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Under the big top

November 19, 2010

The circus is in town. Literally. I have seen the advertisements for about a week, and this morning on my marshrutka ride to work, I saw the set up.

Circuses don’t really mean much to me. I know that, as an American, I am supposed to be hugely entertained by circuses – for some reason they are terribly popular as entertainment. This, however, is a form of entertainment we cannot claim to have invented (unlike “Reality TV”).  We cannot even claim to have improved upon it, because most of the “innovations” that came about in the circus business. I guess because we do it “bigger” than others, that is our claim to fame. So why are we so fascinated with a circus?

When I think of a circus, one of the first ones that comes to mind is the Shrine Circus. Probably because I went to the Shrine Circus a couple of years ago. I remember sitting there and thinking “Wow, this is it? Was I really impressed by all this as a child?” Of course, the answer is probably “yes” and perhaps it really is different now than it was when I was a child (though quite honestly, I don’t think I ever really liked circuses). I always felt, and still feel, bad for the animals that are part of a circus. I mean, these poor things being made to perform acts, probably starved and whipped to get them to be compliant. Just not right.

Fortunately, animal rights activists were able to throw light on the cruel treatment of the circus animals (more recently, the book “Water for Elephants” served the same purpose). These days, the Shrine Circus seems to focus more on acrobatic feats and clowns than it does on animals (though they still have elephants, something that broke my heart to see when I got to go backstage and saw them chained up).

Another thing that comes to mind when I think of circus is a TV show from the late 70s-early 80s – I guess one of the first “reality” shows – called Circus of the Stars. Someone else besides me MUST remember this show! There were a lot of television (and film) stars on that show, and I remember it fondly as a part of my childhood.

It comes as no great surprise to me that the concept of a circus goes waaaaaaay back, to early Roman times (or perhaps earlier than that?). I actually saw the grounds in Rome where circuses were held (Circus Maximus), which is now a long field but is nonetheless a place of historic significance. I could imagine the crowds of people there for the entertainment (same imagination when I was at the Colosseum, but that is another story). Bring us a couple thousand years forward, and today’s best-known circus may not be Barnum and Bailey, Moscow State or Circus Royale (Australia) but Cirque Du Soleil, which is animal-free and still as (if not more) entertaining than the rest of them. Oh the way people can manipulate their bodies is amazing! That was the part of the circus I always liked.

So what is the appeal of a circus, anyway? It is the people performing acts that require acrobatic skill or another talent? Is it the clowns? Is it the animals? Is it what PT Barnum is known for, introducing the “freak” sideshow? The cotton candy? (while cotton candy is now available in grocery stores all year round, it is not quite the same as buying it at a circus or carnival.)

Whatever the reason people like circuses, they are still in existence, though maybe not quite as popular as during their “heyday”. After all, there are so many more entertainment methods to compete with a circus, and with all of the unbelieveable feats we see people perform on television and in movies, circus entertainers almost seem…quaint in their abilities. Nonetheless, they persist, and probably will for a while yet. As for me, I don’t see myself attending this form of entertainment anytime soon.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    November 19, 2010 8:04 am

    Because circuses were brought to the small towns in which people lived, worked and worshipped, basically surviving, it was a welcome means of entertainment in which they were awed by sights and animals they would not otherwise have known existed. It brought laughter and treats not otherwise available as well. The perfect form of entertainment, no matter what the century.
    Smaller carnivals were offshoots, too, and you saw plenty such sights as a youngster. The next offshoot is the zoo, of course, which provides a permanent, more suitable environment for the animals while allowing people to visit and be awed. Not always fair to the animals, but a good means of educating the masses about the world in which they live.

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