One of the few comprehensive circus history books available, with chapters covering circus origins, its history in Britain, in America and in Europe, and some exploration into the 20th Century; this is a great place to begin a study of circus, as it gives a broad coverage of the many elements that have combined over the years into the form that was prevalent at time of publication in 1980.
Fascinating for a beginner historian, and offering many points of departure for further study – including a full bibliography – the book is most engaging when discussing the lives and acts of circus performers, but also details dates and locations of many ‘firsts’, and points of development in the evolution of the form. (Although, for ease of reference, an appended timeline would have been a welcome addition.)
The voice and passion of the author prevent the material from getting too dry, and virtually every page is enlivened with evocative photographs and illustrations. Speaight honestly acknowledges his predilections and prejudices surrounding particular styles, which gives his objective research credibility.
From my personal point of interest, I was more interested in the chapters pertaining to development of acts and style; however, there is also a wealth of information about the way circuses have been housed and presented, including a detailed appendix of circus buildings and their usage across London, New York and Paris.
Certain aspects of the book, aimed at a contemporary audience at the time of publication, are clearly dated now; the reference to Mary Chipperfield as a ‘first-class animal trainer’ is questionable in the light of her convictions for animal cruelty almost 20 years later. And the claim that ‘Canada has always been much dependent upon the United States for its circuses’ gave me a good chuckle.
However, for a solid overview of circus history and development up until 1979, this book is thoroughly recommended. It has certainly helped give me a perspective on the genealogy of acts presented in circuses and theatres today!