Weird History
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19th-Century Audiences Loved Watching Melodramas Starring Horses

Updated June 10, 2019 11 items

Modern-day theater spectacles featuring stunning horses and elaborate stunts, such as Cavalia and Odysseo, have captivated audiences in recent years by displaying the undeniable and seemingly magical link between humans and horses. However, large-scale productions featuring horses as the stars of the show are nothing new.

In the late 18th to mid-19th centuries, equestrian dramas, also known as hippodramas, became all the rage in England among hordes of working-class audiences. At the time, restrictive and elitist theater laws kept traditional drama in the realm of the aristocracy. Combined with the Romantic Era fascination with the stunning creatures, this unusual and unique genre of staged theater production became one of the most popular attractions in Europe and America for several decades.

  • Horses Were Considered True Actors

    Photo: Popular Graphic Arts / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The men and women who used their riding prowess to perform incredible feats were undoubtedly celebrated, but the majestic creatures were the real attraction of hippodramas.

    As theater historian Kim Marra explained in an essay on the genre:

    As dazzling and dexterous as the human riders in such spectacles at Astley's were, the primary attraction were the horses themselves. Certain types of horses most beguiled the public imagination in this era.

  • Performances Could Include Dozens Of Horses

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Many of the equestrian melodramas recreated famous and fictional fights, which necessitated the employment of dozens of horses to properly represent the full might of the various armies and military regiments. Some of the biggest venues for hippodramas in France and England were designed to accommodate 36 horses on stage at once.

    In the 1807 production of The Brave Cossack, dozens of real horses and riders thundered around the stage, with forced-perspective backdrops and clever stage design adding to the scope and magnitude of the scenes. Meanwhile, The High-Mettled Racer; or, Harlequin on Horseback, one of the most popular pantomimes produced at the Astley Amphitheater, featured an onstage horse race scene, as well as a fox hunting scene that included multiple horses, riders acting as hunters, a pack of real hounds, and a live fox, all of whom were trained.

  • The Genre Was Developed To Get Around Elitist Theater Laws

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    So-called "legitimate" theater, which largely referred to traditional five-act dramas, were popular among the aristocracy and social elite, who didn't want to share the pastime with the lower classes. Therefore, several different laws were enacted - including the Licensing Act of 1737 - that granted only prestigious venues the right to perform "spoken dramas."

    However, smaller theaters were still allowed to put on performances that focused mainly on visual elements, such as music, dancing, acrobatic spectacles, and horsemanship. Philip Astley ran Astley’s Amphitheater, and its main attraction was horse-based spectacles. Astley, however, wanted to stage more legitimate dramas and realized he could exploit a loophole that would allow him to produce traditional plays as long as they were performed on horseback. With that, the genre of equestrian drama was born.

    Hippodramas included productions of established and famous works, including William Shakespeare's Richard III, as well as melodramas created specifically for the emerging trend.

  • Equine Actors And Their Riders Performed Dazzling Stunts

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Andrew Ducrow, a famed pioneer of hippodramas and theatrical performances, was renowned for his unparalleled equestrian skill at Roman riding, an act particularly exhilarating for its inherent danger. It involved the rider standing on the back of one or more horses as they galloped around the venue.

    Ducrow created a number of impressive equestrian performances that showcased his talent for Roman riding, including The Indian Hunter and The Chinese Enchanter, which saw him astride two to three horses at once. However, that paled in comparison to his theatrics in The Courier of St. Petersburg, where he came into the arena straddling the backs of four horses.