If you were still dreaming about running away from home to join the circus, you’ve missed your chance. The Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers Circus has rolled up its tent and curtailed operations for good.
It seemed to me that what with this being the end of an era and all, we should be present the last time the circus came to town.
None of us had ever been to a real circus. We tried to go to one a few years back. The giant tent set up at a local fairground was visible long before we reached the parking area and the kids were just about jumping out of their skin in the back seat. The adults in the car were pretty excited, too. We wondered how we got to this point in our lives without ever seeing The Greatest Show on Earth live and in person.
Well, it was no secret really. My family wasn’t one for outings when I was growing up, so it was never really on the table. My husband’s family, on the other hand, lived under the shadow of the great Hartford Circus tent fire of 1944 that killed 169 people, injured hundreds of others and terrified everyone within earshot of a radio. My mother-in-law had plans to attend that day, but, as luck would have it, she missed the bus.
We shudder to think about how that day could have altered the course of our family’s history.
So it’s no surprise that our kids’ first circus would also be ours.
But just as we got settled in our seats, huge thunderstorms moved in. The tent was evacuated and the show was cancelled. No one was willing to take any chances with people and tents and lightning and fire. The kids were disappointed, but the storms we drove through on the way home were the kind that rocked the planet, so we understood.
That was years ago. The kids are grown now and one of them lives far away. Still, when we learned that the circus that was coming to town would soon be a part of the American past, we had to go.
The RB & B&BC had long been under protest for its use of animals in the show and, as attitudes shifted about wild creatures in cages, the circus responded in several ways. The old movie circus trains full of lions and dancing bears and giraffes had long since disappeared, but the modern circus held onto its elephants until the protests became too loud. This show still had tigers along with horses and dogs and camels, but had retired its elephants. Clowns, aerialists, tightrope walkers, trick cyclists, trampoline artists, cannon ball people, musicians, lights, sounds, costumes and surprises filled in the rest of the bill.
There was no tent. This was an arena show. There weren’t three rings—just one that could be moved and rearranged at will with performances going on inside, outside and above it. Set pieces were carried, wheeled, driven and hydraulically lifted to the performing area. Lights, cages for aerialists, scarves for gymnasts, and other props requiring height were lowered from the riggings. It was quite an operation. I had trouble focusing on one thing at a time and I wondered how on earth all those people got where they were going without crashing into each other.
And then I wondered what they were going to do when the show was over.
I can’t imagine that there is much work out there for tightrope walkers in a world without circuses.
I get why people had trouble with circuses and wild animals. Even if they are well cared for, big cats doing a trainer’s bidding in a small cage seems wrong—counter to the animals’ nature. And elephants? How comfortably could they possibly travel from town to town in any kind of conveyance?
In the show that we saw, the horses and camels trotted in formation while the riders did the performing. This is what horses and camels do. As long as they are treated well, they are probably living a pretty good life doing what they might very well be doing elsewhere. And the dogs were cute, enthusiastic and wildly energetic, running and jumping on command and doing what we are accustomed to seeing well-trained dogs do.
But the tigers bothered me. At first it was a thrill to see them. But watching thirteen giant tigers surrender to to the will of a single man seemed increasingly unnatural and instead of feeling awe at the power and bravery of the man, I felt embarrassed for the tigers. There was enough power in the sinews of those cats to terrorize the entire arena and yet their submission to this one man was complete. I felt bad for them.
We don’t go to the circus to feel bad.
It seems to me that the circus could survive without the humiliation of wild animals. Human mastery of daring feats is a thrill in itself. (The woman who flew across the arena after being shot out of a canon, for instance, brought me to my feet.) But other entities, like Cirque de Soleil, have mastered the all-human circus. And, in an era of technology, animals can be simulated. Think holograms and animatronics. But Disney has cornered the market on that.
So the circus as a genre still exists—a modern, more humane, updated version anyway.
It has evolved.
But the traditional circus that we romanticize in movies—the Charlie Chaplin circus of lions and tigers and carnivals and big-top tents and sawdust and ringmasters and pipe organs and magicians who sawed showgirls in half and goofy clowns and wayward monkeys—hasn’t existed for a long time. Even the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus couldn’t keep the idea of it alive anymore.
And now, after nearly a hundred and fifty years, the old-fashioned traveling circus is a part of our cultural history.
We got there just in time to wave goodbye.