By providing specific details about the acts at Astley’s from 1768 to 1833, "Reconstructing Early Circus" contributes to a deeper understanding of the culture and politics of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century Britain.
"Poney Race at Astley's Amphitheatre" (V&A)
The project has resulted in several research outputs already (see below). Further important research into what critic Jane Moody calls the “permeable boundaries” between the minor and patent theatres of the eighteenth and nineteenth century (Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770-1840, 6) will be conducted by comparing the data featured on "Reconstructing Early Circus" with the data from in the British Library's "In the Spotlight" project. The "In the Spotlight" project consists of digitized images and crowd-sourced transcriptions of playbills from the 1730s to the 1950s. The data includes references to individual performances and performers as well as themes that also occur in the entertainments at Astley's. "In the Spotlight" includes, for example, numerous references to "Harlequin"; a comparable search for "Harlequin" on the "Reconstructing Early Circus" site returns 1088 hits for this term.
"Reconstructing Early Circus" also offers a novel way of approaching political events of the long eighteenth century by considering how they are re-presented on stage in popular entertainments. The storming of the Bastille, the siege of Quebec, and the death of Captain Cook all make an appearance onstage at Astley's, while performances also included displays by "Catabaw INDIANS" and the exploits of "Tipoo" Sultan, reflecting on British colonial global encounters
Leith Davis, “Between Archive and Repertoire: Astley’s Amphitheatre, Early Circus, and Romantic-Era Song Culture” in Studies in Romanticism 58:4 (Winter, 2019), 451-479.
Leith Davis, "Spectacles of Song: Reconstructing Early Circus," blog for the Royal Society of Edinburgh-funded Romantic National Song Network digital project, PI Kirsteen McCue (University of Glasgow's Centre for Robert Burns Studies)
"Circus and Song: Astley's Amphitheatre, Early Circus and Romantic-Era Song Culture," National University of Ireland, Galway (Dec., 2019).
“The Sound of Spectacle and the Spectacle of Sound: Philip Astley and Circus Songs," "Song and the City" workshop organized by University College, London and Notre Dame University Global Gateway in London, England (Oct., 2017).
The following grants allowed me to conduct research at the British Library, provide archival training at the British Library for 1 PhD student and, with the help of Simon Fraser University Digital Humanities Innovation Lab team, to provide Digital Humanities methodologies and digital archival training for 4 undergraduate RAs.
- 2017: Small Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Grant for “National Songs, Transnational Networks and the Romantic-era Circus” provided funding for the initial research
- Simon Fraser University's Department of English FIC Grants in 2017 and 2018 provided funding for research assistants to transcribe the materials
- A monograph on "National Roots and Transnational Routes of Early Circus"
- A chapter on “National Song, Transnational Networks and Romantic-era Circus”: This in-progress work both responds and contributes to the growing scholarly interest in the socio-politics of sound both in our contemporary era and in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the eras in which I specialize. The current media shift to digital technology has ignited a renewed interest in media and mediation of the past (Bolter and Grusin; Gitelman). While much of the scholarship concerning mediation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has focused on the rise of print culture as the “new media” of the time, there is now increasing attention paid to the way that print intersects with other aural and visual media (Siskin and Warner). My new research draws on scholarship examining popular theatre and the performance of “national song” in Britain and North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Freeman; Russell; Roach). As Celia Applegate notes, the term “national song” was used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to refer primarily to Irish, Scottish, and Welsh tunes in opposition to English songs. In my proposed article, I consider the complexity involved in the performances of these songs in a circus setting as they both contested British identity by representing the differences of the Celtic periphery of Britain but also affirmed a united Britishness by containing those differences within a single “show” that was often focused on demonstrating British military strength. Britain was at war for much of this time period, and theatrical performances were used not just for entertainment, but also to create a sense of shared nationalism (Russell). Circuses often included re-enactments of famous battles accompanied by jingoistic songs (Stoddart). Further complicating the situation, however, is the fact that these circus songs were performed in a setting that Jane Moody refers to as “illegitimate” in the context of the censorship of theatre at the time. As Paul Rice elaborates, there were only two legally sanctioned theatres in London, but musical theatrical performances at the circus were allowed because words that were sung for entertainment were not subject to the same censorship laws as those that were spoken in plays. I will consider in particular music and song used in Philip Astley's Amphitheatre (London, Edinburgh and Paris), Charles Hughes’ Royal Circus (London) and Bill Ricketts’ Circus (Philadelphia and Montreal). While the folk music of the British nations, as well as music from elite traditions, has been well-researched (McLane; Newman), there has been less scholarly attention paid to the popular music of the past. Until recently, for example, the popular music of the theatre in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was dismissed as “a decorative ornament” to the more “serious business of spoken-word drama” (“Music and Theatre in 18th-C Britain conference website http://www.1718. ucla.edu/events/music-theater/). The research I will be conducting focuses on music and song associated with mass entertainment in Romantic-era Britain (theatre, equestrian shows and the circus) and considers how it was re-presented in North America. My work therefore contributes a transnational perspective on the performance of national identity. It demonstrates the way that the meaning of performances can alter depending on the specific geo-political locations in which they occur. Moreover, by tracing the relationship between music and mass entertainment in the past, this research will also contribute to a greater understanding of the history of the popular music of the present.