Acrobatic Movement

John Durang as an acrobatic Harlequin. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

John Durang as an acrobatic Harlequin. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

Since Durang’s theatrical fascination as a boy was first sparked by watching players at York’s fairs, it is no surprise that rope-dancing was a skill he pursued throughout his life.

Performing on the rope. Courtesy of Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania

Durang often featured his rope dancing when he managed his own productions, as in summer 1791 at Philadelphia’s Vauxhall Gardens, where he played music, handled firearms, danced, and tumbled on the wire.

Alexander Placide. Portrait Prints (Placide, Alexandre), Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Alexander Placide. Portrait Prints (Placide, Alexandre), Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

The refined artists of Alexander Placide’s troupe, who played American theatres in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, surely raised the critical expectations of American audiences for rope-dancing and acrobatics. Since Durang worked with Placide and troupe when they played with the Old American Company, he surely learned from their tricks and elegant presentation.

Rope-dancer, Philadelphia (1806), included in Charles Durang’s History of the Philadelphia Stage between the Years 1749 and 1855.  Courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Above and below: Ropedancers, early 19th century. Courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Dunlaps7June1792

M. Placide's rope-dancing advertised. Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, 7 June 1792

On the wire, Placide did hat tricks, handled glasses of wine or water, danced with children tied to his feet or balanced on his shoulders, and even ate a meal seated on a chair at a table balanced as precariously as he was. Madame Placide was also a skilled rope-dancer.

Madame Placide on the rope. Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, 20 June 1792

Madame Placide on the rope. Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, 20 June 1792

Durang’s favorite trick at his own benefits was connected with his rope-dancing: flying “from the gallary to the back part of the stage thro’ a bust of firework,” a flashy number, no doubt! This trick, which he perfected while working with Ricketts, was but one of his many physical roles with the circus. He also played the Clown, who had some hilarious (and difficult) equestrian tricks, such as Billy Button, or the Tailor’s Ride to Brentford (or to New York in American shows). This popular skit, first played by circus genius Philip Astley, parodied the physical bungling supposedly typical of army tailors.

John Durang "flying" across the stage.  Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

John Durang "flying" across the stage. Puppet by Robert Brock, courtesy of the Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre

Ricketts' acts. Popular Entertainment, Circus Bills and Broadsides, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Ricketts' acts. Popular Entertainment, Circus Bills and Broadsides, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Ricketts, who had performed with Charles Hughes, Astley’s protégé, continued a long tradition of theatrical horsemanship in the circus, including such feats as riding four horses at once; balancing on one’s head on horseback; leaping repeatedly (forty times!) over a horse as it circled the ring, or leaping from the running horse over barriers; playing a dramatic character while riding; dancing a jig standing on the saddle; juggling; and carrying a boy on one’s shoulders in an attitude known as the Flying Mercury — a pose that John Durang had assumed as a boy performing for the printers’ float in the celebration of the Constitution’s adoption by the United States.