Animals

A Persian at the Court of King George

Source: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan (ed./trans. Margaret Morris Cloake), A Persian at the Court of King George: The Journal of Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, 1809-10 (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1988), p. 232

Text: 14 May [1810]

My friends told me about a theatre on the outskirts of London called ‘Astley’s Amphitheatre’, which opens in the spring, and where one can watch horses dancing. I went there with Sir Gore Ouseley. The theatre is somewhat smaller than the others I have seen and described in this journal.

I will describe the performance of one of the nimble riders who stood on a horse’s back, without holding the reins, while the horse continued to run around the circular arena. Sometimes he jumped down to the ground and back up again; sometimes he stood on one foot, or lay down, or stood on his head with his legs in the air; sometimes he would vault himself from one side of the horse to the other; or, grasping the horse’s body with his legs, he would hang underneath with his hands trailing on the ground. Then a second horse was brought in to run alongside the first. The rider jumped back and forth from one horse to the other, dancing and clapping his hands. A third horse was added and he continued dancing. Most amazing of all was his feat of jumping from one side to the other over all three horses!

The owner of the theatre was a friendly man; he explained to me how the horses are trained to perform these tricks. My Iranian servants were amazed and astonished by what they had seen.

As we left the theatre, I told Sir Gore Ouseley I thought the horses performed so well that it should be called the ‘Horse Opera’.

Comments: Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, or Mirza Abolhassan Khan Ilchi (1776-1845) was an Iranian ambassador who headed a diplomatic mission to Great Britain in 1809-1810. Astley’s Amphitheatre was originally a circus (opened 1770), but later put on pantomimes and other such entertainments. It was located by Westminster Bridge and had burned down twice before it became famous in the 1800s for its equestrian spectaculars, such as seen by Mirza Abul Hassan Khan.

Monkey Theater

Source: Walter Benjamin (trans. Howard Eiland), ‘Monkey Theater’ in Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Cambridge, Mass./London: The Belknap Press of Hadvard University Pres, 2006), pp. 142-143

Text: “Monkey Theater” – to the adult ear, this name has something grotesque about it. Such was not the case when I first heard it. I was still quite young. That monkeys must have looked rather strange onstage was a consideration wholly overshadowed by this strangest of all things: the stage itself. The word “theater” pierced me through the heart like a trumpet blast. My imagination took off. But the trail it pursued was not that which led behind the scenes and which later guided the boy: rather, my imagination sought the trace of those clever, happy souls who had obtained permission from their parents to spend an afternoon in the theater. The entry led through a gap in time – that uncovered niche in the day which was the afternoon, and which already breathed an odor of the lamp and of bedtime. On entered not in order to feast one’s eyes on William Tell or Sleeping Beauty – at least, not only for this reason. There was a higher goal: to occupy a seat in the theater, among all the other people who were there. I did not know what awaited me, but looking on as a spectator certainly seemed to me only part of – indeed, the prelude to – a far more significant activity, one that I would engage in along with everyone else there. What sort of activity it was supposed to be I did not know. Assuredly it concerned the monkeys just as much as it would the most experienced theatrical troupe. And the distance separating monkey from man was no greater than that separating man from actor.

Comments: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German philosopher, essayist and cultural commentator. His idiosyncratic memoir of observational pieces on his Berlin childhood was not published in collected form in his lifetime, and not until 1989 in a form that most closely matches the author’s intentions.

Travels in England During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth

Source: Sir Robert Naunton, Travels in England During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth by Paul Hentzner. With Fragmenta Regalia; Or, Observations on Queen Elizabeth’s Times and Favourites (London: Cassell, 1892). Originally published in 1612 as Itinerarium Germaniae, Galliae, Angliae, Italiae, cum Indice Locorum, Rerum atque Verborum.

Text: Without the city are some theatres, where English actors represent almost every day tragedies and comedies to a very numerous audiences; these are concluded with excellent music, variety of dances, and the excessive applause of those that are present.

Not far from one of these theatres, which are all built of wood, lies the royal barge, close to the river. It has two splendid cabins, beautifully ornamented with glass windows, painting, and gilding; it is kept upon dry ground, and sheltered from the weather.

There is still another place, built in the form of a theatre, which serves for the baiting of bulls and bears; they are fastened behind, and then worried by great English bull-dogs, but not without great risk to the dogs, from the horns of the one and the teeth of the other; and it sometimes happens that they are killed upon the spot; fresh ones are immediately supplied in the places of those that are wounded or tired. To this entertainment there often follows that of whipping a blinded bear, which is performed by five or six men, standing circularly with whips, which they exercise upon him without any mercy, as he cannot escape from them because of his chain; he defends himself with all his force and skill, throwing down all who come within his reach and are not active enough to get out of it, and tearing the whips out of their hands and breaking them. At these spectacles, and everywhere else, the English are constantly smoking tobacco; and in this manner—they have pipes on purpose made of clay, into the farther end of which they put the herb, so dry that it may be rubbed into powder, and putting fire to it, they draw the smoke into their mouths, which they puff out again through their nostrils like funnels, along with it plenty of phlegm and defluxion from the head. In these theatres, fruits, such as apples, pears, and nuts, according to the season, are carried about to be sold, as well as ale and wine.

Comments: Paul Hentzner (1558-1823) was a German lawyer and tutor to a Silesian nobleman, Christoph Rehdiger, whom he accompanied of a tour of Switzerland, France and England, 1596-1599. His account of his travels was published in Latin in 1612. His sight of the London theatres dates from September 1598.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

Queen Victoria’s Journals

‘Van Amburgh in the Wild Cat Cage’, London Art Journal (1879), via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Alexandrina Victoria, journal entry for 24 January 1839

Text: At 10 I went with Lady Breadalbane (who came after dinner) and Miss Murray (in my carriage), Lehzen, Lord Conyngham, Lord Lilford, Lord Alfred, and Sir Robert Otway (in the others) to Drury Lane. We came in about 20 minutes before the Lions come on. Van Amburgh surpassed even himself, and was miraculous; he stayed a much longer time than usual in the 1st cage, and all the animals, were much more lively than usual, in the 2nd cage, as usual, the little lamb was brought in, while he was reclining on the lion’s body and head, and put before the Lion’s nose, which he, as usual, bore with indifference; when one of the Leopards, the smallest of all the animals, and a sneaking little thing, came, seized the lamb, and ran off with it; all the others, except the lion, and all those in the other cage making a rush to help in the slaughter, it was an awful moment, and we thought all was over, when Van Amburgh rushed to the Leopard, tore the lamb, unhurt, from the Leopard, which he beat severely,- took the lamb in his arms,- only looked at all the others, and not one moved, though in the act of devouring the lamb. It was beautiful and wonderful; and he was immensely applauded; he held the lamb for a few minutes in his arms; and then sent it out of the cage, but remained himself some little time in the cage, making these animals obey just as usual. After the Pantomime was over, we waited in a little ante-room till everybody was gone, and the house quite cleared, and then we all went down on the Stage, which was walled in by Scenery; and the cages with the animals again brought on; there they were, and most beautiful beasts they are, so sleek, so well-conditioned – and so wild – that really Van Amburgh’s power seems little short of a miracle. They had not been fed since early the preceding day, and consequently were wilder than usual; Van Amburgh, who was in plain clothes, is a tall, but not very powerful looking man; young, very modest, quiet and unassuming; with a mild expression, a receding forehead, and very peculiar eyes, which don’t exactly squint, but have a cast in them. I asked him if that had ever happened before with the lamb; he replied: “Sometimes it does; it did the first time I took one in”; but the lamb was unhurt; they then fed them, and they roared, and fought with one another terrifically; but it was very fine. I didn’t allow Van Amburgh to go into the cages, but he went up to them, and stroked them and they obeyed him wonderfully; he told Lord Conyngham that they were all full grown, but two, when he first had them; the large lion in the furthest cage is the fiercest, he says; and the weight of the leopard, which he carries on his head and shoulders, and makes perform every sort of beautiful trick, is 14 stone. He scarcely ever uses an iron bar to them, but only a stick made of Rhinoceros hide, which he showed us. We came home at ½ p.12 …

Comments: Alexandrina Victoria (1819-1901), later just Victoria, was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to her death, and additionally titled Empress of India from 1876. She kept up a journal from 1832 until almost the end of her life. The journal records many visits to the theatre, particularly in her younger days. She was particularly fond of the animal shows of the American trainer Isaac A. Van Amburgh (1811-1865), who was renowned for acts such as putting his head inside a lion’s jaws, but also notorious for the mistreatment of the animals in his menagerie. This occasion was the third occasions on which she had seen Van Amburgh’s act, which a regular part of the Drury Lane programme at this time.

Links: Queen Victoria’s Journals