The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The disappearance of the circus from American life leaves us lonelier

Circuses made entertainment a community event

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson says farewell to the crowd alongside Paulo Dos Santos, center, and Tatiana Tchalabaev, right, at the end of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Uniondale, N.Y., in 2017. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Much about popular entertainment has changed over the past century — from movies to talkies to television to VHS to DVD to Blu-ray to streaming. But as platforms have come and gone, one remained a constant: the American circus.

The cry “the circus is coming to town” once signaled a fourth major holiday, equivalent with Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Fourth of July. Shops, public offices and schools closed, and an entire populace assembled to witness the parade of bands, clowns, exotic animals and bejeweled performers marching from the rail yards to the circus grounds, paced by aromatic elephants and shrieking calliope music all the way. But the circus did more than entertain. It reassured Americans that anything was possible.

The circus has roots extending back to Greek and Roman times when emperors stalked wild beasts in coliseums to the delight of crowds. It was revived in Turkey in the Middle Ages when acrobats walked ropes that stretched from one ship’s mast to that of another. During the 18th century, British equestrians found gainful employment after life in the calvary corps by performing impossible feats of horsemanship inside a carefully measured ring (42 feet in diameter to this day, maximizing the centripetal force that plants a performer upon the mount).

Such acts captured early American audiences as well. George Washington took delight in shows featuring little besides horses and riders, an occasional juggler or tumbler and the necessary clown who did standup or slapstick while the next act was preparing. In the early 1800s, elephants — not seen in the United States before 1796 — took the spectacle to new heights.

What drew audiences of 7,000 to 10,000 beneath the big top day after day in whistle-stop after whistle-stop, however, was the prospect of seeing seemingly impossible things: human beings cavorting upon the backs and heads-in-the mouths of animals from storybooks, performing feats of daring on swings and slender wires 100 feet or more aloft that the Wallenda family would apotheosize. It was a nonstop array of death-defying activity punctuated by such 20th century astonishments as automobiles soaring into loop-the-loops and elephants performing ballet choreographed by Balanchine, the gone-mute clowns cavorting all the while.

In the United States, these amazing feats helped make the circus into a political and social institution that reflected sky’s-the-limit thinking. The circus’s development paralleled the nation’s own growth. Yes it was a diversion, but one that also became a portable manifestation of the American Dream. “To go from the lonely prairie or the dusty cornfield and come face to face with the amazing aggregation of worldwide wonders,” wrote novelist Hamlin Garland in 1899, “was like enduring the visions of the Apocalypse … a glittering river of Elysian splendors, emptying itself into the tent.”

The circus had followed the very opening of the frontier itself, with dozens of shows trailing closely after the settlers they served, first in wagons pulled by teams along dirt tracks that turned to mire with every rain, then aboard rail cars on a system that became the lifeblood of Western growth. Rail transport, championed by James Bailey, allowed for vast expansion of the traveling shows, the largest of which not only featured three or four hours of action under the “big top,” but formidable sideshow displays of human and natural oddities, as well as sizable menageries, the precursors of modern zoos. Such expansion also began the era of consolidation in the industry, where the ability to present a “million dollar show” in the words of latecomer circusman P.T. Barnum (1870s) meant the difference between the entertaining and the unforgettable.

In the 1880s, Bailey merged with Barnum after a monumental contest over elephants, and their “Greatest Show on Earth” reigned supreme until the advent, a decade later, of the upstart Ringling Brothers, who’d grown from a penny show in their Wisconsin hometown, to wrest control of the industry by introducing such sophistications as ballet performances to the more oddity-laden repertoire that Barnum favored. Early in the 20th century, after the deaths of Barnum and then Bailey, the business-savvy John Ringling engineered a merger of the two dominant forces in an industry that had become synonymous with mass entertainment in the nation.

By the 1920s however, even after Ringling and his brothers had subsumed the operations of Bailey and Barnum and were netting as much as $200 million per year in today’s dollars, their business faced newfound competition. Radio became near-universal and film had progressed from moments-long diversions presented in arcades into gripping dramatic spectacles where audiences watched in air-conditioned comfort (as early as 1925) as seas were in fact parted, bushes did burn and the dead rose to amaze — or terrorize — the living. Furthermore, the advent of the automobile made Americans mobile and independent, able to choose among any number of far-flung diversions for fun.

By the time television became ubiquitous in the 1950s, the writing was on the wall. The Feld family, who purchased the Combined Shows from Ringling heirs in 1967, made a go of it for another half-century, but in May of 2017, the show — its elephants dropped two years before as a result of mounting pressure from animal rights activists — was closed for good. It left behind a few small regional shows, currently covid-shuttered Cirque du Soleil and such vestiges as the television show “America’s Got Talent,” as a reminder of what once dominated popular entertainment.

Some might dismiss the passing of the circus as the demise of an outmoded pastime, but to dismiss an enterprise that for more than a century held an entire nation spellbound is a shortsighted example of ahistoric thinking. One cultural critic deems the long success of the circus to be a result of its ability to wrap up the “American Experience,” including most everything that we find entertaining — exoticism, supreme athleticism and life-or-death drama — in the space of an afternoon. And, adds Kenneth Feld, successor to his father Irvin as latter day circus man, all the impossible feats witnessed in the circus are real — a reminder of the institution’s ability not only to entertain but inspire.

Certainly, the loss of the circus makes us a more lonely people. Cultural historian Ernest Albrecht laments the fact that technological advancement has resulted in the increasing delivery of entertainment directly into homes (and phones), where diversion often becomes a solitary act. “As a result,” Albrecht says, “there will be fewer and fewer opportunities to come together with others to create that special group known as an audience.” And that not only reduces a sense of community, but also the ability to turn to a neighbor and share the wonder: “Did that really just happen?”