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December 19, 2018

The circus and the American experience were always one and the same

October 5, 2018
Early-20th-century clowns in an image featured in “American Experience: Circus,” a two-part docuseries on PBS. (PBS / JM Ringling Museum of Art)

When a furious Brett Kavanaugh decried his United States Supreme Court confirmation history as a “circus,” he was using the word as a pejorative: He was describing what he believed to be a cheap carnival of chaos, not an investigative search for truth. To the chagrin of some proud circus artists, who’ve been railing against this denigration of their artistry on social media, other politicians and many journalists have picked up on the word. In Missouri last Wednesday, Josh Hawley, a Republican candidate for Senate, put out a political advertisement titled … “Circus.”

“People in our Senate today, they’ve created a circus,” Hawley says in the ad. “Liberals like Claire McCaskill and Chuck Schumer, they don’t want the truth. They only want power.”




Hawley, who could not look more boring, was taking his cue from Kavanaugh: contrasting his own self-declared righteousness with the circus of destruction and hucksterism, flimflammery, frippery and fakery, deception and sleight of hand.

How fair was he being?

What neither Kavanaugh nor Hawley likely realize is that the history of the circus is inextricable from the history of America, the national version of the greatest show on earth, always playing in your town.

That is the indisputable takeaway from “Circus,” a balanced, cleareyed and thematically definitive four-hour “American Experience” PBS documentary airing at 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on WTTW-Ch. 11 and specifically focusing on the American circus from its earliest days in the 18th century through the moment in 1944 when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey touring extravaganza went up in flames, and ending in 1956 when the tent was taken down for the last time. (The documentary does not deal with the subsequent 40-year era when Kenneth Feld took over the circus and staged it in arenas.)

The circus, it argues, was the crucible of America’s knowledge (or lack thereof). It dictated, propagated and popularized its tastes, its values, its economic power, its selflessness, its imperialism, its capacity for change, its cruelty, its racism, its humor and its obsession with celebrity culture, as manifest all the way to the White House.

“Within the big top, as nowhere else on earth, is to be found actuality,” wrote e. e. cummings, his words featured in the documentary. “Living players play with living. At positively every performance, death himself lurks, glides, struts, beaches … is.”

People enter the Ringling Bros. Circus in Madison, Wis., in 1951, in an image featured on "American Experience: Circus" on PBS.
People enter the Ringling Bros. Circus in Madison, Wis., in 1951, in an image featured on “American Experience: Circus” on PBS. (PBS / Illinois State University)

Each and every trend in how we spend our leisure time has its origins in the circus. Its history is inherently linked with this and every newspaper: It spent more on advertising than any other entity in the 19th century, and, when the circus was in town, the coverage in the Chicago Tribune filled page after page after page. The circus was the first to plaster posters round town. It was ground zero of the publicity stunt. It taught Hollywood how to sell itself, even at its own expense. And it invented live entertainment for the masses: The Ringling Bros. tent seated 16,000 people. Its traveling company at its peak numbered more than 1,100 employees.

And the circus pretty much created the concept of upward social mobility: Its oxygen for 150 years was the dream of a young person, born in a boring small town in once-agrarian America, the kind of place where the sidewalks got rolled up every night, and craving subversive excitement. All you had to do was summon up the courage to run away with the circus. Even if you never could, you still had the moment when the mirage rolled into town, only to vanish as quickly as it came. Not unlike all our childhood memories, life being but shadows that come to us from the past.

You could argue that, without the circus, African-American musicians would not have been able to popularize jazz and ragtime to mixed-race audiences. Recent immigrants who spoke no English would not have been able to join with their fellow Americans for an entertainment that required neither literacy nor a common language. American sports figures — heck, sports journalism — would not be so popular. And the suffragette movement surely would have moved more slowly had millions of people not been able to read about Katie Sandwina, a strongwoman and suffragette leader who, on the night before she gave birth, completed two shows of the Ringling Bros. circus, lifting her own husband far above her head in, for her time, a peerless symbolic description of female power.

The circus also had implications for foreign policy. In 1882, over frantic public protest in Britain, Jumbo the elephant was sold by the London Zoo to P.T. Barnum for 2,000 pounds. Over 100,000 British schoolchildren wrote to Queen Victoria begging the monarch to prevent the sale and, many of them said, condemning the great and beloved beast to a diet of popcorn and cheap American tricks. But Barnum — who was the most famous American of his day — prevailed in a symbolically powerful display of U. S. dominance over its former colonial master.

The documentary does not shrink from the dark side of the circus — the horrors of its capture and transportation of young wild animals in Africa; its central role in making freakiness, or otherness, a central theme of American entertainment; its propagation of the objectification of the unusually human; its embrace of human hierarchy and division; its relentless capacity for exploitation of the powerless.

But it’s also fair to the argument that the circus attracted boundary pushers and transgressives, providing a safe haven to women who wanted to live independent lives that were only possible away from the prying eyes of their families and communities. It argues that the circus established the rituals of itinerancy, of life on the road, of passing through, of the one-night stand, all balm for the commitmentphobic to this very day.

There are plenty of paradoxes on view: In the modern day, animal performers increasingly are unacceptable to more and more Americans, yet the circus actually first acquired beasts as a play for respectability, their presence being seen by the church as educational. The circus exploited the disabled but provided a financial support unobtainable elsewhere.

And if you think America was built on the ceaseless need of human beings to try something dangerous and difficult for no logical reason whatsoever, then you have the circus to thank.




And that’s the truth.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.




Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib




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