Page 102. " now you are a first-of-May "

A travelling circus in the early 20th century
Permission Granted by Copyright Owner for Use on Book DrumA travelling circus in the early 20th century - Credit: Warrington Library, Museum and Archive Service
The term "first-of -May" was used in circus and carnival slang for novice performers in their first season.  Touring shows worked through the summer months, and traditionally left their winter quarters on May 1st, which meant this was the first day of work for many new acts.

Page 104. " Their paths converge only upon the brick barracks of the Imperial Circus "

The Imperial Circus in St Petersburg was built in 1849 at the command of Tsar Nikolai I.  It was a magnificent building with two great wings extending from the main structure, housing stables, dressing rooms and sumptuous public areas.  The ring was semi-circular and included a fully-equipped stage for popular pantomimes.  Audiences entered a grand, red and gold foyer beneath a chandelier and were seated behind an orchestra bench which encircled the entire ring.  The aristocracy enjoyed private boxes, whilst the general public packed out a gallery above.  The Imperial Circus struggled through its early years under the leadership of Paul Cuzent, enjoyed a short period of success with equestrian displays, and burned down in 1859.  The Mariinsky Theatre opened in the same spot a year later, and continues to present major opera and ballet today.

Trapeze artists in circus, 1890
Public DomainTrapeze artists in circus, 1890 - Credit: US Library of Congress

The first fully stone built circus in Russia - and the only one standing in Petersburg during the visit of Colonel Kearney's circus in 1899 - was the Circus Ciniselli on the banks of the Fontanka, a branch of the main River Neva.  The building still stands today, having undergone several name changes, and now houses a circus museum alongside its main ring.  The circus opened in 1877 with a ring 13 metres in diameter and stabling for 150 horses; it was privately managed by the Ciniselli family until they emigrated in 1921. 

Circus as an artform originated in Ancient Rome, and spread across Europe, Russia and the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries with the introduction of the big top, the circus ring and the gaudy mixture of comedy, spectacle and magic.  Entrepreneurs like PT Barnum took elements of the freak show and travelling fair to develop 'The Greatest Show on Earth'.  

In Russia, circus became popular during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), who was captivated by the performance of Englishman Charles Hughes and his travelling troupe.  In the 19th century circus grew rapidly in popularity with all classes of people, and permanent buildings and schools for circus arts were established in Petersburg and Moscow.  Acts included wrestlers, equestrian displays, animal acts, acrobats, aerialists and of course clowns.  The products of Russian circus training travelled the globe: Coco the Clown, famous in the UK, was born Nikolai Poliakov in Russia in 1900; the Moscow State Circus continues to tour internationally, whilst contemporary circus relies heavily on performers from Russia and Eastern Europe.


Page 107. " The magic circle was now occupied by Lamarck's Educated Apes "

Chimpanzees are the closest living evolutionary relatives to humans, and are found in the wild mainly in west and central Africa.  Their natural intelligence has long fascinated scientists, who recognise similarities to human behaviour in the use of tools and altruistic behaviour within social groups.  Observations of human-like behaviour have included mourning and romantic love, danced responses to natural beauty such as a sunset over a lake, 'pretend play' as young chimps cradle rocks or sticks like dolls, and empathy towards other species; chimps have been seen feeding turtles.  Although they have no vocal cords, they communicate with one another using gesture, sound, facial expression and body language using the same areas of the brain as that used by humans for speech.

A number of experiments have been undertaken to teach chimpanzees to respond to human speech, and to use human sign language.  Some disagreement continues over the results, although memory tests and recognition of shapes and numbers have shown a level of intelligence at least equal to that of the most able humans.  Washoe the chimp (1965-2007) was the first non-human to use American Sign Language, and used at least 350 signs spontaneously and repeatedly.  She later taught the signs to her adopted son Loulis.


Page 117. " Buffo the Great, the Clown of Clowns "

The art of clowning was first known in Egyptian courts around 2,500 BC, and most cultures throughout history include some form of clown.  Shakespeare included clown characters in many of his plays, most famously in King Lear in which the Fool observes and comments on the action, often seeing the truth where seemingly wiser characters are misled.  In other plays, Shakespeare allowed the company's leading clowns such as Will Kemp to improvise scenes interlinked with the main narrative, just as comic turns in modern pantomime are employed to fill time during scene changes.

Around the same time as Shakespeare's clowns developed in England, the Commedia del'Arte in Italy introduced Harlequin, who became the standard for clowns and court jesters for many years.  The two-coloured costume with forked hat, red lips in a white face, and his own miniature carried as a puppet head on a stick, remains instantly recognisable.

England's first circus was opened by Phillip Astley in 1768, and one of his acts was Billy Buttons, an inept equestrian struggling to ride a horse to town.  However, the whiteface circus clown was truly born in the figure of Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837).  He adopted a lesser known character from the Commedia del'Arte and developed the tradition of slapstick humour and comic songs which influences Buffo's troupe and continues to dominate clowning today.  Buffo's story on page 121, in which he is advised to cheer himself up by seeing Buffo the Great at the Tivoli, was originally told of Grimaldi.  

The Auguste character which Walser portrays is long-suffering and subservient, the butt of the Whiteface's outrageous jokes and demands.  The Joey is the Whiteface, named after Grimaldi, whilst the 'carpet clown' was introduced to the American circus to lay a special carpet to keep performing horses from tripping in the mud, and to make the unrolling of the carpet a comedy act in itself.

A clown's individual makeup is a key part of his character.  In England, a new performer registering with Clowns International can register his own makeup and have an eggshell decorated with a miniature of his face, which is retained in a gallery as a form of copyright.

Auguste Clown
Creative Commons AttributionAuguste Clown - Credit: The Library of Virginia

There was a famous clown by the name of Grock, who worked in Switzerland in the early twentieth century.  A modern clown still living in America has taken the name of 'Buffo the Great', combining clowning with feats of strength and titling himself 'The World's Strongest Clown.'  The name probably relates to bouffon, from the French term for jester.  It describes a style of performance based on the art of mockery, with characters influenced by Roman farce and the half man, half animal 'satyr' figures of Greek mythology.  Jacques Lecoq, who revived bouffon in the 1960s, explained that "bouffons amuse themselves by reproducing the life of man in their own way, through games and pranks."

The term 'Charivari,' adopted by Carter as the family name of the acrobats displaced by Fevvers, originally described a raucous acrobatic clown routine, typically done by a large group of clowns, consisting of a series of fast-paced acrobatic maneuvers and comedy jumps off of a mini trampoline, over a vaulting horse and into a mat.

On page 120, Buffo lists some of the great clowns of history.  Domenico Biancolelli (Carter appears to have changed the name slightly) lived in Italy from 1636-1688.  He created the character of Harlequin in the Commedia del'Arte as part of the Mazarin troupe, who toured Italy and France.  His son Pierre-Francois followed him into clowning in the role of Pierrot.

Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846) was a celebrated Bohemian-French mime, whose character 'Baptiste' appeared as a Pierrot, a sad-faced black and white clown drawn from the Commedia del'Arte.  Pierrot is often depicted gazing at the moon, and Theodore de Banville's poem Pierrot (1842) concludes,

"The white Moon with its horns like a bull, Peeps behind the scenes, At its friend Jean Gaspard Deburau.”

Page 117. " The Dead March from Saul "

Saul is a three-part oratorio completed in 1739 by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).  It focusses on the disintegrating relationship between Saul, king of Israel and his successor David in the Biblical 1st Book of Samuel.  The 'Dead March' is played after Saul's downfall, at the funeral of both him and his son Jonathan.

Page 120. " Consider the saints as the acts in a great circus "

Saint Catherine of Alexandria (4th century) converted to Christianity in her late teens and argued with the Roman Emperor Maxentius against persecuting Christians.  She convinced his wife and many of his courtiers, but was then imprisoned and eventually condemned to death on the breaking wheel, an instrument of torture on which victims were beaten with cudgels.  The name of the spinning firework, the Catherine Wheel, remembers St Catherine's martyrdom. 

Saint Lawrence (225-258) was a deacon of Rome who was entrusted with guarding the Holy Chalice, Jesus' cup from the Last Supper.  He sent it to Aragon for safekeeping and distributed much of the church's wealth to the poor to prevent it being seized by the prefects of the city.  He was killed by burning over a grill, and is often depicted with a gridiron.

Saint Sebastian (3rd century) was a captain of the Pretorian Guard who converted many fellow soldiers and later fellow prisoners to Christianity.  He was bound to a stake in a field and shot with arrows, or sometimes with thrown knives or spears.  However, he survived and was nursed back to health to cure a girl of blindness before being recaptured and shot.  He is a popular figure in art and literature and appears in many paintings and sculptures, including a famous portrait by El Greco.

Saint Jerome (347-420) was a scholar in Rome who translated the Bible into Latin.  In one mediaeval story he is said to have removed a thorn from a lion's paw, and he is often portrayed with a lion in art.