top of page

At the origins of circus theatrical production


The Olympic Circus obtained the privilege of the equestrian genre in 1807 as a "curiosity show" (spectacle de curiosités) and in 1811 as a "minor theater" (see du Théâtre équestre au cirque , pp.152 et sq ).  This means that teh Cirque Olympique is the only Parisian establishment with the possibility (the right) of operating entries featuring horses on the ring and stage  - which does not exclude the appearance of horses on other stages but, apart from the fact that generally it is the Franconi cavalry which intervenes (see The Franconi at the Opera ), their presence elsewhere or that of other showhorsemen is then occasional and constitutes neither a privilege nor their repertoire.

The presentation of narrative plays (which tell a story) however predates the status of theater of the Cirque Olympique and, already before 1807, several plays from the Franconi repertoire are known, especially during the revolutionary period when

shows freed from all constraints embark on hybrid creations.


However, as soon as teh Cirque Olympqiue gets an official status (enters theatrical categories and administratve control of rights and privilége) all the plays are listed because controlled and monitored by censorship. At the same time, the notoriety and the status of the Cirque Olympique as a theater encouraged the publication of the booklets of the plays staged and performed.

It is in particular by crossing the minutes of censorship (68) and the published librettos (178), with other sources, that I have been able to list a repertory of 265 plays. Of course, it does not cover all the plays presented(unclassified minutes, booklets not preserved), but it does give access to  most of the production between 1807 and 1847**.  

The framework of the repertoire (1847-1847) mark the beginning of the Napoleonic theatrical restrictions and controls (1807),  and the end of the management of the Théâtre du Cirque Olympique by Jules Gallois (1847). The establishment became a lyrical theater for a season before becoming the Théâtre du Cirque National (1848), then Théâtre du Cirque Impérial (from 1852), continuing the historical and military repertoire of Théâtre du Cirque Olympique with the presence of a substantial cavalry, thus producing hippodramas... in the same way as shown at the hippodromes since 1845 thoughj at the same time the Cirque d'Ete and the Cirque d'Hiver, without a stage, abandon the theatrical repertoire. Therefore from 1847 not only the répertoire of the Cirque Olympique does not limit itself to one place (specially when owners possess 2 establishments) but also the peculiars of theater on one hand of horse-dramas on the other hand are exploited in other venues making it complicated to distinguish specificities. Therefore, framing the study of the repertoire seemed the best way to study the features of the Cirque Olympique theatrical production.

Between 1807 and 1847, the production counts at least 260 pieces, meaning that in 40 years, the average production is 6.5 plays per year. Such an average is in no way representative with regard to the very irregular distribution depending on the year (see graph and table below). Moreso, we need to consider that certain plays are performed sometimes several years after their first performance, siometimes the same play is performed again with another title etc. In short, the plays I have listed give an overview of the production, and are certainly not a key to understand their programmation. For this, only the press articles make it possible to report on the success of a play, its longevity as well as possible revivals.

Cirque Olympique Production Pantomines
Cirque Olympique production annuelle pantomimes

Repertoire of the Cirque Olympique  

  List of 265 plays 
Cirque Olympique

Répertoire recensé

Repertoire and genres

The study of the titles of the plays of the Olympic Circus, published or listed by the theatrical censorship, reveals that the repertoire covers all the genres exploited by the mior theatres. The presence of horses, imposed by law, is almost permanent, but to be sure of their presence in the play, it is necessary to read in detail the documents or censorship statements : the titles of the librettos or the titles of the plays rarely explicitly mention the equestrian part.


In addition, the plays edited and listed are the highlights of an evening programmation at the Cirque Olympique but do not make the whole show. If a play does not feature horses, the rest of the entries proposed in the program of the day do involve horses. Conversely, the presence of the animal in the main entry which is the play, is the reason why other entries of the evening may not feature horses. In short, the central piece of the day's programming does not represent in itself the repertoire of an evening. More so, the compulsory programmation of horses is linked to the establishment nad depending on the category of play, it is arguable - though not legal - to perhaps not give horses the part they should have.

Nevertheless, horses are the passport for the theatricalization of the Cirque Olympique and therefore the criterion on which its repertoire is based, so the plays of the Cirque Olympique mainly include horses and will even, for some, make the horse (or horses) the hero of the play, or the intrinsic extension of the hero-rider.

Out of 265 pieces studied , only 10% are explicitly qualified as "equestrian" or "chevaleresque". However, implicitly, it goes without saying that the words  "military",  "historic", "à grand spectacle" underpine the central role of horses in these plays. It is then more than half of the repertoire which is objectively identifiable as indeed equestrian while the other half, without particular specification, includes the entry, even furtive or incongruous, of a horse.

It is however necessary to distinguish two types of equestrian plays. First the historical and military plays where the horse is the pivot of the action. These plays are led by and for equestrian exercises and manoeuvres. The second are mimodramas and classic melodramas, "put on horseback" because the horse is the distinctive argument to other theaters as the necessary element to justify the prank in a theatrical genre that does not fall within the initial privilege of the Cirque Olympique - in other words the Cirque Olympique has no right to produce melodramas, but presenting a melodrama on horses makes it go through.

In addition to the nouns, the qualifications of plays follow the genres en vogue. From the 1830s, there were no more pantomimes, mimodramas or "scenes", while vaudevilles, melodramas and dramas, which appeared from the 1820s, continued until the 1840s. The fashion for mimodramas, fairy tales and "events" is on the other hand much more  limited in time, while other designations last for more than twenty years.

It is therefore quite difficult to qualify the repertoire of the Théâtre du Cirque Olympique distinctly from the othe minor theatres. The "labeling"  of the plays is extremely variable and changing in the form in the way they are enunciated, but extremely similar in content and structure. It is therefore the components of the plays, in this case the horses, that authenticate the repertoire, an evidence that is more visible in real life  than the booklets and archives let us perceive.

See Du Théâtre équestre au cirque , pp. 335 and sq .


From the moment the Théâtre du Cirque Olympique becomes independent of the management of Cirque d'Ete and Cirque d'Hiver (directed by Meyer and directed by Billion), its repertoire is more than ever anchored in its specificity. historical and military plays as it had gradually imposed itself previously.

**  No resource location retains the entire Cirque Olympique repertoire. A total of 553 occurrences have appeared across multiple sources, more than half of which are recurrences. Only 68 items were found in the French National Archives between 1815 and 1847 (censorship reports), 151 in the BnF (booklets recorded in the Department des Imprimés), 123  in the bibliography of R. Toole Stott, 86 are listed in the M. de Soleinne's Dramatic Library, 6 of which are unpublished (Jacob (PL),  M. de Soleinne's Dramatic Library , 5 vol ., Graz, Akademische Druck, 1969), 53 in the archives of Tristan Rémy, 49 appear in the catalog of the British Library, 20 in the work of Lecomte (Lecomte (LH),_Napoleon et l'Empire, 1797-1899, Paris, Librairie Jules Vaux, 1900, 3 in the work of Tissier for the revolutionary period (Tissier (A.),Geneva, Droz, 1992, p.343-345. 

Press articles and programming

L'Enfant de Mars et de Flore




Le Cuirassier 17 janvier 1820


The press is the relay  of theatrical programming and dramatic criticism occupies a large place in the newspapers (for an overview of the theater press see the resources of the BnF via Gallica ). The directors of the theaters send their program daily, often the day before for the next day (see exchanges between the Franconi Brothers and Mathieu Villenave , editor of the Annales ), while the journalists often frequent all the establishments.

The announcements follow the order of the classification of the theaters (major theaters, then minor theaters according to the hierarchy of the years of approval). At a minimum, as in Le Figaro, literary journal , the plays of the day are simply listed. But the dedicated press exists since the 1770s, and while some are program newspapers, others, such as the Entr'Acte , the Courrier des Spectacles or the Journal des Théâtres, offer more detailed descriptions of the plays, especially for the first performance or the opening nights. 


Very rich studies are carried out on the subject of the relationship between theater and the press. 

See in particular:

Dominique Kalifa, Philippe Régnier, Marie-Ève Thérenty, Alain Vaillant (dir.), La Civilisation du Journal, Histoire culturelle et littéraire de la presse française au XIXe siècle, Nouveau Monde Editions, 2012.

Marie-Ève Thérenty et Olivier Bara, Presse et scène au XIXe siècle. Relais, reflets, échanges. Actes du colloque international coorg. par l’Université Montpellier III, l’équipe RIRRA 21, l’IUF, l’Université Lyon 2 et l’UMR 5611 LIRE, 17-19 juin 2010.

. Mariane Bury et Hélène Laplace-Claverie (dir.), Le Miel et le Fiel. La critique théâtrale en France au XIXe siècle, Paris, PUPS, 2008.

bottom of page