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ANIMAL PERFORMERS

by Catherine Haill, V & A


Victorian theatregoers loved animals on stage. East End theatre managers with theatres large enough to accommodate them were quick to emulate spectacular West End productions with four-legged stars after the craze began in the early 19th century. Horses were the first to hoof the boards, but were soon followed by other animals including dogs, monkeys, rabbits, donkeys, elephants, big cats, horses playing bulls or dragons, dogs playing wolves, and even a monkey-man.

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As late as 1882 the Britannia Theatre produced Mazeppa!, the play first staged as an epic equestrian play or hippodrama at Astley's Circus in 1831. It was a favourite at Whitechapel's Pavilion Theatre from the 1840s to the 1860s, its popularity due to the thrilling scene in which the Tartar boy Mazeppa was strapped naked to the back of an apparently wild horse that galloped up the cliffs. The scandalous American star Adah Isaacs Menken made her name as Mazeppa in New York in 1861, and appeared in the role at the Pavilion in 1868.

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Horses had appeared on the London stage as early as 1668 when Pepys recorded seeing a horse at the King's Theatre. They featured in David Garrick's much-revived Drury Lane production Jubilee in the 18th century, but the development of circus in London in the late 18th century brought with it the innovation of specially written entertainments telling a story, using trained horses to play parts central to the action. The popularity of hippodramas left the managers of Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres little choice but to follow suit. They were not the so-called `legitimate' drama that they jealously reserved the right to produce, but hippodrama filled the seats. Covent Garden's 1811 Blue Beard starring horses from Astley's Circus, was a hugely profitable hit.

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The Standard Theatre in Shoreditch also followed Astley's lead from May 12th to July 12th 1845 when the theatre was converted into an equestrian theatre. As `The New Standard National Cirque Olympique', its removable stage converted into a ring for a season of spectacular hippodramas such as The Conquest of Tartary; or, The Eagle Rider of Circassa, and Her Monarch Steed of the Desert which opened on 12th May. The playbill's glorious woodcut heading features a quartet of cantering horses, while a note under its ticket prices states emphatically: `Half the price of Astley's'.

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Covent Garden's Blue Beard had included a mechanical elephant and wooden camels along with horses, but its 1811 pantomime Harlequin and Padmanaba featured the real elephant Chuny from Cross's menagerie. Chuny also starred in the Adelphi Theatre's 1829 Christmas production The Elephant of Siam, and in 1839 East Enders were treated to a real elephant at the Pavilion Theatre in Cassim & Alzira, or, the Grateful Elephant. This elephant came from the menagerie of Isaac Van Amburgh, the lion trainer whose big cat act entranced Queen Victoria when she first saw him at Drury Lane at Christmas 1838. His elephant was such a draw that when it appeared at the Albert Saloon it was depicted on the playbill.

Canine dramas, with dogs playing a crucial part in the action, were another wildly popular feature of East End theatre. They too had West End roots, in productions at Sadler's Wells and Drury Lane which starred dogs diving into tanks of water on stage and rescuing a heroine from downing. The Pavilion's playbill for the May 1862 production of The Watch Dog, or The Phantom Barque is luxuriously illustrated with woodcuts showing canine prowess in various plays. Both The Pavilion and The Standard found dog dramas lucrative, and frequently credited its canine stars Bruin and Hector. Both names featured in dog dramas in London and the provinces from the 1820s onwards, probably indicating the re-use of marketable names rather than remarkable canine longevity.


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Search Terms

Subject Terms: Dogs,Horses,Elephants,Monkeys,Equestrian drama,Horsemanship,Circus,
Name Terms: Mazepa, Ivan Stepanovych, 1639-1709,Timur, 1336-1405,
Keyword Terms: Hector (Dog),Bruin (Dog),Carlo (Dog),Victor (Dog),Nero (Dog),

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