Can the Circus Still be the Greatest Show on Earth?

An ad for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, 1899. WORLD HISTORY ARCHIVE/ALAMY

This article, along with others celebrating 110 years of the Greatest Show on Earth, is featured in Newsweek's Special Edition: The Circus.

When Reuters reported on the ceremonial retirement of the final 11 performing elephants at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, it marked the end of 145 years of the magnificent creatures delighting and amazing circus-goers. To many, the pachyderms "leav[ing] behind their enormous studded tiaras" also meant the close of the first age of the American circus. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus may have hosted its last old-fashioned spectacle under the big top after circuses, aquariums and zoos all over the world struggled to regroup in a post-animal show landscape, but the grandest entertainment in American culture might yet transcend even the biggest show on earth.

Bonnie, Juliette and the rest of the Asian elephants retired by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey are living out their days on a 200-acre preserve in Florida, a fitting early retirement as well as proof of a seismic change to more than two centuries of entertainment tradition. Americans love the circus because it has the rare ability to invoke the real memories of one's first childhood visit coupled with the nebulous cultural nostalgia of circus parades, mustachioed ringmasters and the assembled curiosities of a world made wide before one's eyes. Perhaps no other form of entertainment so neatly encapsulates the elusive idea of a "simpler time" because no other art form remained so fundamentally unchanged throughout its history. It was this very sense of nostalgia and love of tradition that eventually doomed the circus as we once knew it, but the same desire for amazing spectacles that spawned the circus still runs deep, as companies such as Cirque du Soleil continue to redefine what a circus can be. The circus is dead. Long live the circus.

Though the circus in its global sense takes root in the traditions of medieval and renaissance Europe, the American circus can trace its unique style and substance to the legacy of one man: Buffalo Bill Cody. In his famous Wild West shows, Cody would attempt to paint as realistic a picture as possible of the frontier action that created the American West. Trick shooting, especially from horseback, was an integral part of the act, which gave the Wild West show its biggest connection to the origin of the Old World circus: amazing feats on horseback.

Part of the circus's appeal, in both Europe and America, has been the suggestion of a world within our material existence—one just beyond our reach where ordinary objects became fodder for the skill of jugglers, humans could fly through the air with nothing but courage and a horse was no longer just a mode of transportation but a vehicle for amazement. The American trick riding tradition that formed with the help of the Wild West shows, precursors to the three-ring circus, was a boisterous combination of the English style developed by trainer Philip Astley in the 1700s with the unique style of the West, especially traditional Native American techniques. The pairing of horseriding prowess and acrobatic skill would remain the centerpiece of circus entertainment for more than a century, and it can still be seen today both in the traditional form and in its modern cousin, motorcycle trick riding.

Fusing aspects of the grand, boisterous spectacle of these Wild West shows with the tradition of the French cirques intimes—the small-scale acrobatic shows that so fascinated artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec—the railroad circus would become the standard for American entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Beginning with small tours for which special wooden arenas would be built in each city and ending with the grand tradition of the "big top," the circus quickly became the most popular form of entertainment after vaudeville, and one man took the circus idea and made it into the biggest show anyone had ever seen—Phineas Taylor Barnum.

According to beloved poet e. e. cummings, "Actuality" was to be found at a Barnum circus, where "living players play with living." The "Prince of Humbug" was more than 60 years old and a successful businessman, owner of the famous American Museum and a member of the Connecticut legislature when he got into the circus business. After his American Museum burned down, Barnum decided to take advantage of the trend toward circus-style shows and launch his own big top extravaganza. Before long, he created an empire.

As Barnum was wont to do, his version of a circus was bigger, more boisterous and more awe-inspiring than any of its predecessors. The scale alone, a 145-city rail tour going as far west from New York as Topeka, Kansas, began the all-American tradition of the circus parade as a cultural highlight of small-town life. At this point, Barnum's circus was one of perhaps 30 traveling circuses crisscrossing the country, but it would be his that defined the modern circus, from his use of exotic animals to his inclusion of a sideshow to his continuation of the display of curiosities in the style of his American Museum. Today, the circus is struggling to cope with the changing times: Exotic animals are rightly no longer thought of as fodder for entertainment, and the very format of the classic big top show has been forced to change as a result. But there are still spectacles that prove Barnum's passion for showmanship, wonder and escapism is alive and well, leaving fans of the classic art form to wonder how the circus will regain its former position among the most beloved of American pastimes.

This article written by Senior Editor, Tim Baker, was excerpted from Newsweek Special Edition: The Circus. For more on the Showman P.T. Barnum and the evolution of the Greatest Show on Earth pick up a copy today.

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