Theater der Zeit

Circus, theatre and the question of categories

On the tradition of differentiation between circus and theatre and its impact to this day

von Mirjam Hildbrand

Erschienen in: Arbeitsbuch 2022: Circus in flux – Zeitgenössischer Zirkus (07/2022)

Assoziationen: Zirkus



From around 1820 up to the 1910s, the circus was extremely successful in Germany. At that time, the major circus companies performed in imposing wooden constructions or in grandiose buildings in city centres rather than in tents. With 3,000 to 5,000 seats, these venues had significantly higher capacities than most playhouses and operas. And the circus performance itself didn’t consist solely of a programme of acts – pantomime was also particularly popular. Circus pantomimes were lavishly designed productions which combined acrobatics, equestrianism and clowning with ballet, music and acting, all around a central theme. These theatre-like productions attracted a large and socially mixed audience. Through both their performance practice and their success, circuses were perceived as threatening competitors by representatives of the bourgeois dramatic theatre, as well as the opera. For this reason, circus performances have been consistently dismissed as so-called “low” or non-art, and even disparaged as detrimental to art, morals and taste, and have also faced legal discrimination as well as prosecution. The theatre associations, including the German actors union GDBA and the German Stage Association (DBV), which exist to this day, succeeded in deploying political advocates to influence both the federal trade regulation covering the theatre legislation as well as the corresponding decrees of the states and tax regulations. Around 1900, legal regulations were increasingly tightened to the detriment of the circus and other distinctly physical, musical and visual forms of theatre. These legal texts ­reflected a hierarchical categorisation and linguistic differentiation of various forms of theatre – the “divisions” or genres of the performing arts.

Once so successful, the major circus companies have disappeared almost without trace in the German-speaking world, along with their magnificent venues and elaborate productions. And it is difficult to imagine now that the drama and opera representatives once felt threatened by the success of the circus. In German-speaking Europe, the circus is today associated with clichés and negative prejudices.1 In contrast to what we generally understand by the term “theatre”, the circus is not considered art, at most as “low” art or pejoratively connoted as entertainment and commerce. In the 19th century, however, every theatre form had commercial status. Only the royal playhouses, funded from princely coffers, were non-commercial operations. So unions such as the DBV and the GDBA endeavoured to legitimise the literary conception of the drama as a form of theatrical art worthy of financial support. They sought to elevate it from the abhorred status of “commercial theatre” to “cultural theatre” – in part by devaluing other forms of theatre such as the circus. This lobbying succeeded, resulting in the entry of the bourgeois drama-based theatre into “high culture” around 1918/1919 as a publicly subsidised educational and cultural institution. The unique German city and state theatre system was established, while circus remained commercial.2

The divisional thinking that was consolidated around 1900 and the corresponding conception of public funding characterise cultural policies to this day – at least in German-speaking countries. Theatrical productions, including those in what is known as the independent scene, are still only deemed worthy of support if they fulfil an educational mandate – because they are considered to be thematically or socially relevant. The circus is rarely considered as such, and to date circus productions have been excluded from cultural funding in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The situation in France is different. There the cultural policy perspective on the circus changed in the late 1970s in the context of debates around cultural heritage and discussions about expanding the concept of culture. In 1978, for example, responsibility for the circus was reassigned from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of Culture. Reflecting this development, various funding measures were launched around 1980 onwards and state circus schools were established. This resulted in the creation of a number of internationally renowned circus festivals, and circus productions are no longer alien to the programmes of theatre venues and festivals.

For a little over a decade, the “new” or “contemporary” circus has been experiencing boost and resonance in the German-speaking world. Artists from this field have founded festivals as well as training and performance venues, joined together to form initiatives and associations, and begun to fight for symbolic as well as financial recognition for their work at the political level. In some states and cantons, contemporary circus productions are now considered for funding under certain conditions. However, there is a recognisable pattern to legitimisation of funding for circus arts: interest groups that represent independent circus artists now subscribe to the revaluation discourse based on a traditional understanding of art and thus – consciously or unconsciously – at the same time they are devaluing the so-called “traditional” or “classic” circus. And in terms of lobbying within the framework of the current cultural policies, the contemporary circus is inevitably consolidated as a separate division of the performing arts. From a historical perspective this seems paradoxical, because circus practice has always been hybrid, as it has always been characterised by a combination of different arts. Today, the circus would actually be in a position to stimulate discussion that questions the divisional thinking and thus provide impetus for pioneering innovations in the performing arts field in general.

1 See Birgit Peter: “Taste and Prejudice. Circus as an Art Form”, in Kunsthalle Wien (ed.): The circus as a parallel universe, Vienna and Nuremberg 2012, pp. 85 – 98.

2 Further remarks on the subject: Mirjam Hildbrand: “Theaterlobby gegen Zirkusunternehmen. Über die Aufwertung des ,Theaters‘ auf Kosten der zirzensischen Künste” (Theatre lobby versus circus companies: On the revaluation of “theatre” at the expense of circus arts), in: Forum Modernes Theater, 30th (2019), year 1+2, pp. 19 – 33.



Neuerscheinungen im Verlag

Charly Hübner Buch backstage
Cover XYZ Jahrbuch 2023
Recherchen 162 "WAR SCHÖN. KANN WEG …"
"Scène 23"
"Zwischen Zwingli und Zukunft"
Recherchen 165 "#CoronaTheater"
"Die Passion hinter dem Spiel"
Arbeitsbuch 31 "Circus in flux"
"Passion Play Oberammergau 2022"
Recherchen 163 "Der Faden der Ariadne und das Netz von Mahagonny  im Spiegel von Mythos und Religion"
Passionsspiele Oberammergau 2022
"Theater der Vereinnahmung"
Recherchen 156 "Ästhetiken der Intervention"
"Pledge and Play"