Just naming it was a three ring circus!
During the Regency, Philip Astley and Astley’s Amphitheatre were household names. Philip Astley began his career as a regimental rough rider, but wanted to earn his living as a riding instructor and find a way to showcase his talent for trick riding. In 1781, he opened his first exhibition theatre, the Amphitheatre of Arts, to demonstrate his riding abilities. The name was later changed to The Royal Grove, and then again to the Amphitheatre of Arts. Regardless of what the actual name was at any given time, the public generally referred to his establishment as Astley’s Amphitheatre. Even the advertisements of the day referred to it as such, and that is the name by which it is best remembered today.
Philip Astley was by no means the only equestrian to have offered this type of entertainment during this era. What set him apart, however, aside from his extraordinary talent, was the fact that he began performing his acrobatic riding in a circular arena. Prior to that time, these types of shows had been performed by riding in a straight line. The circular stage not only allowed him to use centrifugal force to perform better, it also allowed the audience to see better.
As time went on, Astley added other acts, such as additional riders, dancing dogs, tightrope walkers, jugglers, tumblers, clowns, etc., combining them in one show. Prior to this time, these types of entertainment had typically been performed as separate shows. The changes made by Astley in utilizing the circular ring and combining these various performances laid the foundation for the modern day circus.
In addition to the ring, the theater boasted a large stage which Astley made full use of. He was known for his extravagant shows, especially reenactments of military battles. The large space allowed him to use hundreds of soldiers, horses and cannons with large explosions, creating a sense of realism. One of these shows, The Battle of the Alma, makes an appearance in the second book of my Surrender series, A Gentleman’s Surrender. His son continued the venue after Philip Astley’s death in 1814 and the shows were popular into the Victorian Age when a fire destroyed the theater.