Last night, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its last performance.
People have always turned to escapist entertainment as a salve for the brutality of everyday existence. The Romans invented the word “circus,” meaning “ring,” and built such facilities to house horse races and historical reenactments (along with gladiatorial combat, thereby overlapping somewhat the role of amphitheaters like the Colosseum).
Our idea of a circus originated in the late 18th century as a trick-riding show in London, to which jugglers, clowns, and other itinerant entertainers were added as crowds showed their appreciation for a one-stop entertainment experience. By the time Ringling Bros.’ circus was founded a century later, there was a huge spectator appetite for experiencing fantastic, exotic, and death-defying moments.*
Ringling was the Blockbuster of its day, buying up lesser circuses and building what would become a global brand. It succeeded because it presented sanitized mayhem, letting spectators watch, and even laugh at the dangers and pains in their lives, only recast as safe entertainment.
A trapeze artist was a stand-in for the tenuous hold people had on their own physical safety. Clowns satirized the assumptions of intelligence and responsibility of those in power, as well as those who suffered from it. Marching, dancing, and jumping animals were a far cry from the suffering animals experienced in the real world (remember that when circuses were founded, people thought it was fun to watch chained bears get attacked by dogs until one animal died).
Those qualities have less value in a world where we enjoy even imperfect healthcare, online videos that skewer anyone and everything, and animal rights are an expectation, not an exception.
There’s no way Ringling could entertain its way out of this conundrum. The circus lost its connection to our lives. It became an escape from someplace to no-place.
In its place we have the Internet, which gives us access to all of the horrors of life, swaddled in comfortable spatial and emotional distance. The contrivance of people and animals trained to perform tricks has been replaced by a wash of individuals willing to risk their lives, or so it seems.
Who needs to watch someone balance on a high-wire when someone else is willing to ride his bike off the roof of his house? What’s a clown to do when everyone can come across as clownish, or be accused of it?
Threats of global climate change, animal extinction, terrorism, and the continued suffering resulting from starvation and disease are accessible 24/7. Better yet, registering our comments lets us feel as though we’re not only watching the Greatest Show in Earth, but participating in it.
The circus didn’t close last night. It’s always open now.
P.T. Barnum’s American Museum had burned down earlier, but had let visitors view strange relics from history and myth. Ripley’s Believe It or Not would follow in the early 20th century, first as a syndicated newspaper column, and then a physical museum.