Artistes of Colour: Ethnic Diversity and Representation in the Victorian Circus
By Steve Ward, PhD
Published 2021 by Modern Vaudeville Press
There is so much to say and unpack and understand about race and ethnicity in circus that it’s hard to know where to begin this review. However, I suppose I will start by saying that I enjoyed reading this book very much. While it is not within the book’s purview to address all of circus’s complicated past, it focuses specifically on the Victorian Era (1837-1901 CE) in the UK. And a remarkable time that was.
By this period, modern Western “circus” was young-ish but already about 70 years old, as many consider its founding to be in 1768 by the equestrian and master of pageantry, Philip Astley. It all began with:
“Lavish hippodramas…, spectacular pageantry, and reconstructions of famous battles, all involving men and horses, pandered to [British] public nostalgia and enthusiastic nationalism. So the circus was to reinforce Britain’s view of itself in the world and its attitude towards foreigners and a perceived ‘evil’.”Ward, p. 9
And British circus more or less continued to be that.
But as Ward describes through incredible individual stories, this fervor for the ‘exotic’ took on a different tone through this era of industrialization. British interest in other people became more curious, imaginative and daring, fueled by nascent scientific and ethnographic endeavors. While these interests largely continued to place light-skinned British people at the tippity top of the human hierarchy, they also enjoyed and celebrated independent performers from around the world. (Still horrid, but a sign of progress? Open for discussion.) Many of these performers became celebrities in their own right, owned and ran performance venues or troupes, ran in high social circles– but let’s pause here, because I think I might be making a very fun book sound kind of boring with my historical description.
Ward’s book is like following a detective down the winding paper trails of seemingly-mythical humans.
Each chapter is dedicated to a different person, or a different group of people operating under the same performance name, or a different group with a certain type of ‘exotic’ performance.
I found myself in alternating states of amused, infuriated, surprised, fascinated and horrified– each set of stories evokes a fresh aspect of performing in this time period. It is rarely predictable. I don’t want to give away any of the fun surprises.
It’s clear that Ward spent a lot of time researching; as a researcher myself, I doff my cap. These stories are built from the tiny puzzle pieces of show billings, court records, newspaper announcements, and (if you’re lucky) official records of births, deaths and marriages that together assemble the story of each artist. And oftentimes even these documents lie! Between the circus’ tendency for hyperbole, smear campaigns, a competitive market, experimental marketing and plain ole terrible record keeping, this book is an incredible feat and keeps you on your toes.
Nothing could stop these enigmatic performance pioneers of the 1800’s from striving for success; floods, fires, financial woes (of which there are many), pain, serious injuries, sudden deaths of beloved performers, violence, and multiple remarriages of varying success (generally by men, and often without evidence of the previous wife’s acquiescence). All of these obstacles seem to have plagued those whose stories are told within these pages.
And yet they carried on, show after show.
Few of the artists retired to a peaceful old age, as far as we can tell.
While we can’t go back and change the experiences of the past, I’m appreciative of authors shining light on our circus ancestors’ lives. It’s intriguing to put these eras, and consequently our own, into perspective; what privilege our generation enjoys in its current stage of multiculturalness and ease of international travel! In the world of the Victorian Era British, the circus was, for many ordinary people, one of the few times they would ever have access to see someone from Japan, or Morocco, or from anywhere that wasn’t ‘home’.
Artistes of Colour left me wanting more, in a good way. Things I would love to see more of:
- Stories of women, female-presenting and trans artists. I understand the literature is scarce, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting it.
- Perspectives from the artists themselves and how they experienced this environment, more than reconstructed perspectives based on available circumstantial evidence. Circus artists– that’s right, I’m talking to you— write down your current experiences! Future circademics will thank you.
- More depth and stories on performers from India, China, Japan and South America, which are begun here but surely could have whole books dedicated to the subjects.
A very useful, entertaining and delightful read. I thank the author for bringing these stories to life.
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