Circuses at the turn of the 20th Century provided a fascinating experience that drew copious amounts of curious onlookers. It was a fun and entertaining experience for townspeople to be sure, but what was it like to be a performer in these dazzling spectacles? Alysia Constantine explores this world in her science fiction new novel Olympia Knife, and she was kind enough to offer some insight into the lives of circus performers all those years ago …
In the 1970s, when the circus rolled into town, our family packed into a darkened arena filled with the smells of popcorn and the rank odor of elephants. It was a chance for my sister to see her crush (tiger trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams) and for me to watch the sparkly acrobats. Now I know it also meant my parents spent money they didn’t have so we kids could briefly be dazzled.
For audiences in the Gilded Age (the peak of circus popularity), this was common, though on a smaller scale. Traveling circuses have been around since before the 1700s, but the heyday was in the socio-economic boom of the late 19th/early 20th Century, when the public stuff-to-do scene in the US flourished: this period saw the bloom of the department store, amusement park, mail order catalog, dance hall and (my favorite) Vaudeville. Entertainment and comfort went national. When the circus came to town, schools and businesses closed; everything stopped to focus on fun. By the early 1900s, more than one hundred traveling circuses were bumping down dirt roads or train tracks with their acrobats, animal menageries and freak shows.
Around this time, the US and England had begun to discover that things existed outside their own belly buttons. “Exploration” boomed, and this meant a fascination with ethnographic freakery and the display of “wild” and “exotic” people from around the (non-white) world. There were also “extraordinary” people—human oddities (tallest, shortest, thinnest, fattest, or those with other visible physical abnormalities) who were both disturbing and interesting to the “normal” public. Fascination with the freak, whether because she was foreign-strange or deformed-strange (or even possessed of strange abilities), helped everyone else feel normal, and thus part of an insider “us” who paid to stare at the outsider “them.” At a moment when science, medicine and geographic exploration were all expanding the formerly narrow worlds of British and American people, it was more important than ever to huddle together and form a strong group identity.
But real freaks can be hard to find, and even rarer are those with stage presence. Many freak acts were faked, or “gaffed.” Gaffed freaks were the specialty of that trickster P.T. Barnum—his Fejee Mermaid corpse, for instance, was the top half of a monkey sewn to a fish tail, and his ethnographic freaks were often American (his Wild Men of Borneo, for instance, were really two brothers from Ohio). The freak was less a proof of people’s ideas about the world than it was a result of them.
But, like all good and all bad things, the circus boom came to an end. Everything petered out around the end of WWI and the 1929 US stock market crash, when there was less money to spare and less need to feel united against a strange not-us.
The circus and its freak show had served its purpose: to unite a culture against a common enemy, to make an insider group by making a group of strange outsiders. Like Carnivale or Mardis Gras, it helped keep what was regular regular. It was a brief vision of strangeness that made the everyday seem more normal, a bunch of outsiders with strange bodies, weird cultures or unusual abilities who invited everyone to gawk together.
It all sounds strangely familiar. The popularity of the circus has faded, Barnum Bailey’s recent closing is the death knell. But maybe it’s just a change of form and the circus itself is only shifted into YouTube, Twitter, reality TV and its stars.
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