Horses in the Wings

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The theatrical and circus historian A H Saxon is the don of hippodrama history. I bought an old library copy of his Enter Foot and Horse when I was working on The Age of the Horse because I knew it would be the key to nineteenth-century equestrian theatre. I wasn’t disappointed.

Hippodramas were, to quote Saxon himself, plays “in which trained horses were considered actors, with business, often leading actions of their own, to perform.” They grew out of the very early equestrian circuses and were generally light on serious content, heavy on melodrama and chock full of sensational sets, scenes and galloping horses.

Saxon’s work is invaluable because the hippodrama is not exactly popular with theatrical historians and it also fell from fashion fairly rapidly, thus ensuring that few traces of it lingered in popular consciousness. I was delighted to find the facsimile of a script for one on Archive.org. It’s called

The Blood-Red Knight

or

The Fatal Bridge

A Grand Melo Dramatic Romance

In Two Acts

 

It was created by George Male for John Astley in 1810, just as the genre was taking off and getting steadily more spectacular. The plot is a classic piece of melodrama. The Blood-Red Knight, Sir Rowland, is hellbent on challenging the chastity of his brother Alphonso’s wife, Isabella, and begins the first act by chasing her and her son Henry through a sinister wood and up and down mountains.

When he finally gets his mitts on Isabella, he gives her a choice – give in to him or her son will be killed. Alphonso (earlier reported to have died in “the Holy Wars”) interrupts at the crucial moment but is bundled away to his death, forcing Isabella to agree to marry Sir Rowland. Luckily Alphonso wasn’t dead at all, and he and some friends storm the castle and launch into a stirring sword fight followed by a cavalry assault across a falling bridge.

At its climax, Isabella shoots Sir Rowland just before he can chop Alphonso in two, and it all ends happily ever after.

The full script at Archive.org is later, US edition, which you can browse here. It’s just 24 pages long. As A H Saxon points out in Enter Foot and Horse, this is not much of a script for a performance that lasted an hour and forty minutes. Not for nothing are the directions so long, although sadly they contain none of the minute moves that must go into coordinating a stage fight. Just how possible was that level of planning if horses were involved in a mêlée? Or did everyone just muck in and aim to get to the right spot at the right moment?

I have found, thanks to Caroline Hodak’s paper on hippodrama, information from the playbill about the special effects. I don’t have the original, so please forgive this re-translation of Hodak’s French translation:

The castle is attacked, the surrounding river is covered with boats filled with warriors while the walls are violently attacked […] Men and horses are represented injured and dying, in all positions, while other soldiers and their horses emerge from the river, forming an effect [sic] completely new and unprecedented in this country – and elsewhere – all ending with the complete defeat of the Blood Red Knight and the reunion of Alphonse and Isabelle.

Hodak quotes one report from the French writer Louis Simond, who saw the play and compared it unfavourably to performances in France:

Astley is a show of equitation and one naturally forms an advantageous notion of this type of spectacle as performed in England, which is something of an island of Houyhnhms . I expected something far superior to what I had seen in other countries, but I found the horses moderately well-trained: the men did no tricks that were out of the ordinary. Instead of equitation, we had drama and harlequinades, battle and fights. The characters were Moors and Saracens, and the horses were there like actors, as at Covent Garden; they ran in to the pit, and climbed onto the boards of the stage – all was covered in earth.

He goes on to say that between each act acrobats performed in the pit (at a guess this is the ring in front of the stage), sending up clouds of dust and tearing their trousers. Those is the cheap seats roared while respectable looking middle-class Londoners sat in the boxes. There was, Simond concluded, “a little corner of barbarity in most English popular amusements.” He moves on swiftly to Westminster Abbey.

Here’s a contemporary image of The Blood-Red Knight from the British Library’s archives. It had a first run at Astley’s Amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road in London of 175 performances, making an eye-watering £18,000 for Astley and company, and was introduced to New York in 1823.

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