We’re All Carnies Now: Why We Can’t Quit the Circus

A new book takes us through the Big Top’s weird and wacky history as one of the most popular tropes in Western culture.

Like vaudeville routines or swimming holes, the circus, a once-ubiquitous institution, now lives a double life, scrubbed to high polish in most of its rare physical incarnations but boasting a whole galaxy of warts in its enduring presence in other modes of expression. When was your last circus visit? Cirque du Soleil or can’t remember? Thought so. And yet who doesn’t have a nostalgic attachment, often a strong one, to the idea of the circus thanks to movies, art, and literature—from HBO’s Carnivàle to the Marx Brothers' Lydia the Tattooed Lady ? In the age of CGI and editing, the “fleeting moment of magical spectacle” that the circus represents holds a grip on our popular imagination about as firm as an aerialist’s on the trapeze. It’s an obsession that is intriguingly documented in Linda Simon’s The Greatest Show on Earth: A History of the Circus. It’s unclear if chariot racing lived such a rich half-life outside the Colosseum in the fade of Rome but if so, that’s their loss; we may not have many actual circuses but we still have The Circus.

“Cultural histories” have a tendency to be anything but an actual history of a topic and happily Simon’s book bears no such modifier, and yet its great strength is providing both a strong practical narrative and a considerably interwoven portrait of the related thoughts of artists and writers (and later filmmakers) from the earliest stages of the circus’ existence, given, in many cases, the very specific inspiration that the circus provided them. Early we encounter Picasso and Daumier, and e.e. cummings, who described the circus as “a gigantic spectacle; which is surrounded by an audience, in contrast to our modern theaters, where an audience and a spectacle merely confront each other.”

Cummings continued:

“To run off and join the circus means to slough off responsibility, to return to childhood, to leave the confines of one’s community and set off for parts unknown. To become part of circus magic to find yourself in the spotlight of a darkened ring, the center of attention; to don a mask or a costume and transform your identity; to fly through the air; to sit atop an elephant, riding into town at the head of a resplendent parade; to crack a whip in a cage of ferocious lions even to squirt water from a toy gun and make thousands of people laugh.”

Back in the circus’s early days, itinerant performers at seasonal festivals proved the raw talent or curiosities from which the circus was assembled—the “girl who walked barefoot on hot coals, the woman who drank boiling oil,” Simon writes, “the strong man who could balance eight other men on a plank above his chest, the man who swallowed fire.” The first modern-style circuses cropped up in London, where Philip Astley began offering spectacles of trick riders, which soon added familiar jugglers, magicians, and clowns. Astley opened venues in London, Paris, and Dublin, and imitators cropped up in the New World (George Washington attended).

The modern era of the circus is inseparable from several names you may have encountered. A recently-launched circus came to serial failed entrepreneur-but virtuoso-showman P.T. Barnum seeking his aid in publicity and the “P.T. Barnum Museum, Menagerie and Circus, International Zoological Garden, Polythechnic Institute, and Hippodrome” premiered in Brooklyn en route to spanning the nation, soon traveling in specially built rail cars. As Booth Tarkington wrote, “The enormous white tent was filled with a hazy yellow light, the warm, dusty, mellow, light that thrills the rejoicing heart because it is found nowhere in the world except in the tents of a circus—the canvas-filtered sunshine and sawdust atmosphere of show day.” In 1881, along came Bailey, operator of another circus, and two circuses joined to give rise to the first three-ring spectacle.

In 1870, the very Germanically-named August Ruengling fixed a harness for a circus rider and obtained free passes for his family. His sons took heart, promptly staging a circus in their backyard from which, charging a penny for admission, they earned enough to erect a real tent. The (duly anglicized) Ringling Bros. Circus was born, growing soon into another charmingly named colossus of the “Ringling Bros United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals” (try not having fun at that). The Washington Post wrote, “it would take almost a column of The Post just to tell the names of all the animals within.” They pioneered arena performances and electric light, enabling the first night performances. The author notes that, in many towns, often “every possible surface was covered in a palimpsest of posters from one or another troupe”—in 1911, Ringling alone printed over 900,000 posters (Billboard—that Billboard—began as a trade publication for the billboard industry, main coverage proving circuses, carnivals, and fairs).

Circus parades often became as large a sight as the performance itself; one Barnum and Bailey parade stretched for three miles. While a panoply of other circuses operated, these grew even larger. In 1906 the Ringlings bought Barnum and Bailey, and combined their operations in 1918 into a show known as “The Big One” boasting a travelling company of 1600 performers, some 800 horses, 42 elephants, giraffes, camels, and more.

Who were these performers? Simon offers a tour of the circus indexed by profession, one spanning the tumbling glossary of funambulists, mountebanks, and of course the saltambanques, the moving pieces, whether human or otherwise, that made up this bright sight. There’s Jules Léotard, performing at the Cirque Napoléon in Paris, whose name lives on in every aerialist’s garb. There’s a taxonomy of clowns, the clever Harlequin, the “prancing Merry Andrew” and the melancholic Pierrot. There’s Hugo Zacchini, an Italian soldier in World War I whose idea for infiltrating enemy lines—firing soldiers out of cannonballs—proved integral to infiltrating pocketbooks in later circus performances, in which he, six brothers, two daughters, three sons, and a daughter-in-law were all blasted out of cannons. There’s Lottie Watson, an “iron jaw” act, who “holding a cannon from her mouth, which was discharged while she hung in mid-air.”

The circus, whether run by a teetotaler like Barnum, the even more straight-laced Ringling Brothers, or far more lascivious European peers, offered a collection of performers decidedly set apart from conventional society by birth or training. Parisian circuses offered a particular attraction to artists (more than incidentally due to the appearance of near-nude performers, it would seem), an escape from bourgeois conformity. Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Cezanne all frequented the circus and adopted it as a topic. The connection wasn’t simply observational; many frequented the company of circus performers. Picasso’s first lover was a trick rider and his first art dealer a former clown. Fernand Léger designed costumes for the circus. Even in the more staid U.S., the circus’ associations of escape were strong. William Dean Howells dubbed it the “true way of running off.” The traveling communities formed by the circus, if not as strange as many of their portrayals, were quite intrinsically bizarre assemblages.

These contained dark elements, for sure. Trapeze artists and those shot out of cannonballs would fall to their death. Underneath the wristband of Lillian Leitzel, a noted aerialist, her skin was “raw, bloody, scarred, often with festering abscesses.” The treatment of many animals was nothing if not inhumane; Jack London pressed for a boycott of all wild animal acts. Displays of malformations were obviously often strikingly offensive, none more so than the “Hottentot Venus.” Performers themselves became aware of this at an early point “In 1903, the New York Times reported that a group of Barnum and Bailey performers, including the Armless Wonder, the Human Pin Cushion and the Lion-faced Boy, met in Madison Square Garden to protest the use of the derogatory term ‘freaks,” Simon writes. Their preferred term? Prodigies.

Such efforts bore fruit. The more unseemly elements of circus performances faded, as, regrettably, did their popularity in an age of increasing competition from other mediums—cinema and television. Innovations did continue; 1960s politically minded circuses cropped up, none seemingly more colorful than the “Circus Oz” in Australia, an anti-nuke, pro-Aboriginal, satirical, “rock n roll” circus. Cirque du Soleil obviously sprang to startling success with a variety of shows since its 1987 founding. Its emphasis upon a plotted theatrical spectacle, has, as Simon notes, regrettably served to efface much of the personality that characterized earlier circuses. Occasional, more traditional efforts have met with success—the Big Apple Circus and lingering smaller acts. They are a welcome remnant, in an age of ample other literature about the circus—most happily and most recently, this very volume—of the physical reality of the circus, of heights that require no editing to embellish, of scents stranger than the barnyard that can’t be masked, and of a magic that happily has yet to fade.