theatre Association
Information on everything from training opportunities to road stories and interviews with circus performers.

The Imperial Circus of China
Learn about the history of the Chinese Circus and view images of their performers in action.

The Flying Fruit Fly Circus
Check out this circus troupe - all its members are school aged children!

Clown's make-up
Every clown's make-up and costume is unique.

The Wirths Circus elephants
The Wirths Circus elephants, standing in front of the train which carried them from town to town.

An acrobatic stunt.
An acrobatic stunt. Look closely - the acrobat on top is not using his hands!

Father and daughter magic-act.
Father and daughter magic-act. Often, circuses and other shows have involved entire families.

Daring stunt
The circus has always been known for its daring stunts. How many chairs are stacked between the Maxwels?

The Wirth's Circus Big Top
The Wirth's Circus Big Top, up and ready for the show.

Trained monkey
This trained monkey is kneeling beside a dolls bed 'saying her prayers'.

 The cast of the 'Coles Variety Travelling Tent Show'
The cast of the 'Coles Variety Travelling Tent Show'. Many similar shows traversed Australia in the early 1900s.

The 'Loretta Twins'
The 'Loretta Twins' practise acrobatics outside their tent in 1943.

Wirth's Circus 1920s clown
This is one of the Wirth's Circus clowns from the 1920s.

Army camp visit
During WWII, many entertainment groups visited army camps.

The fabulous Tivoli Girls
The fabulous Tivoli Girls, who entertained the troups during WWII.

Tivoli Girls audience
An audience (many in army uniform) waiting for the Tivoli Girls to perform.

Card trick
A magician performing a trick with playing cards.

'Leong, Ming, Jenny and Sammy', 1952
A Chinese Acrobat Troupe, 'Leong, Ming, Jenny and Sammy', 1952.