Farewell to Ringling's Sad Spectacle

There are a few residual thrills—who doesn’t love to see motorcyclists whizzing in a cage—but mostly the Greatest Show on Earth is anything but.

Theo Wargo

For the last time in the history of the greatest show in on earth, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus packed up its train and left New York City on Friday night. Though the circus doesn’t end officially until May, after a run of shows in Uniondale, New York, this was for many New Yorkers the last chance to see the Big Top in the Big Apple. But of course, it wasn’t a big tent. It was the Barclays Center, an indoor arena in Brooklyn, with long lines stretching like braids out the door as the crowd waited to thread through the metal detectors and into the pulsating arena.

There are actually two different Ringling circuses run by Feld Entertainment. One is called Circus XTREME. The one at Barclay’s, with no small amount of irony, is called Out of this World. (The company also runs Marvel Universe LIVE!, Monster Jam, Monster Energy Supercross, AMSOIL Arenacross, Disney on Ice and Disney Live!) For most of us—and this is of course one of the reasons Ringling failed—the circus has become more a figure of speech, a metaphor, the ether of cultural myth, than it is a place to pay $50 to get in. But, as it lay in extremis in Brooklyn, to the circus I went.

Whatever circus you remember as a child is not today’s circus. There is no sawdust. Not only are there not three rings but there isn’t a ring at all—just a rink. Perhaps because the company frequently shifts performers between this show and their ice productions, this is, strangely, the circus on ice, too. (There also must be cost savings on the Zambonis.) And unlike the circuses I remember—onslaughts of undifferentiated wonder bound only by their extraordinariness—this one has a plot. Paulo the Circus Starseeker is on a mission to recruit circus talent. His nemesis, Queen Tatiana, the intergalactic circus queen, has sent Davis, her faithful sidekick, to interfere. Nevertheless Paulo finds Johnathan Lee Evans, the ringmaster; a bunch of clowns and the rest of the circus acts somewhere secreted in the universe. Tatiana meddles and in the end, they all join forces and, you guessed it, join the circus. It is essentially a tale of human resources.

The plot belies Ringling’s anxiety about staying cool and current. There’s also an app and one section in which a bunch of people skate around holding what look like glowing iPads. (Yes, that’s their trick.) That coolness is what Ringling is after surely contributed to its demise. The circus has been many things in its 146-year history. Cool has not been one of them. Cool means conforming to some societal definition of cool. Cool is for the haves. Circus is for the have nots. Circus is for the freaks and the aberrant. A cool circus is like a demon shaving off his horns. If the end of the circus has taught us anything, it’s that some things must evolve to survive but for others evolution is extinction.

Lo, I am not advocating for the return of the freak show, when physical deformity and even multiculturalism—if that’s what you want to call the circus’s early and frequent racist displays—were made spectacle. Nor do I desire the return of the elephants who used to trudge through the Midtown tunnel on their way to Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden before returning to their chained confinement. (They have since been retired to the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation, surprisingly not an Orwellian euphemism for death but certainly an attempt at ablution.) But between cool and cruel, there must be a middle ground. If only Ringling could have found it.

Instead, what we’re left with is remnant cruelty and residual sadness. Whatever has changed in the world renders the lion tamer’s craft cruel to behold. Lions sit docile on pedestals, tigers do too with their shoulder blades protruding, as tamer Alexander Lacey preens about in his sateen with his whip at the ready. What, one wonders, ever was the appeal of removing from a wild animal its spirit? One is left shamefully hoping that he is torn to pieces, which would be terrible and no one really wants but there was no joy whatsoever to see dominion be exerted over the creatures. Later in the show, a kangaroo is made to hop off llamas, dogs are forced to form a conga line with pigs, and one little puppy jumps from an incredible height into a cloth. One needn’t be an animal rights activist to realize this doesn’t seem right.

As far as humans go, well, not even the most jaded circusgoer could resist the awe inspired by the Globe of Death. The Globe of Death, apart from being an accurate description of our earth, is the steel cage within which the members of the Torres Family buzz about on motorcycles just inches apart. They go around. They go upside down. It is loud. It is constant. It is both a metaphor for capitalism, an embodiment of it, and just plain cool. Ditto the Cossack Riders, led by Kanat and Tatiana Tchalabaev, who hop on and off speeding horses like switchblades toyed with by baddies in a pulp fiction film.

But in the other skills, one can sense just how much Cirque de Soleil has taken the bar offered by Ringling and raised it beyond its grasp. The ice-skating acrobats from Northeast China for instance or the unicycle riding basketball team underwhelmed to an eye accustomed to flawless expertise.

Maybe Ringling never really had a chance. Maybe, like the rest of the culture, the constituent elements of circus have been Balkanized and expertized. If you want better acrobatics and high production values, you go to Cirque de Soleil. If you want clowning, you go to a clown act. If you want narrative driven circus, you go to smaller companies like Only Child. If you want to watch a preening man attempt to exert his power over all he sees, you turn on CNN. Ringling didn’t help itself with what it allowed the circus to become; but at the end of the day, as the clown cries and the beasts return to their cages, what’s more likely is that the era of the big tent is over.