This past weekend was the annual Congress of Curious Peoples at Coney Island USA. I was honored to be asked to give the keynote address this year on the topic “When Did the Circus Become un-American?” My speech followed the public unveiling of CIUSA’s new Sideshow Hall of Fame Wall of Fame (above). The content of my speech is here. Thanks Norman Blake and Carolyn Raship for photos!
WHEN DID THE CIRCUS BECOME UN-AMERICAN?
…Before we tackle the main question we should point out, and maybe some of you are way ahead of me, that the modern circus in and of itself per se is NOT by definition American, as much as it pains me to point out. The modern circus was invented in England by equestrian Philip Astley and later improved upon in America even as it was simultaneously evolving all over Europe. There’s plenty about the American circus that may well not speak to Europeans, and they have the right to their erroneous opinions even as I have the right to my infallible ones. At any rate, there are plenty of the oldest circuses in the world that have ALWAYS been un-American.
But let’s tweak it a little for clarity – WHEN DID THE AMERICAN CIRCUS BECOME UN-AMERICAN?
As P.T. Barnum famously said, the American circus hangs on two pegs: clowns and elephants. And all at once, the American public seems to be becoming terrified of clowns, and morally outraged at the presentation of elephants. We’ll get to both directly, but I’m going to broaden it somewhat. As we all know, the American circus is in jeopardy: our largest, oldest and best known circus, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey is closing in a matter of days. Cole Brothers and Clyde Beatty both seem moribund. Big Apple Circus went bankrupt although some new owners promise to resurrect it this fall. But these recent developments are part of a process, a multi-pronged assault that has been going on for the better part of a century. Different aspects of the American circus have been under attack, sometimes perhaps with justification, but the bottom line is that it hurts the circus. So different aspects became “un-American” at different times, so there will be many different answers.
My first answer (and many of my answers will be contradictory) is that circus became un-American as long ago as a century, when it began to be superseded by new-fangled inventions, better mouse-traps, and lost its age old primacy as often the only entertainment medium for the masses in the hinterlands. It lost an economic competition! What is more un-American than that? Starting in the 1920s and 30’s it began losing ground to movies, and radio, then TV, and then to home video, and now to hand held gadgets! Circuses and sideshows died, some survived by merging, and those that survived did so by figuring out that its traditional nature was its very charm. It’s nostalgic, and there’s a market for that, although it’s no longer a universal market. We have niches now. Some people won’t even watch a black and white or silent movie nowadays, while other people are at this very moment rediscovering the joys of old time radio shows over the internet. Once populist, a lot of surviving circus is now elitist, and some could say THAT’S un-American, and I would tend to agree. It’s expensive to attend the big top and a lot of the surviving shows feel a need to be self-consciously artistic in a way that frankly turns my stomach, far more than any amount of popcorn or cotton candy.
Next, the Americana aesthetic has been under attack since the mid-20th century. By that I mean: the tent, the sawdust, the midway, the circus that Toby Tyler ran away to join. My feeling has always been that culture must maintain some tradition even as it evolves. It’s the theme of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: you change, yes, but you don’t throw out the essential parts. To cut the umbilicus that connects us to Barnum, to be tied to nothing emotionally significant, makes the American circus vulnerable to destruction.
My first visit to Ringling was in the mid 1970s. I was about ten years old. And I was enormously disappointed. Not sure what I was expecting. My head was full of circus images from stage, screen, books, old photos, and poster art: Magic and visual poetry. But what I got was something impersonal, corporate, amplified, loud, obnoxious and disconnected from its own history, from any history, and from me. And over the years I felt that whenever I saw their three ring show. So when I read the headline about Ringling’s imminent closure, I wept all morning, but when friends were making plans to see it one last time, I was like, “Nah, I don’t want see that fuckin’ thing.” I cried for the loss of continuity and history and so forth, but the reality was that the things I actually cared about were out of it long before I was born: a steam calliope, a brass band, red white and blue bunting, a tented menagerie, a sideshow. Visually I get more of the circus I’m looking for from the picture on a box of animal crackers than from the Ringling shows.
And not to single out Ringling. You don’t get that stuff much of anywhere. Until recently you got even less of it at Big Apple Circus, whose entire aesthetic scheme: costumes, sets and music seemed really European to me. It had the look or feel of Paris or perhaps dare I say Montreal. It looked insecure to me, as though it were seeking validation from a superior culture. We have no need to do that. CIUSA’s motto: “Defending the Honor of American Popular Culture”. It is Honorable, it is Valid. As Emerson wrote in “The American Scholar”: “We have listened too long to the Courtly Muses of Europe… We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” But some circus seems to have backslid. So when did a lot of circus become aesthetically un-American? If you equate “American” with Americana, as I tend to: decades and decades and decades ago. 50 years ago.
These decisions I know were made for marketing reasons at a time when the country was changing. These changes were happening everywhere. At around the same time, In the early 1970s, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, all had popular variety programs on CBS, and there were these rural comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and then some younger executive came in and pulled the plug on them all at once to accommodate fresher, hipper, more topical shows like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Show. I really love those new shows but there’s something kind of Chairman Mao about feeling a need psychologically to completely eliminate the more traditional programming and wipe it off the face of the earth. That was happening everywhere in music, movies, tv and in the circus. It was like a cultural purge. Is The Beverly Hillbillies the hill I will die on? Actually, yes!
I grant you it’s complicated: 19th century entertainment was not just patriotic, but jingoistic, and even racist and many other things. Maybe trying to separate the patriotic imagery from heinous attitudes at the time, in the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, seemed like trying to separate Siamese Twins. But by burying the traditional visual iconography it lost the connection to its origins. I have zero emotional investment in a circus that lacks those connections. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care if it lives or dies because as far as I’m concerned it’s already dead.
When Cole Brothers came here to Coney Island a few years ago, it was quite a shabby show, but it opened with a single lady riding around the ring on a horse, carrying an American flag – I loved the simple, ritualistic, solemnity of it. I decided that shabby as it was it was my favorite circus. That was pretty much what I wanted.
Know that my point isn’t strictly about patriotism; it’s about symbolism. There are plenty of left wing and anarchist circuses I love: Circus Amok, The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, the NoFit State Circus. The point is integrity. A large establishment circus that seems to stand for nothing is more like a monster truck rally at the mall than what I am looking for at a circus.
Something else that turned me off during that first visit to the circus, and has never ceased to disappoint me, although I understand it more nowadays – was the existence of safety wires and safety ropes and nets underneath the trapeze and wire walkers. While we’re all smart enough to know there is still a risk in those undertakings even with the safety devices, at some primitive level, I am convinced that these precautions effect the audience psychologically. “So they lack that much confidence, huh? So the guy could do the trick, not do the trick, call in sick and the janitor stands in for him, whatever”. I understand why the measures are in place. Workplace issues, lawsuits, bad publicity or whatever (and some artists still take such risks, the Flying Wallendas recently were hurt rehearsing a trick), but I guarantee at some animal level, to some degree, it effects audience psychology. It’s less impressive, entirely, intrinsically much less thrilling. What is a daredevil with training wheels?! If risk-taking is American, especially risk-taking on OUR behalf, then I leave you to draw your own conclusion about what “safety” is in this context. So whenever they started doing that is another date when the circus became un-American.
That’s aesthetics — So now we come to ethics. And the way Dick has framed the question is interesting: “When did the circus become un-American?” (note: this talk was prepared at the invitation of CIUSA founder Dick Zigun, who suggested the topic). Because there are actually two conflicting American ethics. One is just as American as the other, and they have been wrestling with each other for centuries, never more so than at the present dire political moment. To put them in circus terms: it’s the Right to Exploit vs. the Right Not to Be Exploited. I have evolved quite a lot on this, and I’ve come to see the light, but God forgive me, purely out of romanticism I used to be 100% pro 19th century circus, which is to say 100% capitalist exploitation in the service of the circus. What is the circus, or what was the circus if not that? The apparatus exists to make its nut. Every single circus movie is about debt and creditors and foreclosures. So much can go wrong: bad weather, townspeople who attack you and chase you out of town, crooked local officials, bad luck: injury, death, sickness, fire. And circus is in the business of presenting living breathing beings as spectacle. Humans and animals are not just your product but also your equipment, your infrastructure. It’s all in the cause of providing amazement to audiences – but it is still a situation where the circus owners own not just canvas, and trucks and trailers but also individuals and creatures. For a time, the circus was the closest thing to a slave plantation there was. Dependent on the circus for food and shelter and far from your point of origin, if you were unpaid or otherwise dissatisfied, it was very difficult to escape. And because everyone agrees that the mission – creating happiness – is Holy, sacrifices are made in its service.
Truth is the first casualty. Entertaining claims of a thousand kinds are made on behalf of the shows and its performers in the form of advertising. And the performers suffer all kinds of privations and discomforts just for a few minutes of glamour and glory each day. And it becomes easy for the impresario to rationalize anything in the name of The Show.
That’s really American. It so American that it might be tempting to call anything else un-American. But the concept of Individual Rights is every bit as American. It’s enshrined in our founding documents, although at first we used to make all sorts of exceptions for African Americans and women and the poor and immigrants and children etc. But progressively we started eliminating the loopholes, and laws were made to protect people and social mores started to change. And bit by bit these laws came into conflict with things that were uniquely characteristic about the circus. Consumer laws. Truth in advertising! I love food and drug laws but not when they hurt the medicine show! If you can’t claim your tonic is a miracle cure, you might as well pack your sample case and go home! And so it affected the circus in ways big and small, especially the sideshow. If you can’t claim these microcephalic kids from New Jersey are from a missing South American civilization, you are beginning to lose the intrinsic point of the entire enterprise, which is imagination. You need the wiggle room to claim that the seven foot man is a nine foot man!
One of the few cool things RBBB did in the late 20th century was heavily advertise that they were presenting a unicorn. It was a one-horned mountain goat, but it passed muster with lawyers, because well “unicorn” means one horned beast so you can get away with that. And STILL there was controversy and complaint! “Why that’s fraudulent! I thought this was a genuine zoological exhibition presented by scientists!” So some combination of lawyers and the people who use them to sue other people are inimical to the circus arts.
[At this point I produced a glass of water to use as a prop]. Ladies and gentleman, I beg you to direct your attention to this miracle, all the way from the North Pole, this genuine portion of the polar ice cap, exhibited to you in the exact state in which it was found!
And the culture grew so humorless and ill-natured that now you have to advertise in literal language who you are presenting in spite of the obvious fact that everyone knows that Daniel Day-Lewis is not Abraham Lincoln. It’s suddenly quite sinister if you say a 90 year old woman is 200 years old. But it’s very hard to sell tickets to a glass of water! Puff is extremely American.
But so is muckraking. To flip it, there is the dignity of the performer that needs to be respected and which used to get short shrift as part of that process. The born different and people of color used to get seriously ill-used as part of that process, and by the mid 20th century, the freak show died out. In modern times it’s being reclaimed in a more sensitive way. Is it un-American to respect all people, no matter what they look like? Quite the opposite. But it took a little time to sort out a way to do that in the context of this traditional art form. And now we’ve gone from African Americans being presented as wild men and exhibited as zoological attractions to the Universoul Circus.
This eventually led to the expansion of the concept of rights to include animals, and this has proven to be near catastrophic to the art of the circus. To be super obvious, circus is Latin for circle, or ring, that large ring that was devised especially for horses to run around. Eventually this came to include far more exotic creatures from distant climes, such as elephants, apes, lions and tigers, the kinds of beasts people buy tickets especially to see. In a way these became the heart of the circus. Humans had domesticated, trained and exhibited animals for centuries. But starting in the 1970s, the animal rights movement began an unrelenting campaign to end the practice and its manifold forms of documented mistreatment. By recent times the internet and then social media transformed the movement from a fringe cause to one with widespread support, to the extent that sufficient financial pressure could be wielded, finally forcing the major circuses to retire their performing animals or close entirely. (There are still some regional circuses with trained animals, but I would imagine their days are numbered. For example, Kelly Miller Circus and Carson & Barnes Circus, both based in Oklahoma. That’s where they have rodeos and wild west shows, so they might hold out for a while there).
So to return to the opening question: is exploiting animals American? Or is protecting them? I used to work at Big Apple Circus about 20 years ago and I used to become extremely indignant at the hate-mail we would occasionally receive with all of their allegations. (“That’s Mr. Woodcock, he’s not doing what these people are accusing them of!”) But even without actual torture, you do have to concede that elephants need wide open spaces to be happy, and the minute you realize how unhappy they must be, unless you’re a sadist, all the pleasure goes out of it.
That said, when you take all the animals out of the circus, what are you left with? Much of the thrill and magic is gone. The current touring show Circus 1903 has a wonderful solution, with puppets supplying the missing elephants. I have long thought that circuses could do amazing things with animatronics, and there would be no need to stop at elephants. You could have mastodons. You could have fire breathing dragons. You could have dinosaurs, and there is no need to restrict yourself to the dimensions of actual dinosaurs. Puny things, really. There are ways in which a lack of imagination has been the curse of the circus at least over the past century or so. Presenting the same acts for 200 years!? That’s one of the things that killed vaudeville! Why shouldn’t it kill the circus? And the application of imagination could be its salvation. Free the animals, enslave the robots. It’s a win/win.
And the subject of imagination brings us to our last topic. A second ago, I asked rhetorically what we’re left with in a circus without animals? (Don’t say Cirque du Soleil. Not a circus, not a circus, not a circus.) But clowns are also under attack! For the past few years there’s been this apparent mass psychosis/ fad involving terror of clowns. When you say this, the clown-phobes are always like, “No, I’ve always been afraid of clowns.” Well, that may be so, but there is a distinct difference between a FIVE year old being irrationally terrified of a children’s birthday clown, and a THIRTY FIVE YEAR OLD needing to be held.
That said, I find the indignation of clowns equally amusing. They always take this tone of, “What do you mean being afraid of clowns, who only bring joy and wonder to the world?” That, too, is a disingenuous self-denial. Anyone who has studied the history of clown, knows that it goes back to the earliest origins of mankind, and it’s always been intrinsically a little scary. That too is part of its function. You don’t put on that grotesque make-up because you want to make people super-comfortable at their familiar surroundings. You’re throwing things off base a little, knocking the globe off its axis. Otherwise there would be no outlandish get-up. You would just be an actor or a stand up comedian! The clown has always been a mix of funny and scary: always. Al Lewis in the Ric Burns Coney Island documentary talks about loving the scary leering face of the Steeplechase Clown over the gates as you walked in. It’s fun, but it’s also unexpected, otherworldy, abnormal. DESIRABLY so. Otherwise stay home, under the covers.
That said horror and science fiction and even reality started to hit the sinister side a little hard in the 20th century: Batman’s Joker, Stephen King’s It, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and the clown guy Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses. And the music group Insane Clown Posse and their army of Juggalos. And there’s the fact that serial killer John Wayne Gacy was a children’s clown, and Brian Dennehy played him in that tv movie. But frankly that’s getting to be a cliché. If I see a scary clown, I’m less likely to go, “Oh scary” then “Oh, what a cliché!”
But then a few months ago it was taken up a notch in the “clown sighting phenomenon of September 2016” When for pranks people started dressing as scary clowns and hanging out in unexpected places like schools and graveyards and scaring people. This account from Wikipedia made me roar with laughter:
“A person in clown attire was spotted in a cemetery in Chicago, Illinois in July 2015. This occurrence involved two residents who spotted the “creepy clown” scaling the gate at the Rosehill Cemetery late at night. After the clown entered the cemetery, he or she turned to face the residents and began waving slowly as they made a video recording. After waving for a few seconds, the clown ran into a dark wooded area and was not seen again. Police investigation of the sighting did not lead to any arrests.”
“Arrests”?! Has no one ever been a teenager? I don’t know how many times I’ve played pranks of that nature. Perhaps a hundred? Like, why do we even know about this? This is a story? That gets reported as news around the world? A kid dressed as a clown was in the graveyard? That is at best a story for your friends at the bar.
And then there was this follow up: “In October 2016, McDonald’s decided that Ronald McDonald would keep a lower profile as a result of the incidents.”
So because of social media, granted there have been hundreds of these incidents, but what’s more intriguing is the widespread panic and terror to the extent that in some places you can’t rent a clown costume and that people who work as clowns have seen a dip in demand for their services.
You don’t have to be some kind of major sociologist to see what’s going on here. One is that this is age of the helicopter parent and the coddled child and now coddled children who grow into infantilized adults. And far more terrifying to me than any losers running around in clown outfits is the idea of all these legal measures empowering police to chase clowns. That is literally a Mack Sennett movie with a tragic ending. And secondly it is an obvious if amusing parallel to living in the age of terrorism, clearly inspired by it and fed by it. “If you see something, say something.” “I saw a clown!” It’s like a parody of the real situation where people are getting really freaked out by people who are different from them in their vicinity and reporting them to police. Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, and that’s not so funny.
I cant help but contrast that spirit with Reverend Billy’s wonderful invocation at the Gala here a few weeks ago, when he sang the praises of Coney Island as the home and haven for freaks, that what the circus teaches us to do is appreciate those who live outside “normal straight society”. Coney Island’s mission again: “defending the honor of American popular culture”. And so my ultimate answer is that in certain ways the circus didn’t become un-American — America has.