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The Last Days of the Greatest Show on Earth

A radiant woman dangles fifty feet off the ground, her torso impossibly reversed against its natural bend, black light flickering off the flames and sequins on her magnificent costume, while only hands and feet keep her from slipping out the bottom of an open globe. For just an instant, panic seems to flicker across her face, but she governs it. Smiling all the time, she pulls herself up to a seated position, and shuts the latch. 

Six big cats arrange themselves shoulder-to-shoulder. They stand almost motionless as a heavily muscled tiger performs a standing leap over the group. A lion grunts annoyance at his distant cousin, who clips him on the descent. The handler firmly invites him to try it again. Once more he leaps, now clearing the whole lot of them, to uproarious applause.

A single rider brings her horse up to a steady canter. She leans down, and speaks gently into its ear. Her face a mask of total concentration, she climbs down the horse’s left side, crawls, with a spider’s dexterity, underneath the still moving beast, and re-ascends her mount on the opposite side. Everyone gasps.

These were the last days of the Greatest Show on Earth. After one hundred forty-six years, the lights will go out on one of America’s oldest institutions. With several other large shows gone or at risk of folding, and with smaller shows under pressure, it’s worth pausing to notice what we could lose: a privileged window into reality.

Consider the contortionists’ extreme, almost dangerous femininity. Their beauty and flexibility, those “soft qualities”, belie great strength and adaptability. One thinks of a woman’s ability to carry on several conversations at once, to sometimes manage a professional career and a family, to understand and nurture multiple lives and personalities, to grow and bring forth into the world another human person. There is an undeniable allure in these impossible movements, but it is wholesome, both pure and frank; not reducing a subject to an object, but, like the movements of a ballerina, giving form to feminine identity. This isn’t something we’re used to.

Hollywood knows no shortage of muscle-bound men who appear cool, calm, and collected under pressure. It isn’t real pressure though. Even the muscles are a little suspect. The lion tamer’s bona fides come in the form of his enormous charges. Trained or not, they’re very real. There’s no bureaucracy or red tape here. This is not the nominal, workaday authority we know; he truly has the power of command. When Princess the Lion growls and takes a swipe at him, it doesn’t matter that it’s part of the act. It’s an act that must be pulled off. There’s no blue screen.

The cats love each other, and him. My children can feel their warmth up in the nosebleed section of the arena. The lion tamer loves them as well; you can see it in his bearing, hear it in his tone. There’s a realistic love there: a healthy fear of what they are; a deep affection for what they are to him. Whatever the alleged cruelties of circuses past, it’s evident that we’re looking at the products of a kinder form of training, one that works on the animals’ natural affections, not their fears. It has given them what in their wild state they could never have fully developed—nobility. Here is reason’s imprint, the mark of the intellectual mind on a higher sensitive mind. We’ve forgotten about this.

There’s a lot we’ve forgotten. The rider’s dangerous stunt reminds us that security isn’t found only in avoiding danger, but also in skillfully confronting it. When the trapeze artist attempts a quadruple turn before a packed arena, we remember that predictability and control aren’t everything. When he fails, and plummets fifty feet onto the waiting safety net, we recall that great things can’t be attempted without humility. The same net reminds us that struggle and competition needn’t be pitiless in order to be productive.

Not every act can be high-flying. There’s an organic balance between the different parts of a circus that reminds one of the slow historical development of ships, cathedrals, or wind instruments. Clowns, to paraphrase a line from Ringling’s Out of This World show, live to give other people joy. They refresh an audience whose nerves are wound tight from the more death-defying feats. But they also provide a necessary distraction while the crew prepares the next act. It’s an amazingly complicated dance: the aerialists, the acrobats, the clowns…the living members, each with a role to play, whose coordinated movements form a beautiful union. Something like a vibrantly colored organism, something like a family.

The word family is painfully apt. Circus work is a generational trade, an increasingly rare thing in the modern world. That is why the closing of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus doesn’t feel like the closing of some business. It feels like a divorce. It feels like the premature ending of a family, the uprooting of a great and beautiful tree, a tree planted in American soil when this nation still bore much of its youthful luster. For so long, the Show went on, adapting but staying fundamentally true to her roots. How can they cut her down?

According to Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, the Circus’s closing was a “tough business decision.” Due to declining ticket prices, which dropped even more drastically when the elephants were retired, the Show became “an unsustainable business.” No doubt Mr. Feld knows the company’s books better than anyone, but these are hard words. Read Sawdust and Spangles, the recollections of legendary circus man W.C. Coup. Read about the ingenuity, the resourcefulness, the danger, the runaway trains, the horrifying wildfires, the quicksand, and a hundred other realities and challenges in the circus’s history, then try on that phrase “tough business decision.” A website announcement assures us that Feld Entertainment, a company that was founded with the acquisition of this circus, will still be providing “Marvel Universe LIVE!, Monster JamDisney On Ice, and Disney Live!” in which the “spirit” of the circus will live on. Thank goodness for that.

Generations of performers suffered and toiled for the Show. Their joy was to hear the delighted laughter of countless children, children transported by the pure wonder that it is the circus’s unique and incommunicable privilege to bestow. Joy, because the circus does not ask permission to be wonderful. Its performers do not stop at what seems humanly possible. This is something children understand, because it is close, as they are, to the first mystery of existence. Circus work is more than a business decision. It’s a vocation.

Perhaps the circus isn’t “respectable.” It isn’t “highbrow.” Well, it’s hard to think of many wonderful things that are still considered respectable. We are living in strange days. It’s considered odd for a child to climb a tree, and dangerous for the same child to walk a few miles with his friends without “adult supervision.” It isn’t odd if he stares at a screen for hours upon end, and brings a little screen with him wherever he goes. Strange, indeed, to consider that as we are witnessing this threat to one of Bradbury’s greatest inspirations, we are also seeing the realization in history of several of his nightmares. We have increasingly turned away from wonder, and toward easy pleasure. We can arrange pleasure, control it, but wonder costs us. It makes us go outside ourselves. It’s dangerous. Deep down, everyone longs for something good and dangerous that he can’t control, but only respect and stand in awe of.

The circus embodies the risk of wonder. Like all true entertainment, it is more than just an exercise in pleasure, in mere feeding. The Show delights us, but also challenges us to recognize home truths about the human person: That freedom—the iconic freedom of the acrobat—is the product of discipline, not just whim. That man’s destiny includes the ennoblement and care of animals. That magnificence and goodness are worth the expense and hassle they bring in their wake, and that man ought to be shaken out of his cloying obsession with comfort. That human sexuality, maleness and femaleness, is good and wholesome, just as it is dangerous and beautiful. That society is a collaboration of many different people; some wonderful, some odd, some strong, some weak—all necessary. That wonder is on the prowl, like a circus caravan, coming to a town near us, waiting to break into our world.

This improbable loss of the Greatest Show on Earth should not pass without notice, because of the gifts its performers gave to their world, and because of what its closing seems to tell us about our Brave New World. Yet the show must go on. Because it embodies something truly human, there’s hope that it will. It is right to mourn the loss of this Great Show that in many ways represented the pinnacle of an incredible art form. Still, one suspects that the circus cannot really be killed. Some of its performers will find their way to smaller shows, of which there are still many, refreshing them with their great talent. Others, perhaps, will become advocates for the circus, taking steps to defend this tradition in a western world that no longer understands the circus, because the West has become alienated from its own humanity, from man’s true connection with nature, from wonder, from danger, and from the hassle of adventures. The memory of the Big One will haunt smaller shows for years to come. Its performances will be endlessly studied and imitated; its legendary performers, never forgotten. In an age of screens, solipsism, and endless self-delusion, let us never forget this great monument to reality. Let us never forget the real circus.

Joseph Breslin is a teacher at The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland, where he also writes book reviews. More of his writing may be found at his blog, thecircusamericanus.com.

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