The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus
There is a great feeling of excitement stepping into the opening pages of Linda Simon’s promising new book, The Greatest Shows on Earth. Jumping quickly into the ring, she grabs hold of what circus is all about:
“It started like this: Someone captivated attention by doing what others could not do.”
Her tour takes us back by more than a thousand years to find evidence of performing bears, jugglers and the like, and then moves forward, to find them all (eventually) joined gloriously together in one showmanly stroke of good fortune by English horse rider Phillip Astley, in effect creating the first “circus” show in London. The year was 1770.
Astley, something of an early day Guy Laliberte, would go on to operate 19 circus amphitheaters in France and England . One of his disciples, Bill Rickets, would bring Astley’s form of circus to America.
And from there, the Americans, thanks to a little help from ballyhoo master P.T. Barnum, would grow a one-ring show into spectacular proportions, taking three rings and two platforms to London’s Olympia in 1899, for a three month winter run. The reception was so great, they added seven thousand seats to the five thousand already in place
“The American style circus “ writes our tour guide, “took London by storm. After the opening, it was impossible to get tickets ... Unless you ordered them for weeks ahead."
So lifted were my spirits by how Simon followed these and other watershed moments, that I expected a major literary achievement ahead, both entertaining, informative, and complete.
Complete, sad to report, “A History of the Circus” is far from. Incredibly far from. The big picture Simon so skillfully composes in her early chapters eventually dwindles down to a minuscule portrait of today’s niche shows. Hard to believe how she could have overlooked the entire Soviet-to-Russian circus empire, which remains a major player out there in the real world. From Russia’s creative roots, Cirque du Soleil would, years later, rise, to become a global phenomenon. Even Cirque gets short shirt in this curiously under-researched tome. Charged with favoring "spectacle" over true "artistry" — a tired knee-jerk put down by envious rivals, previously labeled against Ringling-Barnum — Cirque clearly deserved much more from the author.
Another legendary 20th century impresario, John Ringling North, barely escapes being ignored as well. Were it not for his famous elephant ballet, he might have been. The felds — remember them? — do not make the final cut. Not even a cameo! For an academic writer embarking on a project so sweeping in its heralded scope, not to spotlight the Russians (nor, for that matter, the Chinese) is simply inconceivable — tantamount to a book on world cinema leaving out Hitchcock or Fellini. Perhaps on library shelves, where Simon appears to have spent most of her time, she failed to come across anything about the Russians, other than their Moscow Circus School, which she mentions only in passing.
During the five-year period while Barnum & Bailey was touring Europe (1897-1902), “the Ringlings made their biggest advances, performing in arenas rather than under tents” Oh?
“Gunther Gebel Williams did not use a whip, chair, or pistol” Not a whip? I don’t recall ever seeing him without one, nor do the photos I have.
And there are missing icons, such as arguably the greatest juggler of our era, Anthony Gatto, and surely the greatest flyer of all time, Miguel Vazquez. All of which made me wonder what else is wrong or misleading.
The rarely plodding Simon is a most engaging writer — there is plenty here to enjoy and savor. She draws from many great writers and artists who have found inspiration around the sawdust rings. She explores clowns and animals, among the usual topics, with a fine gift for nuance and balance. And you will not feel being lectured to by an edgy feminist. She is good at evoking the erotic undertones of early circus shows, and of how the circus, then about the only game in town, held such sway over the public. She gives voice to the reactions of people from long ago, of how the circus coming to town thrilled them. She reveals a particular fondness for freaks, giving the side show perhaps more time than it merits in a long penultimate chapter bordering on the gratuitous, just before the big parade peters out into alternative circus land, exemplified in the photo below.
Thus does the book fall woefully short of a greater mark that its author clearly has the talent to have reached: Instead of the story advancing onto the great victories of the Russians, of Cirque du Soleil and of today’s still-powerful Ringling shows, not to mention world circus festivals -- instead of that, Simon ends up, of all places, in Berkeley California. There, she talks to Shana Carroll, in her youth a performer with the long-gone Pickle Family Circus, then co-founder of Seven Fingers, one of the more successful of many fringe groups struggling to find and hold an audience, and to others of a like minded advocacy. The short list of interviews is small, narrow, limiting. As to their claim that those larger and glitzier shows are all about "spectacle" — heck, when I want to see the best acts on the planet, I go looking for and expecting to find them at Ringling or Big Apple, or under a Cirque du Soleil tent. Even under a smaller U.S. top.
I was left to wonder if Simon has ever actually seen a Cirque show – indeed, any circus?
The book is ideally designed to give both text and the handsome photographs ample space, the reader, a very good view of it all. What is there, make no doubt, kids, is well worth recommending.
Astley's Amphitheater, 1808-11
Banner act, 1875
James Tissot, Women of the Circus 1883-85
Lolo''s Flight Through the Balloons, c. 1870s
The Circus Girl, 1897
A Zingaro show, 2012
Early cannon act, 1887
Forepaugh & Sells poster, 1899
Lillian Leitzel and clown, date unknown