Young author meets up with old circus: Douglas McPherson
Reading Douglas McPherson’s book, Circus Mania!, I gradually came to realize that the circus of the future as I have ruefully imagined it — circus acts, some at least, still in evidence, but the delivery form radially reduced, or should I say, shrunk, to a random landscape of residual bits and pieces – is here. May I repeat: Is here. At least it is here in the British Isles, where it might be argued that “circus’ has taken the greatest toll. By McPherson’s cleanly straightforward account, “circus” now competes, and not too well, with “cirque” – the latter used by many newer troupes trading, of course, on the fame of Cirque du Soleil.
The formidable UK animal rights crowd will be smiling, if not cheering. They, who launched their campaign during the days of P.T. Barnum, have come close to getting most of what I think they all along wanted. By 2015, wild animals acts face a "probable ban" in the UK, McPherson informs me by e-mail. But the functionally non-sentimental Brits are perhaps the best equipped to accept the inevitable Even the flamboyant showman Gerry Cottle saw the writing on the wall. He retired his animals some years back, and now runs a circus school. Strange, old circus performers never die, they just start up circus schools. Quite apt: We are finding ourselves vaguely aware of a spreading sprawl of younger artists who go in for “circus skills” more than they do for regularly touring circuses.
Can you see, as I do, a devolution back to pre-Astley days, when circus skills and animal acts long flourished out in the open, in randomly arranged, if arranged at all, presentations. They were seen on street corners, at festivals and fairs. That older era is making a comeback. Today, their default menu would be "performance art."
As McPherson reports it, and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of his wide-ranging survey, “animal circuses” as they are now called, draw small crowds, to put it politely. The newer experimental shows, “all human,” do much better. Some draw healthy crowds.
And to my eye, they come off as looking far less interesting. U.S. circus fans enjoyed a spoiled status during the great age, past tense, kids, when tent shows of dazzling variety and many rings swung into towns, threw up acres of canvas and captivated crowds with fast moving programs, sans the corrupting intermissions that today have turned what is left of them into noisy and formless (may I insert "obnoxious"?) carny circuses.
Now, let me defend Cirque du Soleil — McPherson ironically is not nearly as responsive to its production reach as am I — for Cirque presents, at its best, tightly integrated, terrifically paced performances. See why they have my respect? And, yes, they come without animals. But CDS has found brilliant ways to approximate old time imagery; Are those exotic crawling human creatures who slither into the ring at the start of another show not an allusion to jungle land? And do not the intensely concentrated sound effects, music and lights not endeavor to approximate a three ring extravaganza?
McPherson seems to have taken in, so far, only one Cirque show, Varakei, and to its best acts he gives highest kudos. He leaves, however, not much at all moved by all of the production values, which he finds off-puttingly excessive. The Brits were never high on extraneous showmanship that has long flourished across the Big Pond. Cirque was not well received when it first played London, nor was the business promising.
The young author, who did not grow up around circus rings, is struck, early in the book, by an epiphany when he and his partner (she rather reluctant to check it out) take in a “circus,” which means with animals: Martin Lacey’s Great British Circus. The turnout, he reports, is poor. The show has been struggling to stay solvent in a hostile environment.
“Entrance of the Gladiators,” played to begin the show, has an “extraordinary” impact on our scribe.
“But within the big top, with the trampled mud, the sawdust and the whiff of horses, it hits me harder than any piece of music I have ever heard. Two hundred and fifty years of tradition, the circus magic, call it what you will — it hits me like a train.”
But, as of a few days ago, The Great British Circus is no more. It is history.
Next time: Douglas McPherson’s emotions take a dive, and a tale honestly reported turns depressing. Cry, Jumbo, cry.