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Theatre History Podcast #51

Death-Defying Acts with Amy Meyer



Would you watch a pregnant woman attempt to walk a tightrope without a safety net? Many people in London decided to do just that in 1863, and their curiosity turned to horror when the tightrope walker, Selina Powell, fell to her death. The accident prompted an outcry that even drew in Queen Victoria herself.

Amy Meyer joins us this week to talk about accidents like the one that befell Powell. What drew audiences to such a risky spectacle? What did society make of woman performing such dangerous acts? The answers she’s found point to our own appetite for risk and danger—almost always at someone else’s expense—in our own favorite entertainments.

Illustrated poster of Lilian Leitzel
Poster advertising Lillian Leitzel's act, 1921. Via the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art.


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Michael Lueger: The Theatre History Podcast is supported by HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community. It's available on iTunes and HowlRound.com. Hi and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. Part of the thrill of watching acrobats and circus performers lies in our awareness that what they're doing can be dangerous. However, we'd be horrified by the possibility of any sort of accident, especially a fatal one. As today's guest reveals, that wasn't always the case. Amy Meyer is a doctoral candidate at Tufts University and an expert in circus history and performance who teachers at Boston College.

In addition to her scholarly work, she's an actor who's been a member of the award-winning Boston area troop Imaginary Beasts. Amy, thank you so much for joining us.

Amy Meyer: Thank you so much for having me. I'm always thrilled to talk about the circus.

Michael: When we started talking about this subject, you gave me a former conference presentation of yours as background reading for the topic. I have to say it begins with one of the most horrifying, jaw-dropping anecdotes that I've ever encountered in a conference paper. Can you tell us the story of Selina Powell?

Amy: Yes, I'd be happy to. I started my conference paper with this anecdote because it is so jaw-dropping and horrifying. It takes place in July of 1863 in Birmingham, England. Selina Powell was high wire walker. This July she stepped out on her rope in front of thousands of spectators. There was no net below as was accustomed for the time. To add interest and intrigue to the act, she was shackled, blindfolded and she had a bag over head so she could not see. Unfortunately, the rope broke and Powell plummeted to her death. It sparked an outcry that lasted for the next three decades partially because she wasn't just a woman on her own walking the wire, but she was eight months pregnant at the time, so very visibly pregnant.

Her death also caused the death of her child. There was an exceptional public reaction to this. Spectators had originally been willing to watch her bound up, shackled, balancing perilously high above their heads. The danger of the act was eminently clear. I mean there was no net and that was part of the appeal of the act, but as soon as she fell, it became no longer okay. Nets had been scorned because they took away from the perception of risk, but as soon as she fell, the risk was gruesomely visible to spectators. In reaction to Powell's death, critics campaigned for legislation outlawing such dangerous performances in England. They complained to the Lord Chamberlain's Office about the unrefined nature of the spectacle.

Local publications would print morbid illustrations pleading female aerialists to stop performing, picturing them as skeletons. This was really focused on women because women were seen as weaker, less capable, more fragile. Seeing a woman high up in the air was seen as particular risky, particularly dangerous. This was such as big deal that even Queen Victoria at the time, she wrote an open letter to the letter of mayor of Birmingham expressing her horror, "that one of her subjects should have been sacrificed to the gratification of such demoralizing taste," she wrote. She also campaigned for this kind of legislation against dangerous performances.

This anecdote when I first read about it brought up a lot of questions for me about risk in these types of performances because of course, when I think of the circus, I think of risk as part of the appeal of people doing these incredible things that most humans can't do and taking physical risks while doing them. I thought it seemed so evident to me that of course it was an extremely risky act. I mean that was part of why there was no net. It was part of why she had a bag over her head and was shackled. Why were spectators willing to go watch that at first and yet then when they see it fail, when they see her fall and ultimately die, why does that become totally unacceptable?

Where is the line between a risk that an audience would accept and a risk that an audience wouldn't accept? That was the basis of this paper and my larger project. I come to this conclusion that it has something to do with the gruesome realities of injury and death being made visible to people. As I look back across the history, I see that oftentimes when aerialists suffer falls, that's hidden. That's made invisible to audiences. When the consequences of risk seem particularly violent and visible, we may be less okay with it, but otherwise, we're super interested in risk. Especially at this time in the nineteenth century, people really thought of risk very differently than we think about it today.

In a book, in a really wonderful book that I recommend to everyone called A Reckless Era of Aerial Performance: The Evolution of Trapeze written by historian Steve Gossard, he talks about this era from the mid-nineteenth century onto the twentieth century, the earlier twentieth century, as an era of reckless innovation in circus performance. He calls the history of trapeze at this time a history of death because there were so many performers getting injured, dying from pushing the boundaries of the possible, from trying to figure out how they could go higher, risk more, do greater things in the air.

In his view, it's an age of daring and it's really different than our time because humans at this time were exploring further into uncharted regions of the earth, traveling faster in steam engines, traveling in the air in airplanes. There was tons of economic growth at the time. Many Westerners had more money, more leisure time. Really it was this era where there was a feeling that everything was possible. That if you kept pushing boundaries, you would reap great rewards. Americans I think at the turn of the century and Europeans, Westerners felt that they could be more reckless. They didn't yet live in our world where we're afraid of invisible toxins, disease, the threat of nuclear warfare.

None of that was there yet. They perceived risk differently. Of course, with capitalism to achieve wealth and success, you have to take risks in your careers and your investments. Risk big, win big. It comes out of this time where risk is really beneficial, risk is really something that people are seeking out.

Michael: You talk about something called a thrill act. From what you've just said, that sounds like part of the explanation for why these things were so popular. Could you explain a little bit more broadly what a thrill act was?

Amy: Sure. Thrill acts, which as you said became extremely popular in this area, were basically dangerous and spectacular feats that often left safety measures completely behind. They were really popular in these later years of the nineteenth century. I like to describe them as acts that take circus skills and stage them for millions at a time, hundreds at a time. They're on a larger scale and they're more risky and they still happen today. Things like Nik Wallenda doing a wire walk over the Grand Canyon for example or between two towers of skyscrapers in Chicago. I think the history of these acts is so fascinating because when the modern circus begins, acrobatics were not about being daring and risky and defying death.

They were about exhibiting strength and skill. Acrobats were billed as talented folks that could display exercises. They were meant to impress audiences with knowledge and physical talent rather than daring. That's how it starts. Trapeze when it first started was a low stationary bar. There was no swinging back and forth. Performers simply hung from it and executed various exercises of strength and agility. Then the flying trapeze was invented. There's some debate about this, but we credit its invention to a Frenchman named Jules Léotard. He first performed this feat at the Cirque Napoleon in Paris in 1859. From there, it got a huge reaction. People loved it and from there it spread rapidly. Things started to get increasingly higher and bigger.

Balancing acts rather than being on the ground started to be performed high above the ground. No nets were used and that was something that would be advertised. You could go see an act where there was no visible safety measure for the performer. The trapeze moved from something that you hung from and did feats of strength to something that you balanced on your head while swinging eighty feet above the ground. You can see too in advertising of the time. Acts start to be advertised explicitly as dangerous and daring. Advertisement's saying things like, "Try it and you might break your neck." Advertising acts as dreadful or stomach churning. Naming performers as things like The Man With the Iron Neck or The Lovers of Death.

Clearly that's the appeal at this time and that's what they wanted audiences to come and see. Performers were really innovating what they could do and going along with this trend. Things like an incredibly I think stunning and also seemingly incredibly dangerous act, I've certainly never tried it, is a swinging trapeze act where the performer sits on the trapeze swinging back and forth high above the ground and then tips forward and catches the trapeze bar by the backs of her ankles or drops to heels as well. These feats of daring where so easily you could slip and fall and often with no net below. Also, acts like iron jaw acts at the time were developed. That's where a performer holds either their own weight or a heavy object with the strength of their jaw.

They have a mouthpiece that gets inserted. They clench down on the clasp and then they either are hanging from that clasp and they're pulled high above the ground or potentially they're hanging upside down from a trapeze and they're holding a heavyweight, something large and metal like a cannon or the weight of several men just from the strength of their jaw. It's very clear at this time that performers are interested in continuing to innovate acts in this way to make them seem more daring. I think some of the most stunning to me and my favorite to talk about were balloon ascension acts, which were really popular in the last few decades of the nineteenth century.

These are acts in which a trapeze artist would perform on a trapeze bar suspended below a hot air balloon at incredible heights. Sometimes over a thousand feet in the air. Just a bit of history for you, the hot air balloon was invented in 1783. At the time, this was a really new invention and it was exciting for people. Early experiments with the balloon involved sending animals up first. Before they even sent people up, they would send dogs or sheep up in the air, launch them and then see if they were okay when they came back down. When that worked for a while, then human started going up and then we moved on to eventually having trapeze performers dangling from below the basket.

At this time, there were numbers of falls and deaths that resulted in these acts. Beginning in 1871, Steve Gossard in his history kind of goes through and describes them all. A performer fell from his trapeze into the Ohio Canal and died. A performer the following year fell fifty feet to his death. There's numbers of them over and over again. A performer fell 1,500 feet when his balloon collapsed over the Southend Pavilion in Chicago. I should note also that most of these balloon ascension aerialists were men, but women did perform the stunt as well and also fell and died from doing it.

I think the prominence of these acts in the 1870s and the 1880s despite these numerous deaths and injuries I think is a remarkable demonstration of spectator's desire to see incredibly dangerous, risky performances. Their desire to seek out risks and then again you have to ask well, where does the line fall? When does that become not okay? When I read about these things, I always ask myself the question, would I want to go see that act? I think it's really revealing. I mean we have to imagine. We can't see these acts anymore, but your answer is really revealing. I mean part of me really wants to see it and part of me thinks I would never want to see that happen live because what if that performer fell and died in front of me.

These acts sort of faded out towards the turn of the century, but they didn't disappear completely. In 1933, a daredevil performer named Tiny Kline did aerial aerobatics suspended from a blimp over Atlantic City that was 1,500 feet in the air. She survived. She was okay. She did lots of risky things like that. As I mentioned before, there's Nik Wallenda who does...The Wallenda's family policy is that they perform on a high wire with no nets, no safety devices. For them that's because they feel it's actually safer to not have a backup so that you have to be good enough, that you can't depend on something else, that you just won't fall. He'll do things like walk across the Grand Canyon with no safety measures.

If he falls, he's falling into the Grand Canyon or walked between two skyscrapers in Chicago, walk across Niagara Falls. If any of you have watched those, I remember vividly watching his walk across the Grand Canyon a few years ago. It took over twenty minutes for him to cross the whole thing and I barely breathed the whole time. I was just watching on TV. It's quite a thing to behold I think.

Michael: Now you mentioned some of these acts including the iron jaw and I gather that in the first half of the twentieth century, there were a number of women who performed acts like this who had major accidents. What I think is particularly interesting is that these accidents actually got incorporated into the marketing for these kinds of acts. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and about some of the women whose accidents then became these matters of public interest?

Amy: Yes. One of the most famous of these performers was a woman named Lilian Leitzel who was a headlining aerialist in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and kind of at the height of her fame in the 1920s. Her act along with others at the time were just as you described, advertised as particularly dangerous and risky. Aerialism was described at that time as a danger fraught art and acts that she would do were called perilous, death-defying, daring, valiant, or performers were advertised as directly challenging death or dodging death or even laughing in the face of death. I should emphasize too that I can't speculate on what Lilian might have wanted, but these are people advertising her acts for her.

She didn't necessarily feel that way about her own act. In fact, these performers were incredibly skilled and performed for decades doing these things without any accidents, but of course, when you're performing high in the air, you can't control everything. Oftentimes what happens is that equipment malfunctions. That's what happened to her. Lilian Leitzel was particularly famous for an act that she called a one-armed plange on rings. Rings like you would see in rings in gymnastics and the Olympics today, but high above the ground. Her act involved hanging just from one arm from the rings and she was incredibly strong. She would draw her body up and over her shoulder and do a sort of 360 degree rotation and then fall back vertical again.

She would do this big essentially giant arm circle by lifting the weight of her body over and falling. She would do these after having just performed an eight minute aerial routine and then she would do a series of these one-armed planges, flipping her body over and over with no net. Usually something like sixty to one hundreed times in a row. Once as many as 249 times. These were meant to be a demonstration of incredible physical prowess, but also daring endurance after having just performed. The point was to see how many she could do. This was a very popular act and it unfortunately led to her death in February of 1931. She was performing on rings at the Valencia Music Hall Gardens in Copenhagen.

As she began her planges, the brass swivel that held the rings that was part of the rigging crystallized from the heat of the friction of the turning over and over and it snapped. She fell almost thirty feet to the ground and landed on her head and shoulders and her rigger was below, but couldn't reach her in time. Even so, I can't necessarily imagine that he could have saved her. There was no net. She died in the hospital two days after the accident. What I find really fascinating about her story is how the accident was then subsequently reported and how the public reacted to it because she was an international circus star. Everyone knew and loved her.

She was particularly adored for having just married another international star Alfredo Codona after a very public courtship. He was a trapeze artist. She was really a beloved figure, beloved celebrity. In the days after her death, The New York Times wrote a series of articles kind of reporting on her condition, but always sort of with this optimism that she would recover and also with this sort of romantic story behind about how her new husband had flown to her bedside. Left his act and flown to her bedside to be with her, but she did unfortunately die from her injuries. Her obituary the following the day didn't contain any description of her injuries and it sort of started to make her death into this kind of tragic love story.

She took a sudden turn for the worst and she died just an hour after her husband left in the morning. These kinds of things I found in a lot of research I've done into historical acts against how they're reported that there's no reporting of the realities of the injuries. I think Lilian Leitzel is also an interesting case because the way that she was written about in the years after her death also show this remarkable sort of rewriting of history so that she becomes not just this impressive, strong, beautiful circus star, but an indestructible woman who defies pain and who perseveres beyond all pain.

There's a really fascinating article in a magazine called The Literary Digest that tells this possibly entirely fictionalized story of an audition that she had for a theatrical booking agent in 1913, during which apparently she fell and injured her legs so badly that she had to crawl from the stage afterward. The following night she struggles to the theatre on crutches and is carried on stage and she proceeds to perform in spite of her pain and suffering. The article says things like her pain ridden legs stretched prettily outward in their silk and tights. Her hands extended gracefully.

It's really wrapped up with this idea of her triumphing over this pain, persevering, but at the end of this article kind of negates all of this because it then goes on to tell another clearly fictionalized anecdote of a surgeon, one of her doctors, telling her that she has to switch arms for her plunging act because her shoulder is infected and so can't keep doing the one-armed planges on that side. Leitzel is quoted as replying to the physician and saying that she won't do that. She won't switch arms because she wants to keep her left arm unscathed and pretty. She says, "After all, doctor, I am a woman." It's this incredible acknowledgment of pain, but then total erasure of that pain.

That she ends up just being this beautiful, admired, idolized star who can kind of rise above the pain and does it all for the beauty of the act.

Michael: Not all of these accidents were fatal. I know you've also written about Fritzi Bartoni and Friede DeMarlo two acrobats who had major accidents, but then survived them. Once again, the story that gets reported says some very interesting things about how people think about these women and about the risks involved with what they do for a living. Can you tell us more about that?

Amy: Yes. Friede DeMarlo was an aerial contortionist and she did this incredible act in also the 1920s. She was another headliner like Leitzel for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She invented this "death-defying" feature act for Ringling that was a variation of an iron jaw act. An act in which the performer is holding on by the strength of their jaw. It was nicknamed The Whirl of Death, this act. She would hang by her teeth and she was very flexible. She was a contortionist, so she would also bend both legs behind her neck. Then in this position, hanging by her teeth, she would be raised over fifty feet in the air and then an electric motor would spin her rapidly for over two minutes.

A poster advertising her act emphasized the risk and said that she was spun at a thousand revolutions per minute. Obviously an incredible feat to witness with actually some danger that you might not think about because the greatest danger was actually the end of her act when the motor was shut off and she had to have the strength and stamina and timing to be able to hold herself in that position because if her spinning came to an end too abruptly, the mouthpiece could be wrenched from her grip and she would fall. She lived. She lived, but she did suffer an accident while performing this act in 1927 in London. The electricity gave out during one of her performances while she was spinning.

The jolt came unexpectedly and it wrenched the apparatus from her grip and she fell and remarkably survived. Again looking at reporting of the accident, it's really interesting to see how the news sensationalized the fear caused by her fall. It really wasn't about her injuries at all. In fact, there's very little reporting on what actually happened to her, but they report things like her fall caused women in the audience to scream in panic and women to faint and stampedes to hurry out. It's kind of all about the spectacle of watching. It's all about the spectators and how they react to this incredible risk and then this moment of failure, which ends up okay because she's injured, but doesn't die.

If you do a little bit more digging, I found out that in reality DeMarlo's spine was bruised. Her ankle was broken. Her upper teeth were pulled so loose that they moved back and forth from the force of gripping the mouth piece. I mean those things are pretty horrifying, but most people didn't know that. These injuries were not reported. The focus remains entirely on the thrill of the incident of watching someone do this risky act, watching someone fail at it, but still be okay. There's really no need for anyone to face the realities of her injuries. Fritzi Bartoni, another headliner, another female aerialist headlining at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey suffered a similar sort of fall that wasn't fatal, but that injured her quite badly.

She did a swinging trapeze act that involves a move that still astounds me when I think about it in which she pitched forward off the bar in a free fall and caught the trapeze with the backs of her heels. If you reach down and touch the back of your heel, you can tell there's not a lot of surface area there to catch a trapeze bar, but she would do this and she would do it without any safety device, so no nets or anything. Unfortunately in the midst of attempting this heel catch, she slipped and fell at one point and survived, but suffered leg fractures in multiple places, broken ribs, a bruised spine, a punctured leg.

Really bad injuries, but when you look at the reporting again surrounding this accident, The Boston Post reported that nets were erected for the remaining aerial acts that same evening. Spectators no longer wanted to see acts with that much risk after witnessing that fall, but tellingly I think it was quickly announced that nets would not be used for the rest of the performances that week. That just that night apparently audience members were feeling extra sensitive and wanted the nets, but after that, don't worry, you can still go see these acts with this tremendous amount of risk. Like the others, there's really no description of Bartoni's injuries when you read about her fall.

When you read later, there's another article in The Boston Post that does an interview with her and asks her about her accident and she says, "I felt nothing at all. I heard the music. I saw the crowds, but I felt nothing at all." A White Tops article, White Tops is a circus periodical publication, talks about her as this performer with just sheer willpower and ability to sort of again transcend or rise above any sense of pain. It says she had a refusal to be crippled and a good nature, which is contagious as can be. That she sort of just willed herself into recovery. It says, "The thing that made the deepest impression on us is the way that she has fought and continues to fight her battle."

It ends by reassuring us that Bartoni will be ready to start flying again the moment the hospital releases her, that she wasn't brought down by this accident, that she'll still go back and keep risking. Stories like these are pretty typical and if we think back to Lilian Leitzel again, even a story that ends in this tragic death didn't change public attitudes far from tempering people's desire for this kind of danger. The hype surrounding her death I think actually created a greater desire to see these death-defying acts. Because for decades after her death, other female aerialists would copy her act. Took up her act and would continue to do it and audiences would flock to see them.

Only seven years after her death and a US aerialist, an American aerialist, had already set a new record for one-armed planges. Like Leitzel, using no net. Again from all of this, I ask these questions like where does the line lie between risk that we're willing to accept and risk that we're not. I come back to this idea that if we're not forced to see or face the consequences, the very violent consequences of injury or death, that it's okay. That we're willing to accept the risk because then it can just be this narrative of pushing boundaries, of testing possibilities, of human's ability to keep reaching for greater and greater things and succeeding and reaping these tremendous rewards, which I think we still experience today at the circus.

I mean it's an incredible experience. I always think of circus performance as this kind of shared experience between the audience and the performers in which we're all risking together. We're sort of living vicariously through those acts, through those feats.

Michael: Okay. It sounds like these horrible accidents didn't really lead to any demand for new safety rules or anything like that. Was there ever any sort of attempt to place new restrictions on what performers could or could not do? Things that might be really dangerous, could kill them?

Amy: Yes. After Selina Powell's death, there was this huge campaign, public campaign, for safety regulation. Critics called for legislation to restrict dangerous performances like this, so that something like that could never happen again, but nothing happened right away. In fact, it wasn't until 1879, which was sixteen years after her fall, that the Dangerous Performances Act finally passed in the British Parliament. It wasn't easy legislation to pass and I think it's really telling that the risk of these performances was attractive enough to both spectators and performers to postpone the passing of this bill for almost two decades.

In America, there were similar sort of explosions of moral outrage at the danger of things like the flying trapeze, but there was also a sort of reluctance potentially to pass any real laws about it. In America, fifty years passed before safely laws started to be passed about these kinds of performances. You can read articles from the early twentieth century where you see people expressing real anxiety over the possibility that the government might extend these regulations to prohibit all dangerous performances because again where is the line, what can be considered okay and what can't be.

Thinking about today in much more contemporary times, legislation exists, but a lot of it is unclear and a lot of it is less regimented and laid out than even I think rigging in theatrical situations like in the big musical Spider-Man. There was all that controversy about the actors flying and then getting injured. In the circus it's really tricky because constantly new acts are being innovated, so you can't just say, "This one type of act is not okay," and because risk is a part of it. That's part of the appeal. For example, if we're thinking locally, the City of Boston has declared special permits are required to do "circus stunts" in the city. What does that mean? No one has a clear understanding of what is a circus stunt.

It presents a lot of wiggle room I think honestly as it should because of course the people that are making and passing these laws are not the actual performers and artists themselves. Boston is just one example. Plenty of other cities and towns has some ordinances in the books that try to legislate the safety of these acts and place some restrictions on them, but it's been tricky. OSHA, the workplace safety organization, will sometimes step in and regulate or legislate when things happen, but OSHA doesn't have a specific sort of section of rules for circus. It's all a little bit unclear. I think it's really important to say because I do some of these things for fun on the side. I do flying trapeze and I do aerial silks.

I'm very much an amateur, but I have some sense of the experience of that. I interact with and I've interviewed and I'm friends with many professional circus performers that work today. It's really important to almost everyone I meet that people know that they do not consider themselves daredevils in any way. That they do not take excessive risks, but they're highly trained. That their equipment is safety checked and rigged by only the best professionals, people that really understand things, like the kinds of weight bearing requirements on certain apparatuses. Many of them have said things to me like, "My act is less dangerous. I take less risk doing my act than I do when I get in the car at night to drive home."

If you looked at the statistics, I mean sure, that's probably true. Car accidents happen a lot more frequently than accidents like these, but the interesting part is that I think today we've shifted into this moment where we're not as interested in seeing death-defying acts necessarily, that we want to see circus artistry and that that's not the most important part of what these performers are doing. They're doing more. They're telling stories. They're communicating ideas and emotions. They're creating images through their acts. Of course, they're risking, but that isn't necessarily what the main draw is. That's not what they want to be known for.

Michael: Yeah. I think it's particularly interesting that you bring up that distinction. I have to confess, I'm listening to you talk about some of these dangerous acts from the nineteenth and early twentieth century and I think the tendency is to kind of say, "Oh boy. They didn't really care about the safety of the performers." That's so different from how we feel today.

In hearing some of that disregard for the safety of the performers, I'm listening to that as a big fan of football and I'm kind of thinking, "Oh boy. Some of this sounds uncomfortably familiar." What do you think we can learn about our appetite for and tolerance of risk in our entertainment whether its professional sports, you mentioned Spider-Man The Musical, which famously has all those safety problems, or acrobatics circus acts?

Amy: I think after studying this stuff for a long time that this desire to see risk...Well, it might transform. It never goes away. It doesn't vanish. It just changes. I include myself in that category. I love seeing risky acts and I like doing relatively risky things, although of course when I take flying trapeze classes, it's actually incredibly safe. I'm harnessed in and there's a net below and there's someone on a safety line, but it's still pushing a physical boundary in some way. I think ultimately that again going back to this idea of circus performance is kind of a shared experience. Well, as all performance, is a shared experience between performers and audience members.

When you get to watch someone else do these incredible physical things, that it's not just them risking alone. That you're sharing in that experience of risk. You're kind of vicariously doing it with them. Getting to witness these artists push the boundaries of the possible and share in that experience is an incredible thing and it's something that we still really seek out. The other thing that you learn from dabbling in the circus arts, but also knowing and interacting with circus professionals today is that there's a really big difference between risk that we perceive and risk that is real. There are a lot of very invisible risks that would never occur to most audience members.

Things like the equipment malfunctioning really is often the biggest risk because these performers are talented and have rehearsed for years and are very capable and don't take risks if they don't think that they're capable on the day of performing that feat or a move that will look incredibly risky and will get huge applause and cheers might be one of the easiest moves in the routine. It's not always easy for us to tell. Risk can be manipulated. Risk is certainly performed and I think we have to keep that in mind too. There are plenty of risks that exist today that are not necessarily visible or that are becoming more visible that I think bring up the same questions in our society today. Like you mentioned football.

I'm not a huge football, but I certainly know of and have been following the story about Aaron Hernandez who recently committed suicide and then a posthumous examination of his brain showed that he had such a severe form of CTE, that the damage was like the damage that they've found in players well into their sixties. We're much more aware of it now, but I don't think necessarily watching football that everyone is sitting there thinking about these players giving themselves brain injuries, getting this incredible degenerative brain disease from the sport that's certainly not...Well, we like football, but that's still happening today.

When I thought about and read about Aaron Hernandez, I thought a lot about Thomas Hanlon who may not be a familiar name today, but was a very famous acrobat in the nineteenth century, the mid-nineteenth century. He was part of a troop of four brothers called The Hanlon Brothers and they were really famous for their acrobatic displays. He performed an aerial ladder act that he called L'échelle Périlleuse, the perilous ladder act. The ladder was hung from above, from the proscenium of the theatre, and he would enact a series of leaps from one end to the other.

Eventually he added this new more dangerous thrill to his act where he would leap off of the ladder and free fall some twenty or thirty feet through the air with no net below and then catch a rope right before he hit the ground, in which he would finally then descend to the stage. It was known as The Leap for Life. He would literally do this leap for life and it was a very common feature of acts in the nineteenth century. He at one point in his career fell and landed on his head doing this Leap for Life. This accident was ultimately devastating for him because he was never the same since. Of course, our medical science then wasn't the same as it is today, so I can't really speculate on what exactly happened to him, but his personality changed.

He ended up being imprisoned at the end of his life and he, strikingly I think like Aaron Hernandez, committed suicide in prison. When I read about that, I just think about CTE. Those things were happening back then and they're still happening now, maybe just in different forms. Circus performance is a really big part of our culture still. I hope it continues to be. It transforms and it changes with the times. If you've never seen it, you've at least heard of Cirque du Soleil I would say by this point. The safety measures that people take today are much greater than they did in the past, but still things go wrong.

In 2013, a few years ago, in the Cirque du Soleil show KA in Las Vegas, an aerialist fell ninety feet to her death because of an equipment malfunction. I don't know the details of that personally because it wasn't necessarily made public, but that was in a live show before an audience who witnessed her fall and heard her cries and moans from the ground. It was a really big deal. It was the first and only death in Cirque du Soleil's thirty-year history. It served as a reminder to contemporary audiences that these things that we're watching are real and these performers are really taking risks and that even with the most current technology, humans are not infallible and things happen.

When that happened, the show closed for a week and then the act was taken out and OSHA stepped in. There was lots of adjusting and thinking about how to prevent things like that from happening in the future. It's not as if we don't still take risks today I suppose I want to say, even when that's not the point of the show. I even KA is a beautiful show. I've seen it and certainly risk is a part of it, but that's not the only point. The show is telling the story, but it's part of the performance and it's part of the thrill. We shouldn't kid ourselves by thinking that none of that is risky, just like we shouldn't kid ourselves by thinking that football isn't risky. People are certainly taking risks in doing all that.

Again I think that's never going to go away. I don't think it should because I think we get so much benefit out of doing that both the performers and the audience members of witnessing each other push these boundaries, of seeing what is possible, of refusing to accept limits that maybe arbitrary.

Michael: We'll post additional links and images in our show notes that will let you explore the dangerous world of nineteenth and early twentieth century acrobatics. Amy, thank you so much for sharing these harrowing tales with us.

Amy: Thank you so much, Mike. This was a pleasure.

Michael: If you'd like to continue today's conversation, please visit HowlRound.com and follow HowlRound and @TheaterHistory on Twitter and Facebook. You can also visit our website at theatrehistorypodcast.net where you can find links to all of our episodes. You can email your questions and comments about the show to [email protected]. A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound who make the show possible. Our theme music is The Black Crook Gallop, which comes to us courtesy of The New York Public Library Libretto Project and Adam Roberts. Thanks as well to Tip Crest who designed our logo. Finally, thank you for listening.

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Thoughts from the curator

This podcast aims to introduce listeners to the artists, scholars, and archivists who are working to bring the history of performance to life. We hope that, by listening to this show, you’ll learn about exciting new performances, fascinating books, and valuable repositories of knowledge, all of which will help you better understand theatre’s history.

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