The Giant Horse of Sinon! Stud of Wild Zebras! Dying Gladiators! Procession and entrée of Giant Horse! Great German Rider…the last week of his appearance! The Scenes in the Circle…the light art of Horsemanship by Mr. Avery! All this and more could be found at Astley’s Circus and Equine Spectacle as seen in the advertisement for the spectacle in 1833.
Kathleen Walter-Meikle describes such equine spectacles in her book “The Horse Book”.
“The late eighteenth and nineteenth century was the age of the hippodrama, a wildly popular theatrical entertainment that involved a mix of high drama with circus horsemanship, with titles such as Marlborough’s Heroic Deeds and Mazeppa or the Wild Horse of Tartary ( in which the role of the hero, tied to a horse, was performed by a young lady in skimpy costume). Ramps were built on stages so the horses could get onstage with ease. But by the mid-nineteenth century their appeal was fading. ”
And Dutton Cook’s, “A book of the Play” (1876) speaks of the decline of the hippodrama.
“Of late years a change has come over the equestrian drama. The circus flourishes, and the quadrupeds figure now and then upon the stage, but the “horse spectacle” has almost vanished. The noble animal is to be seen occasionally on the boards, but he is cast for small parts only, is little better than a four-footed supernumerary….Plays are not now written for him. He is no longer required to evince the fidelity and devotion of his nature by knocking at street-doors, rescuing a prisoned master, defending oppressed innocence, or dying in the center of the stage to slow music. “
Today the hippodrama would have animal rights activists up in arms. But it is nice to see that Dutton Cook clearly saw the horse as a “noble” animal possessed of fidelity and devotion. Today shows such as Odysseo and Cavalia are based on horses performing but they are, for the most part, working at liberty.
The hippodrama is a thing of the past, and as L.P.Hartley once wrote: “the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there.”