The Circus: Big Tent, Big Dreams

All the crummy news this week put me in something of a physical funk. When the world seems too dark, a malaise can set in, and it can get hard to get things done. Yesterday though, I stumbled upon something that reconnected me with my own work and made me feel good about the world in general: the two part, four hour long 2018 PBS American Experience documentary The Circus: Big Tent, Big Dreams.

Sharon Grimberg‘s film treats of the American circus during its glory days (roughly the Gilded Age through the Dawn of Television). Narrated by Michael Murphy, it is an orgy of jaw-dropping historical photographs, gorgeous color lithographs, and charming animations. These are the specific aesthetics that excite me about circus and traditional American show biz. The scale was grander back then: the major circuses would occupy several acres with not just the big top tent (often several hundred feet long), but a sideshow, a menagerie, and a midway. The images depict a theatrical culture rich in what Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin called Carnival, a healthy folkish attraction for, and celebration of the grotesqueAs I’ve often articulated I’d much rather be immersed in such material than spend time in an actual contemporary circus. I so enjoyed the visual ride of this movie that when it was over I would have been happy to start at the top and watch the whole show over again.

The film takes us close to important circus impresarios and innovators such as John Bill Ricketts, P.T. Barnum, W.C. Coup, Adam Forepaugh, James A. Bailey, and the Ringling Brothers , and great circus stars like Zazel, Lillian Leitzel, P.G. Lowery, Zip, Mabel Stark, Jumbo, Con Colleano, the Wallendas, Clyde Beatty, and Emmett Kelly.

We were delighted to see our old Big Apple Circus colleague, author and historian Dominique Jando as one of the main talking heads, along with numerous other writers and historians, clown Jackie Leclaire (who passed away recently), Tino Wallenda, and several Ringling descendants.

While the two-part series is exploding with content, I could have used several additional episodes, however. As presently constructed, the film focuses almost entirely on the development and evolution of “The Greatest Show on Earth”, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, giving short shrift to the dozens of other circuses that were operating at the same time, some of them quite major. Some important figures are mentioned or alluded to but often only as footnotes. They refer to Yankee Robinson, for example, but just in the context of him passing the torch to the Ringlings. They mention Carl Hagenbeck as a trapper and dealer in exotic animals, but don’t go into the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus. And, provokingly, the movie ends with RBBB’s 1956 permanent folding of the big top (they only performed in civic centers and arenas thereafter until their final demise two years ago), making it seem like that moment was the death of circus, when not only wasn’t that true, but it wasn’t even the death of the tented circus. The world still has circuses today, including ones under canvas (or whatever they make tents out of nowadays).

But I do have to concede that the glory has passed. As I already mentioned, I find myself much more exercised about the old days than the shows that persist in our very midst. The circus used to come once a year, and it brought the world to your door. Today, the world is a 24/7/365 circus, and we hold it in the palm of our hand. In fact, it’s the miracle of THAT circus that allows you to access the vintage one via this wonderful documentary. But if my experience is any measure, The Circus will lift your spirits. For more on The Circus, see this terrific website with its many bells and whistles here.