In spite of its ominous title, this book is a hopeful attempt to document and illustrate the immemorial art of the traveling entertainers, Gypsies, and others, who brought through the centuries, if not the millennia, a measure of dreams and rapture in the midst of the often dreary, uneventful lives of sedentary populations. We have, indeed, reached a point when we may ask: can the circus in its primal nomadic form that welds humans and animals in a common destiny survive the onslaught of worldwide social and cultural transformations, and the toxic political atmosphere created by its detractors?
This book is divided into four parts, each one focusing on a fundamental aspect of traditional circus culture. Although there are many cross-references in the volume, the parts can be read as self-contained installments, somewhat like listening to separate symphonic movements without losing sight of the whole structure. The first part is devoted to the nomadic minority that has fostered the circus arts for countless generations: the Gypsies and other travelers. The second part addresses in depth the controversial issues that are raised nowadays concerning the use of animals in entertainments. The third part examines the contemporary status of the clown and its evolution in a social context that questions biases and exclusionary behaviors in the population at large. It asks: Can clowns survive as an accepted cultural institution in the age of inclusiveness and political correctness? Finally, the fourth part discusses the semiotic treatment of the body in circus performances: How do ostentation, objectification, and seduction fare in the context of contemporary legal standards and the flood of virtual images. The underlying theme in all these parts will be the tension between the ineluctable evolution of meaning-making systems and the struggling resilience of an institution rooted in the deep past of the human kind. This reflection will focus on the serious existential threats that these social, cultural, and technological transformations represent for the traditional circus in its modern form as it has flourished during the previous two centuries.
Whence and Whither the “Traditional” Circus?
The origins of the circus in Europe can be traced back to nomadic minorities that spread westward over long periods of time from the Asian subcontinent. The “traditional” or “classic” circus, as it is sometimes called nowadays, refers to a form of ritualistic entertainment that combines animals, acrobats, and clowns. The display of trained domestic and wild animals was indeed one of the assets of the trade of these itinerant performers in addition to acrobatics, playing music for special occasions, and providing other services in which they had acknowledged expertise such as basketry, metal and wood work, horse husbandry and training; as well as begging, fortune telling, casting or removing spells, and selling lucky charms and herbal medicines. These latter activities were frowned upon as forms of deviance by civil and religious authorities which periodically repressed their perpetrators with extreme violence.
On the other hand, the commodities and the crafts provided by these nomads were appreciated and rewarded by the people in the countries they roamed, although their peculiar ethos and their reliance on unlawful expediencies in times of duress often made them less than welcome. Their nomadic way of life and unusual activities embodied a fascinating otherness that was both feared and envied. Some small family groups could secure a part of their livelihood through putting on performances in villages and seasonal fairs. Extraordinary feats of acrobatics and animal control bordering on magic in the eyes of their naïve audiences captured the imagination of villagers and farmers, and the circus, under any other name, became an important part of European popular culture. At the heart of the twentieth century, films such as Ingmar Bergman’sSawdust and Tinsel (1953) and Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) bear witness to the haunting presence of these entertainers in the cultural memory of modern Europe. Both orchestrate the powerful symbols that are nurtured by the ever marginal presence among us of the circus and its phantasms.
Historical ethnography has documented the continuing albeit elusive existence of these travelers in Europe over many centuries and the eventual rise of the modern form of the traditional circus in England and elsewhere in Europe toward the end of the eighteenth century, an era of intense industrialization and urbanization that made possible the creation of permanent premises devoted to popular entertainments. The Gypsies, as they were known in England, were the main source of talents and entrepreneurship that raised the circus in its modernform to the rank of a cultural institution. Other minorities such as the Jewish communities which were also excluded from mainstream activities in Christian European countries contributed to the development and exploitation of this traditional trade and also begot some notable circus lineages such as the families Pauwels, Lorch, and Blumenfeld to name only a few (Bensimon 2005; Meishar 2020; Otte 2006).
The nineteenth century witnessed the birth of large-scale traveling shows that became a prominent part of the cultural landscape. The financial success of some of these enterprises captured the attention of some private investors who transformed the family-based circus into a prosperous industry. Bringing novelties, thrills, and exoticism to cities for the time of a few performances under their “big tops,” they fascinated urban crowds at a time when tourism was far from democratized, and television had not yet opened in every home a window to distant worlds. The numerous permanent constructions that popped up in most major European cities during that century sustained the interest of their audience through renewing regularly their programs by temporarily hiring traveling artists and their trained animals.
In the meantime, small troupes of Gypsy entertainers kept visiting lesser towns and villages, performing in open air or under tents, thus perpetuating their ancestral trade. Their nomadic way of life and the ephemeral wonders they produced were feeding the fantasies of their sedentary audiences, and elevated the circus to a powerful symbol of freedom, heroism, and license in the popular imagination.
From the mid-twentieth century on, the rise of modern technology brought so many social and cultural changes that the circus as a trade, an art, and a form of life progressively lost some of its glamour. It showed remarkable resilience, though, but on a reduced scale. Competition became more challenging and many traveling companies struggled to stay economically afloat, or simply discontinued their operation. The traditional family-based circus, even in its most successful forms, was confronted with an intense industrialization of its ancestral trade, supported by global capital and merciless marketing strategies. Today, the traditional circus that remains a source of fascination and wonderment where and when it is allowed to perform is under attack from many sides to the extent that its very existence is threatened and the possibility of its demise is on
“Death to the Circus!”
The end of the traditional circus is indeed a persistent theme in the twenty- first century’s media. Journalists started harping on this theme as early as the last decades of the previous century. An article published in The Economist in September 1988 bears witness to that ominous trend. The author lists the “conventional” circuses that had already gone out of business a decade earlier and welcomes, not quite enthusiastically, the “new” circus that appeals to “sophisticated” audiences. “The death of the circus”—that is, the traditional circus—was explicitly evoked two decades later by Jon Katz (2017). Nowadays, the traditional circus in many countries keeps edging toward its twilight zone. Some people lament the decline and disappearance of prestigious companies such as the iconic Ringling Bros, Barnum & Bailey Circus in America; some others applaud the demise of a popular entertainment they mistakenly equate with the systematic abuse of animals and humans. Animals, though, are currently the main focus of attention and the target of a cultural revolution that proclaims the absolute value of nature and freedom, thus advocating the “liberation” of captive circus animals and the discontinuation of their use in training and performances, including, at times, their mere display in zoos. This is part of a much larger movement that also radically opposes the use of animals in medical experiments and even questions the moral legitimacy of the husbandry of species that have been domesticated for food, clothing, and work since the advent of the Neolithic Age. The radical denunciation of this way of life as cruel and unethical leads a significant number of people to renounce meat consumption and adopt strictly vegetarian diets with fanatical fervor (Berson 2019). This emergent ideology in Western Europe, America, and beyond prompts some to commit acts of sabotage and legitimize physical violence toward those they consider the perpetrators of crimes against animals. The heroic posture of the traditional wild animal trainer confronting raging lions and tigers that was displayed on circus posters has now become for many the symbol of a shameful past. On August 5, 2018, the owner of the French circus Royal, William Kerwich, posted on Facebook a photo of one of their posters that had been vandalized by the “animalists,” the self-appointed defenders of “animals’ rights.” The colorful image had been defaced with the black inscription: “Death to the circus.”
Clowns on the Wane
Another iconic figure of the traditional circus, the clown, has lost its assumed mirthful innocence and its immunity to retributions for his playful transgressions of moral and civil norms. In recent decades, clowns have become the objects of suspicion and fear. Their presence or images are no longer a marketing asset. The benign traditional duo of the white-face clown and the auguste that has been for two centuries a favorite of their European audiences is claimed to have lost its cultural relevance and to persist only as a nostalgic reference to obsolete forms of comedy. A new mode of clowning, solo performers who entice or drag some members of their audience into the circus arena and make them the butt of more or less offensive practical jokes, is becoming the norm. However, this new paradigm is received with ambiguous feelings by the public as it thrives on a blend of self-deprecation and aggressive mockery. Many in circus audiences experience the fear of being picked on by these performers. Moreover, new standards of civility, commonly referred to as “political correctness,” drastically reduce the range of permissible gags and jokes. Coincidentally, the media have popularized the terrifying image of the clown as a faceless villain, if not a straightforward criminal. Such a change of attitude goes beyond the anecdotal and signals some deeper cultural evolution. As early as five decades ago, Federico Fellini, in his ominous film The Clowns (1970), anticipated the death of this circus icon by staging its mock funeral in a circus arena.
The Body: From Ritual to Spectacle
Acrobatics remain an accepted part of the traditional circus but the democratization of these skills, which are now taught worldwide in countless
circus schools, undermines their claim to uniqueness and tends to tone down their capacity to amaze spectators beyond belief. These performers also usually refrain from deliberately arousing the libido of their spectators. In addition, younger generations all over the world are exposed very early to the wonders of virtual reality that provide visual experience of bodies bouncing out of the gravitational universe with a virtuosity that cannot be matched by the most daring circus acrobats. Moreover, the often compulsory use of safety lunges and nets, and the systematic introduction of electric and electronic means of pulling aerialists up, down, and across during their acts temper the anxiety of their audience by factoring a coefficient of artificiality in the performances. Although lethal accidents occasionally occur, the shadow of death has been mostly erased for the sake of humanitarian and social considerations. Acrobats in the industrialized modern circus tend to accomplish their feats with the
precision of competent athletes or skilled laborers rather than romantic artists daringly confronting an uncertain, potentially tragic outcome. The traditional acrobats were prone to stage their performances as outwardly life-threatening challenges, even, at times, faking apparently accidental failures in order to enhance the audience’s anxiety and eventual appreciation. A poster such as the one announcing the visit of the circus Sabine Rancy in the early 1960s would now be unthinkable: it advertised “the leap of death” of The Clerans, a risky aerialist act with an ominous skull prominently displayed in the upper part of the image. By contrast, the “new” acrobats tend to foreground their neuromuscular prowess and avoid evoking death through their demeanor and the music they choose to accompany their acts. The ancient ritualistic meaning of these performances that verged on sacrificial staging has vanished to be replaced by spectacular displays of stunning costumes and aerial choreography in which both graceful movements and physical feats are the focus of attention, and little is left to chance.
The Human Dimension: “You! Wretched Gypsies!”
The purpose of this book is to confront these cultural changes both in terms of evolutionary semiotics, that is, the way in which general systems of meanings and values are transformed over time, and in terms of the particular impact these changes have on the individuals and families who experience them from inside, so to speak, as moral frustrations and economic losses. This is why this book starts with a celebration of the nomads who, since deep time, have created and nurtured the circus skills as a way to survive the challenges of a hostile world. Although the initiator of the modern form of the traditional circus, Philip Astley, was most probably a British Gypsy himself, as we will suggest in the first part of the book, the nomadic lineages that had perpetuated the circus as an art and a way of life over countless generations, have been dispossessed of their heritage by private business companies and global industrial enterprises that now exploit their symbolic capital and their talents while adulterating the very
essence of these traditions. At the same time, circus folks are under attack, both on legal and ethical grounds, for their assumed abuse of the animals they breed and train to entertain their audiences.
However, the threat does not target solely the traditional institution of the animal circus itself but extends beyond, to the ethnicity of the families which are accused of sustaining its perpetuation. The undercurrent of racist attitudes that feeds these attacks often surfaces. For example, on February 27, 2019, James Douchet, the owner of the French family circus Sebastien Zavatta, reported on Facebook that the afternoon performance in Bois D’Arcy, near Paris, had been marred by the protest of a small group of “animalists” from the association “Paris Zoopolis.” Since the circus had obtained the official permission to play in this town, the protesters were maintained at a distance by the local police while the
crowd was lining up to buy tickets and get access to the show, but one person claiming to be a journalist was allowed to approach the entrance. This was a pretext to be able to shout toward the circus folks: “You! Wretched Gypsies [Sales Gitans!]” Obviously, the proclaimed defense of animal well-being is conflated with a raw hatred for the ethnic minority whose members run most family circuses under a variety of trade names. The following morning, James Douchet posted a photo of the panels advertising his circus performance that had been vandalized during the night by splashing black paint in the form of crosshair targets upon their colorful images, an explicit threat of death. The comments triggered by this sort of posting on the social media open a reliable window on the state of mind of the population at large. Online support from other circus folks, often betraying less than optimal literacy, are confronted by hostile diatribes that gloss over animal rights to target the Gypsies themselves with calls to lynch them or demands that “their males be castrated in order to get rid of their race,” thus echoing the racial policy of a not so distant sinister time. The most violent imprecations appear to occur in France and are documented on the website of the Association des cirques de famille de France [the Association of the French family circuses], but a long sequence of such verbal attacks can also be seen in the UK in which an abundant BBC social stream followed, in 2019, the posting by a young British Gypsy denouncing the discriminatory signs erected in Scotland and England, barring Gypsies and travelers from the premises, shops, or pubs in several cities and villages, irrespective of their involvement in the circus trade, a long-standing exclusionary behavior that is amply documented by a few literate Gypsies who chronicled their daily life (e.g. Reeve 2003 ). The same signs are found in other parts of Europe, mainly on vacant lots that were previously used as “stopping places” by traveling families. This public discourse of exclusion and its official status in the form of township bylaws today perpetuate the ideologies that led to the persecutions engineered by the Nazi and Vichy governments during the Second World War. In many cases, it would seem that the declared commitment to rescuing circus animals is, in part, a way to legitimize the hostility toward the traditional circus in the service of another, less politically palatable, racist agenda. Those whose families have been involved in the circus for countless generations as a way of life are tragically affected by such hatred. Giving a voice to their anger and anguish, while trying to understand the current cultural evolution that jeopardizes their place in society, is one of the purposes of this book. To do so will require that these events and affects be framed in the much wider perspective of historical developments, cultural evolution, and the ensuing conflicts that arise from these social and political transformations. The challenge is to understand the forces at play in human societies since the advent of the Neolithic Age and the progressive demise of the hunter-gatherer ways of life that had defined the emerging humankind for several million years. In many respects, the Gypsies are heirs to the primal foragers who, through industry, cunning, and inventiveness, ensured the survival and development of the human species.
Table of Contents
1. Overture: Themes and Variations
Whence and wither the ‘traditional’ circus?
‘Death to the circus’
Clowns on the wane
The body: from ritual to spectacle
The human tragedy: “You! Wretched Gypsies!”
2. First Movement, Andante Sostenuto: The Time of the Gypsies
Who are the Gypsies?
Where do Gypsies come from?
Contrapuntal development #1
Being a Gypsy: the bane or bliss of difference
A deeper time perspective
The circus enters history: Was Philip Astley a Gypsy?
The art of survival
Contrapuntal development #2: What is a name?
Our inner Gypsy
An ode to resilience
On the flipside
The evolution of space, time, and cultures
3. Second Movement Vivace Furioso: Animals
Hunger rules the world
The human animal: the game of life and death
The hyena men of Nigeria
The death of a tigress
Hunger never stops
From non-animal humans to non-human animals
The cage acts of yesteryears
What is a wild animal?
The antiquity of the animal circus: the elephants
The antiquity of the animal circus: the predators
Ethos, ethics, and the Peterson effect
A self-defeating strategy
Cultural entropy and semiotic panic
4. Third Movement, Adagio Lamentendo: Clowns
What is a clown?
A detour to India: the Vidûshaka
A modern master: Charlie Chaplin
Two kinds of laughter
The twilight of the clown: off-limit humor
The clown and its discontents
The white-face clown: the waxing and waning of a cultural hero
Black face matters
The crucifixion of the clown
Free speech and the clowns: Is Jordan Peterson a trickster?
5. Fourth Movement, Maestoso Appassionato: Bodies
What is a body?
Modes of survival
Life on the brink of death
The body brought into play
Greatness and misery of acrobats’ bodies
Negotiating one’s own body: benefit-to-cost ratio
The visceral circus: bodies of fear and desire
Technological evolution and the perception of risk
For your eyes only: Eros at the circus
From ritual to spectacle
6. Coda, Sforzando
Resistance and resilience
The downfall of the traditional circus
The Anthropocene delusion
The reign of anthropomorphism
The return of the hyenas