Potts, Norman B.
M.A. (Master of Arts)
Department of Theatre Arts
Astley, Philip, 1742-1814||Theater--England--London||Horsemanship--England--London||Circus--England--London
This thesis discusses the importance of Philip Astley's knowledge of horses as it is related to his career as a performer, entertainer and creator of equestrian spectaculars. Philip Astley (1742-1814), sergeant-major and breaker-in of horses with the cavalry at Minden, Germany, 1759, and manager, owner and performer in nineteen (19) places of entertainment, is most famous for his equestrian spectacles. This study will trace the development of Philip Astley's career first as an expert horseman through his ownership of several places of entertainment in London, 1770-1814. Philip Astley first obtained knowledge of horsemanship in the military where he studied the temper and learned to train horses. Since he seemed to have expertise in the handling of horses, he decided to make it his profession. Inspired by "equestrian performances" of Johnson, Price and Sampson, he studied their feats of horsemanship and proceeded to duplicate and add specialties of his own. With his white charger, Gibraltar, which he received as a gift from General Elliott and a well-mannered trick horse Bill which he had bought for five pounds and trained, he began his first exhibitions in an open field near Glover's Halfpenny Hatch, at Lambeth. He also taught horsemanship, trained and broke horses. He subsequently published the book on horsemanship, training and breaking: The Modern Riding-Master: or, A Key to the Knowledge of the Horse. He continued to take others' ideas, and by the use of his skill in handling and training of horses, he expanded his exhibitions. Not only did he introduce new equestrian feats, he added other types of entertainment: clowns, singers, tumblers and acrobats. Some highlighted were Fortunelly the clown, Signor Colpi representing a balancing act and the acrobats, the Egyptian Pyramids. Also Mrs. Astley and their five year old son John were featured as elegant riders. It was because of his horse exhibitions that he first used a ring and eventually ring acts, and the clown (basic elements of the circus brought together for the first time) which earned Astley the title of Father of the Circus. Astley's theatres were recognized mostly for the horse as actor, the burlesque and the horse spectaculars. The most famous horse actors were the Spanish Charger, Gibraltar, and Billy. Through time and a great deal of patience, he had trained them to accomplish such feats as ungirthing a saddle, firing pistols, and taking a kettle of boiling water off a flaming fire. The burlesque was a popular entertainment, the most famous of which, The Taylor Riding to Brentford, became a regular feature of all late eighteenth and early nineteenth century circuses. Philip Astley was the first who took the role of the Taylor, portraying his comical difficulties in attempting to ride to a customer. As Astley's bill grew larger so did his theatre structure and number of theatres. He had the foresight to enlarge his arena in order to view a variety of acts at the same time. Astley's horse spectaculars became more and more extravagant, attracting such huge crowds that people were turned away nightly. The equestrian spectacles most praised were Quixote and Sancho or Harlequin Warrior, The British Glory in Egypt; The Brave Cossack or Perfidy Punished, The Arab or the Freebooters of the Desert, and The Blood Red Knight. However, he continued to modify, expand and elaborate on his spectacles to such an extent that the effect eventually was lost and he had to sell his last amphitheatre. Philip Astley is remembered for his equestrian spectaculars and as the originator of the Circus. It was because of his expert horsemanship that he became a famed performer, entertainer and creator of equestrian spectacles.
Mitchell, Marjorie Louise, "Historical study of Philip Astley's theatres in London, 1770-1814" (1981). Graduate Research Theses & Dissertations. 3389.
Northern Illinois University
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