The individual riding act has gone through little change in the two hundred years since it was first defined in England. When one considers the number of riders who have appeared before the public, the unchanging acts offered by them over the years seems to parallel the development in organized athletic contests. Change would seem to lie only in the increased skill of individuals, rather than in the game itself. Baseball, as an example, with adjustments in the rules, is the same game it was at the turn of the century. If this criteria is applied to circus riding, then the advancement of the science is really dependent on the improved skills of the performers. We don’t know how good a rider John Bill Ricketts was because few of those who commented on his ability had seen anyone else ride in the ring. Yet the acts he presented were nearly the same as both those offered at Astley’s twenty years before and those being shown by riders at the time of the American Civil War.
Comparing similar activities from different eras is not true comparison, granted. The Hamlet we see on the stage today is not the same as that presented by actors of a hundred years ago, but the play itself is the same. The presentations suit the age; we get the Hamlet that mirrors our own time.
The earliest riders offered such routines as standing on their heads in the saddle, leaping garters placed in their paths, bursting balloons (paper covered hoops) and leaping from horse to ground to horse again. In time this type of act came to be called a “principal” act and is seen advertised as “a principal act of riding.” Etymologically, it referred to the fact that it was the original type of the action. Every rider had to begin with the parts of the principal act and most of them never went beyond them. They improved their performance by leaping more and more garters or leaping higher garters or even progressing from pad to bareback riding, but the essential act remained as we have described it and was limited, surely, by the fact that it had to be performed on a moving horse.
As in any endeavor, an extremely talented person will always find a way to transcend the ordinary and in circus riding; this person proved to be the great Andrew Ducrow. In the 1820s, when the American circus was drawing away from its European antecedents, from the theatre- type presentations that had theretofore been its mainstay, European riders were - and were to remain - still under the influence of the “baggage” of the theatre and their presentations reflected it. The hippodramas— Timour the Tartar, Cataract of the Ganges, Bluebeard, and the like, which had been imported to America and discarded when the circus took to wagon travel, were still popular in Europe for many years, and survived into this century.
Hippodramatic performances called for some acting ability and the principal parts were sometimes held by actors, sometimes by circus riders. A circus rider who could act was the most valuable to a manager. As far as the public was concerned there was no great distinction made between early dramatic actors and early circus performers. Ducrow, producing and acting in hippodramas, was able to invent ring acts that used his hippodramatic skills. Part of the reason for doing this may well have been that his traveling company was too small to present the hippodramas to advantage, thus he lit upon the idea of appearing alone in the ring in a dramatic role.
About 1820 he introduced what came to be called scenic riding. It was a departure from the principal act in that it was essentially a pantomime. The rider presented a dumb-show, a series of scenes in the life of the subject, in appropriate costume and on horseback. The principal rider was an athlete, the scenic rider was an actor; the distinction was not always true of either of them. The horse in the principal act was the raison d’etre for the rider’s appearance, without the horse his act would have been simple and dull. In the scenic act, however, the horse was the stage upon which the rider performed and was really not necessary to an appreciation of the presentation. The same thing could have been performed on a stage or on the ground. By doing it on horseback the actor added an extra dimension - his ability as a rider. By necessity, he was both athlete and actor and if he was good at it he gave a muchappreciated performance.
Ducrow’s scenic riding evolved from presentations that were only a step from the final product. In 1818, he performed what he termed poses plastiques, which are usually described in English as “attitudes.” These were poses on horseback similar to the “statue acts” of our own time. The horses moved, but the rider, having struck a pose, maintained it for some moments, then struck another. These were on the order of wellknown sculpture and had been done as ground acts both in the circus and the theatre. Among the subjects Ducrow offered were “The Gladiator,” in which he wore a Trojan helmet and carried a shield and a spear, and “Zephyr” and “Mercury,” in which he struck poses emulating those mythic figures.
In 1820, he introduced “Bouquet de 1’Amour.” In this act he rode on two horses and was joined by his sister in acting as Zephyr and Cupid in a dance of love, as it were. The attraction here, as in all Ducrow’s riding, was his extreme grace and skill. “Bouquet de 1’Amour” was a transitional piece between the attitudes, as in the Gladiator, and scenic riding.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact beginning of the scenic act, but Arthur Saxon has written that it was in 1820. The difficulty is that the title of acts, which is all we have to go on in most cases, may have been applied to a non-scenic act prior to the actual introduction of the scenic act itself.
One of the earliest of which we have a description is “The Death of Othello,” or, “The Moor Defending His Flag.” This was presented with the French title since Ducrow offered himself as a Frenchman in England and as an Englishman in France. It is definitely a scenic act and is described in the Journal de Marseilles as follows: “. . . costumed as an African, his face blackened by tropic suns . . . his lance at rest, (he spots his rival). . . . With what fury he attacks his enemy! With what art he seems to evade his blows. . . . But, he is wounded, the steel escapes his falling hand. Summoning all his remaining strength he draws his scimitar. Rage discomposes his features and flashes in his eyes. Death, however, approaches, and his sabre is no longer swift, his final blows . . . expire before reaching his enemy’s bowels. The hero is dying, blood stains his armor; he falls.”
Melodramatic as this description is, we assume Ducrow’s presentation was no less so. And it certainly serves to separate scene riding from principal riding.
“The Dying Moor” was among the very first scenic acts to be shown in America. John (or Jean) Richard (d. 1830) offered a version of it to audiences at the Lafayette Theatre in New York in February, 1826. We find Edwin Derious doing it in 1839 and John Shindle in 1842, but it was not as popular in this country as were some others and we think that perhaps this was because of racial prejudice in America.
However, there were many other scenic acts, all of them Ducrow’s inventions. We have found no such act in an American program that was not first shown by Ducrow who had introduced most of them by 1825.
In the same year that Richard performed “The Dying Moor” Samuel Tatnall (fl. 1809-1839) did “Indian Hunter,” which was far and away the most popular of such acts in this country. Fully forty percent of the scenic acts we have found in America were on this theme. Called “Indian Hunter,” or “Indian Chief,” or “Flying Indian,” they depicted either an Indian on the warpath or at the hunt. A dance, a stalking, shooting the bow and arrow, bringing home the trophy, were the various parts of these routines. Sometimes the hero died in battle, sometimes he was triumphant.
Despite the fact that the scene was performed on horseback, it did not depict Plains Indians, as little was known of them at the time. It was a pantomime of Eastern tribes, Mohicans, Seminoles and the like. Even then, the costuming was a far cry from actuality. Most of the representations in advertising appear to use the dress of the cigar store Indian, perhaps as close as the artists got to the real thing.
Another favorite, “The Shipwrecked Sailor,” complete with leave-taking, climbing the rigging, facing a storm, and being cast on a desert isle, was first shown in America in 1841. Charles J. Rogers of the firm of Spalding & Rogers was the man who introduced it here. Others who presented sailor acts over the years were Henry Gardner, Frank Whittaker, John Shindle and Charles Sherwood.
In his advertising, I. P. Frost, manager of Frost & Co.’s American Circus, listed the various acts in the repertoires of his performers. The scenic riding turns were: “The Sailor’s Return,” “The Flying Indian,” “The Dying Moor,” “The Peruvian Hunter,” “The Greek Patriot,” “The Reaper,” “The Brigand.”
It was the custom of scenic riders - ”scene riders,” in the vernacular - to have the horse cloth suggest the topic of the scene. Thus, a tartan blanket would be used for “The Highlander,” an Indian blanket for the various “Indian” acts, a leopard or lion skin for “Othello,” and for the “Shipwrecked Sailor,” a painted row of gun muzzles emerging from gun ports.
Scenic acts were still to be seen as late as the 1870s, James and William DeMott were two of its last practitioners. The histrionics and emoting had run their course. The action acts had taken over, performances in which “whirlwind riding” were featured, very fast, very athletic; the athlete supplanted the actor. Also, the opposite extreme from scenic riding, haute ecole was in the ascendancy, a saddled rider controlling the horses in deft, precise movements.
It is difficult for a moderm reader to appreciate the wonder that the scenic acts imposed on their audience. But the overdone dramatics were at one with the times. Dramatic actors, politicians, editors, even preachers, made their points by hyperbole and scene-gnawing. There was little subtlety in the society at any level.
The information on Ducrow’s development as a scenic rider is found in A. H. Saxon, The Life and Art of Andrew Ducrow & The Romantic Age of the English Circus, (Archon, Hamden, Connecticut, 1978), pp. 109- 113.
CHS webmaster J. Griffin, last modified December 2005.