Circuses are made from the stuff of dreams. Human cannonballs and the death-defying stunts of high-wire acrobats reveal that we can fly. Trained animal acts are proof that humankind and even the wildest, most frightening beasts can live together in harmony. The crazy gags and reckless abandon of the clowns are manifestations of the absurdity that populates our subconscious. All are expressions of the desire to transcend the quotidian, the ordinary and the day to day.
News then that the Ringling Brothers Barnum Baily Circus, long proclaimed “The Greatest Show on Earth,” has closed, holding its last performance in Uniondale, N.Y. on Sunday, demands a moment of reflection, not just for the loss of a venerable business — Ringling Brothers is a 146-year-old concern — but for the loss to our collective imagination, the part of every person that dares to dream. After all, who has not, for even the briefest of moments, considered running away to join the circus?
Circuses trace their origin to the Romans — some would go further back in history and credit the Greeks — as exhibitions of horse and chariot races, staged combat (sometimes featuring gladiators), and trained animals. Even then the programs were popular: The final version of the Circus Maximus, the first circus in the city of Rome, seated 250,000 people. When that empire fell, the programs became itinerant, with performers traveling across Europe to delight local audiences.
The modern circus is credited to Philip Astley, an English cavalry officer, who set up the first permanent showcase for equestrian tricks in London in 1768. He was not, like so many other important names in this history, a performer: He did, however, recognize the value of a good show. He added other acts to link various performances together.
The 19th century brought several innovations: the proliferation of stages, or “rings” where different acts took place, all under a single roof; the “Big Tops” or tents that provided the setting for performances as the entourage moved from place to place rather than stay in a single location; and a ringmaster who would present the entire spectacle.
Showman, huckster and politician Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum got in on the game in 1870, when he established “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” a traveling circus, menagerie and a museum of “freaks” — biological rarities like The Bearded Lady and the Siamese Twins. In 1888, he joined with James Bailey to produce “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and in 1919 they hooked up with the Ringling Brothers. Versions of that incarnation continued until last Sunday, when the Big Top was struck for the last time.
Japan has its own distinguished circus history. Japanese-style circus acts flourished during the Edo Period and it is said that some of the first Japanese allowed to travel abroad after the end of the isolation period were circus troupes, who wowed the world with their skills. Some even joined the Ringling Brothers show.
There are several reasons why the curtain has come down on the Ringling Brothers operation. One compelling explanation is the high operating cost of moving such a sprawling operation on a regular basis.
Contributing to that calculation is the diminished audience that followed the decision in 2016 to retire the elephant act, a move that followed pitched legal battles with animal rights groups — which Ringling Brothers won — and a growing shift in the public mood about seeing such regal animals in the confined setting of a circus. It is ironic that Ringling Brothers paid the price for bowing to changing attitudes about performing animals: The public may not have wanted elephants to perform, but they were apparently willing to pay for the experience: Attendance dropped significantly more than expected after the move.
Many observers, however, blame “the marvels of modern society” for undermining the circus. Gone are the days when the arrival of the circus train promised an escape from reality or the introduction via sights, sounds, smells and even taste of exotic worlds. Video games and computer-generated imagery (CGI) offer that up on demand. Some circus historians trace the beginning of the end back to the advent of the television era, when regular programming began to provide spectacles on a daily basis. It is telling that Feld Entertainment, the company that owns the Ringling Brothers circus, explained that it will now concentrate on its other “spectaculars,” which include the Marvel Universe LIVE!, Monster Energy Supercross races and Disney On Ice, among others.
Other circuses or circus-like performances flourish; it is estimated that there are at least 50 circus companies in the United States alone. The most notable is Cirque de Soleil, a Canadian circus company formed three decades ago, which highlights human virtuosity and dazzling choreography to entertain tens of millions of people in a more intimate setting.
Cirque du Soleil’s revenues are approaching $1 billion, proof that there remains an audience for escapism, heroism and the other stuff of dreams. As the ringmaster says, the show must go on!