From One Frontier Society to Another: Views of Race, Culture, and Cosmopolitanism in Late 19th-Century American Circuses Touring Australia

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:50 PM
Centennial Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Gillian Arrighi, University of Newcastle, Australia
Circuses first appeared in Australia in the 1840s when emigrants from the British Isles transplanted an English style of circus that focussed highly skilled equestrian and acrobatic entertainments within a single ring. During the latter decades of the 19thcentury there was an influx of American circuses and Wild West Shows that disrupted and renewed the older traditions. Capitalising on modern developments in trans-Pacific travel to Australia’s populous east coast cities, these confident cultural intrusions from the United States proved immensely popular with Australian audiences and lucrative for their American producers. Bringing innovative business and production practices with them, they introduced Australian audiences to American popular culture, seen through the gilded lens of the circus ring.

Cooper and Bailey’s huge circus was the first to use Australia’s railway system as its primary mode of transport, an innovation that revolutionised circus business in Australia. W. W. Cole’s Circus was the first show in Australia to use electric light as its principal source of illumination. In 1890 Harmston’s American and Continental Cirque introduced the Wild West Show to Australians, with romanticised representations of life and race conflict from America’s swiftly shrinking frontier. Other mammoth aggregations such as Sells’ Brothers Circus brought huge menageries and exotic performing animals never before seen by Australians. Amongst a plethora of acts, Sells’ Circus also presented a troupe of Japanese acrobats and a display of traditional Arab combat.

This paper will examine the multiple influences exerted upon Australian entertainment and popular culture by these and other similar envoys from the American Gilded Age. From its founding as a series of British colonies, Australia always looked first to the United Kingdom for cultural guidance. This paper will argue that the late-19th century American circuses and Wild West Shows contributed a complex legacy to Australian popular culture.