THE END OF THE CIRCUS Comments and Observations
By Professor Ron Beadle (Northumbria, UK)
Professor Paul Bouissac began the academic study of circus almost single-handedly over fifty years ago. Since then, this former Circus School teacher, Director, friend to hundreds in the circus community and Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto, has produced one remarkable book after another. I should begin however by declaring an interest. I am one of the people praising the book on its back cover, alongside my brother David Könyöt, who is also quoted in the text. But in my defence, I read and admired the work long before meeting and admiring the man.
Professor Bouissac is a committed academic and by that, I mean that there is no pretence to academic neutrality here – he is on the side of classical circus and uses his gifts to explain and to advocate for it. Like all good social scientists, his work should be read at two levels. The first is telling a story, and there is plenty of that here – stories about gypsies, stories about wolves, stories of love and stories of hatred. But at the deeper level he is telling his readers how best to understand these stories and that is the core of his ‘semiotic’ theory.
I will start with this theory. Any ongoing social activity (funfairs or football, science or circus) requires a background of beliefs that legitimises it so that most people regard it as worthwhile. When these background beliefs change, it becomes vulnerable. It is this that accounts for the declining popularity of circus and the legal prohibitions on circus animals.
Professor Bouissac argues that the display of wild animals was once popular because people appreciated its demonstration of humanity conquering nature. In previous centuries audiences understood the fear of the wild. Over time however, that fear has dissipated, and most people regard animals as disguised humans. Even acts that present wild animals as friends unwittingly contribute to this error. The error is profound but culturally embedded.
Similarly, the thrill of the aerial act required audiences to appreciate awe, to distinguish an artiste victorious over danger and fear from a gaming hero leaping in cyberspace. Likewise, reduce legitimate comedy to the norms of political correctness and the palette of the clown is fatally restricted. And so, the decline of classical circus and the rise of the humourless, animal-free, thrill-free contemporary circus.
The first part of the book presents an even more distressing thesis, that the racist hatred of travellers extends from gypsies to circus people. The book provides powerful arguments for circus’s gypsy heritage, not only the already known heritage of many circus families but of Philip Astley himself.
It is hard to do justice to a book of this ambition and scholarly depth in a brief review so in conclusion I should point out that there will be a much more reasonably priced paperback version coming out next year. Buy it.
Dr Roman Esqueda Atayde
Reading your book was a deep and interesting experience for me. I grew up in my maternal family’s circus (Atayde Hermanos). I lived in the circus from when I was born until I was 6 years old. After that time I spent all my school vacations travelling with the circus. For this reason I just couldn’t read your book as a semiotician. And I had to wait a little time to give you a more academic comment but, as you will see, that’s impossible for me.
Having grown up in what I lived as “two completely different worlds” (the circus with “circus people” and the city with what circus people in Mexico call “gente del pueblo” or “town people”) things were kind of difficult for me. Some of the things you mention in your book explain some of the experiences I lived as a young child and in my teens!. Some people would see us as “Gypsies” with the ‘bad’ connotations you mention in your book (nomadic life / dangerous people, etc…). Fortunately for me and my brothers “Circo Atayde” was considered a very succesful circus at that time, so the bad connotations were tinted by admiration and respect. While I tried to solve the dychotomy “circus people vs town people” by practicing a flying trapeze act with my brothers i had to quit and went back to school becoming “town people”. I spent a few moths training with the Flying Palacios family in Sarasota Florida. My two brothers decided to stay in the circus and learnt to train animals (elephants, horses and camels). When I grew older and got my Ph.D (mexican doctorado) people would ask me (afraid of being rude) if I had something to do with circus people (¡¡¡!!!). On the other hand a very painful and courious effect was that I found myself “out” of the circus and kind of dissapeared form the Atayde family life I think this is a very interesting subject for your research: how circus people conceptualize and perceive “town people”. In my experience I became an “outsider”.
This brings me to your second movement. I had the chance to see and experience many fascinating semiotic experiences between my brothers and the animals they trained: elephants, horses, camels. Animal-human interactions “town people” can hardly imagine. For example my older brother went to work at an american circus for 5 years. He came back on vacation and went to visit the elephants he used to train. When he arrived 7 big elephants sorrounded him and made a lot of noise pampering him with their trunks. I saw many such scenes then. So there was “communication” but also what seems to me empathy and what I can only understand as affection (although this might seem anthropocentric). Many years after I visited my brother when he was working at Ringling Brothers in the USA. I took my daughter and son to see the show. There where many people protesting against the presence of animals in the circus and that was very embarassing for me and my family. Of course your quote from Isocrates (p.109) is very wise but the great divide between the perception of some animalists and the reality of many circus’ animals is far from accurate.
I completely agreee with your hypothesis about why traditional circuses are disappearing (Coda). The almost complete dissapearance of uncertainty that modernity brought about and the higher educational standards (at least in developed countries) of a great part of the popultion have made a great impact on the interest of people in the traditional circus.
I would like to comment on the subject from the perspective of mexican circuses and their situation.
My family struggled for many years with a slow but permanent decrease of interest in the circus. They tried to explain this situation through many hypothesis. They called me for professional advice from marketing research. We made some research with circus attendants. What we found was very similar to your conclusions:
- The circus is metaphorically in the past. They loved it in their childhood but they wouldn’t attend if they didn’t had children.
- The circus show is something they want their children to experience but only once in their lives. They feel bringing their kids to the circus is part of their parental duties because their parents took them too. Once is enough. Kids generally don’t want to go back.
- They find circus shows today are exactly the same as the ones they saw as kids so it is not interesting (it is allways the same).
- The image of the circus in Mexico is static. The circus hasn’t been able to adapt to today’s world.
- One of the motivations the circus used to fulfill was the opportunity to have an amazing live experience that would bring people metaphorically to another world. people could experience things they couldn;t experience nowhere else. The circus gave people the chance to metaphorically “go out of routinary life”, “out of what is known”, “out of “the same”. The conceotual metaphor thst life is a container where things are allways the same was needed to bring attendants to the circus. But circuses fell on these sameness and didn’t change. So they stopped fulfilling the motivations they were supposed to.
When I presented these findings of our research to my uncles and made some recommendations of what to change my family said they were convinced that a good traditional circus was what people wanted and didn’t accept trying to innovate. And then… the circus stopped being a good business. Therefore they went out of business.
Mexican circuses are struggling to survive. But this started about 40 years ago, long before the prohibition of animals in circuses.
There are other colateral problems in Mexico all reltaed to security of traveling, big areas of the country that are unaccesible, and many others related to delictive groups, etc…
By Dr Steve Ward
The work is both interesting and thought provoking and although the title may appear somewhat gloomy, the author whilst discussing the slow demise of the traditional circus, does offer a crumb of hope for the future.
The work is divided into four ‘Movements’. In the Introduction and opening section of Movement 1, much time is devoted to establishing the term ‘Gypsy’, and puts forward the theory that the traditional circus has its roots deeply embedded within Gypsy culture. It also contends that the development of the ‘modern’ circus was not created by one man in a seismic moment of inspiration, but that was something underpinned by the bedrock of talent held within Gypsy culture. These theories provoke debate, largely because of the lack of factual evidence.
The remaining part of the work explores how the traditional circus has become the victim of socio-political ideologies. The author outlines in some detail how the bedrock traditional circus arts of animal training, clowning, and acrobatics have all become subjected to a new woke’ ideology. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being ‘woke’, that is, being aware of social injustices but when ‘wokism’ becomes activism and impinges on freedom of expression and speech we enter dangerous waters. If ‘wokism’ embraces anti-racism, in its broadest sense, then prejudice against Gypsies also falls within this ideology.
To define exactly what a Gypsy is becomes a very complex task, when you consider that there are many varying different Gypsy cultures, each dependent upon its specific geo- political situation. As has been described, there are many different tribes and clans across these varying cultures and occupations within these varying clans can often differ. Music, singing, dancing, and working with animals (mainly horses) is a common thread across clans. Story-telling is another common thread but acrobatic demonstrations and entertainment less so.
Gypsies are, and have been historically, nomadic by nature. If all Gypsies are nomadic, it is not necessarily true that all nomads are Gypsies. There are (and have been historically) other itinerant groups that do not fall within Gypsy culture(s). To state that;
The Gypsies, as they were known in England, were the main source of talents and entrepreneurship that raised the circus in its modern form to the rank of a cultural institution (p3)
… fundamental forms and contents of the traditional circus are intimately linked with Gypsy culture. (p11)
is open to question. Both statements do not take into consideration other itinerant individuals and groups of performers who were not necessarily Gypsies per se. From the post Roman era through to the eighteenth century, there were itinerant performers who presented recognisable ‘circus’ skills but who were not Gypsies, although they may have been treated as such by the authorities. Does your argument include the jongleurs,
troubadours, jesters, and minstrels of the medieval period? And where do you place the itinerant performers who appeared in the eighteenth-century Pleasure Gardens? Even today there are traditional circus families which vehemently reject the idea that they should be called Gypsies. But popular perceptions of Gypsy culture frequently extends racism towards Gypsies to circus families. Gypsies themselves draw a distinction between their own way of life and other itinerant groups. For example, in talking about Showmen, Bobby Lee contributed this comment;
But they [Showmen] had a different way of living, a different going on than we have. There were a few of ‘em [Gypsies] worked for the showmen, like, you know. What you call a ‘showman’s lackey’. But we always went out and earned us own few shillings. (Saunders et. Al. 2000)
It is not too far removed to extrapolate this comment to consider that Gypsies also see themselves as having different way of living from circus folk, barge folk, and other occupational travellers. Indeed, the European Union funds an organisation named EFECOT – the European Federation for the Education of the Children of the Occupational Travellers. This body includes all occupational travellers, including Gypsies, thereby recognising that these itinerant groups have intrinsically different cultures.
My argument is that whilst acknowledging that some specific ‘circus’ based activities were presented by some Gypsy groups, the activities were not exclusive to those groups, and that there were other groups and individuals outside of a Gypsy culture who also presented circus’ based activities. The development of the circus, as we see it today, is not exclusively contained within Gypsy culture, and should include a wider pool of talent. To quote Richard O’Neill, master story-teller, author, and Roma educationalist who is of Gypsy heritage;
There have always been certain groups of Gypsy people who have entertained, tumblers, animals etc. But I wouldn’t say that all circus has its roots in Gypsy culture. (Private correspondence 2022)
To say that the circus was invented by Philip Astley, or that the circus was born in 1768 is clearly inaccurate. Circus style activities, in their many forms, existed long before Astley began his exploits. Therefore, the title of Dominque Jando’s book Philip Astley: The Horseman Who Invented the Circus (2018) is misleading. Neither did Astley, as some have written, populate his ring (although he never used that term) with jugglers, wire-walkers, and acrobats. This was a developmental process beginning with displays of equestrianism by him and his rivals across a period of several years. With the establishment of his displays of horsemanship at Halfpenny Hatch in 1768, and his subsequent construction of an amphitheatre at Westminster Bridge Road in the following years (and it was this venue that on several occasions was destroyed by fire, not Halfpenny Hatch), it was not so much that Astley ‘ushered the circus from vagrancy into history’. He gave form and structure to a distinct form of entertainment, placed it within a defined venue, and before a paying audience. I contend that it was this that shaped the circus, as we might recognise it today, to the rank of a cultural institution. Therefore, the year 1768, far from being just a convenient peg upon which historians have sought to hang the beginnings of the ‘modern’ circus, is a significant moment in the development of a circus industry.
It is correct to say that Astley’s early years are a mystery. As far as I am currently aware there is still no evidence extant to show where he was born/baptised. Newcastle under Lyme has ‘claimed’ him as its own, although as I detailed in my book (Ward, 2018) there is some evidence to suggest he may have been born in Manchester. Although the surname Astley was relatively common in England at that time, genealogical records and documents show that the name Philip Astley was fairly uncommon.
Details of his marriage to Patty Jones have been documented (Ward, 2018). There is no evidence extant to show that he married a Charlotte Taylor. Indeed, baptismal records for his son John Conway Philip Astley in 1867 give his parents as Philip and Patty Astley. We know that Patty Astley was performing with her husband, and advertised as such (Ward, 2021). A letter held in the British Library was written by Patty Astley during her time in Paris in 1786, in which she makes reference to her husband (cited Ward, 2018 pp81/82). I consider this evidence to show that Patty Astley (Jones) was indeed the wife of Philip Astley, and that your statement;
However, Philip Astley married a young dancer from the entertainment world who was also used to horsemanship (p33)
is uncorroborated conjecture and must be considered as such.
The grounds for Astley being from Gypsy heritage are open to debate. Three arguments are offered in support of this hypothesis. The opening statement; First, the name Astley is found, albeit not too frequently, in British Gypsy genealogies that can be found on the Internet. (p31)
is flawed because the premise that the name can be found in Gypsy genealogies is undermined by the phrase ‘albeit not too frequently’. Because a patronym appears in a Gypsy genealogy does not automatically indicate that the bearer of that name is of Gypsy
heritage. My own patronym of Ward also appears in Gypsy genealogies but I know from my own genealogical research going back many generations that there is no indication of any Gypsy heritage in my line.
The second argument is that of cabinet making. We know that Edward Astley was a cabinet maker and that Philip also took up the craft before joining the cavalry. I accept that wood working was a trade in which some Gypsies were proficient but cabinet making was a much more refined and skilled craft. My Grandfather was a cabinet maker and he looked down on those who, as he termed it, ‘bodged about with wood’. His father was also a cabinet maker and, following your line of argument, this should be some indication of a Gypsy heritage. Again, genealogical research gives no indication of such in my family line.
The third argument is Astley’s strong interest in horses. Astley was born and grew up in a period when the horse was the main source of power and transport. Most people could ride, even if they did not own a horse. There is no evidence to show that the Astley family had a specific interest in horses but it is clear that Philip Astley was a capable rider when he joined Col. Eliott’s Light Horse. Details of his military career are fairly well documented in regimental records and he was quickly selected for training under the renowned instructor Angelo Tetramondo. The Earl of Pembroke had engaged Tetramondo to train a select number of riding instructors for the regiment. Having successfully completed this training he
was then able to break and train regimental horses, as well as being an accomplished horseman in the field of battle. On discharge his papers make no specific reference to his service with horses but records that he; … hath served for the space of seven years, and upwards, honestly and faithfully, much becoming a gentleman … (Ward, 2018)
The gift of a horse on leaving the regiment may have been in recognition for his services with the regimental horses or may have been in recognition of his distinguished military service in the field. Certainly, his Record of Service mentions his battle activities but not his work with the horses.
The arguments offered for Astley being of Gypsy heritage are interesting and persuasive but not conclusive. As with all historical research much depends on the evidence discovered in order to validate conjectural statements. However, a lack of evidence does not mean there is no evidence – just that it has yet to be discovered.
Turning to Movement 2 and the demise of animal acts in the traditional circus, I can agree with much of what the author has written. Even in my lifetime I have seen the reduction in animal acts to the point that, within the UK, there is now legislation that prohibited the use of wild animals in circuses. The Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019 now makes it illegal;
1:1 A circus operator may not use a wild animal in a travelling circus in England
1:2 For the purposes of this section, a circus operator uses a wild animal in a travelling circus if the animal performs or is exhibited as part of the circus But the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (Section 2), upon which the definition of the term ‘animal’ is based states;
An animal is a “protected animal” for the purposes of this Act if—
(a) it is of a kind which is commonly domesticated in the British Islands,
(b) it is under the control of man whether on a permanent or temporary basis, or
(c) it is not living in a wild state.
But where does that leave the circus in respect of ‘wild’ animals? The author discusses this in detail(p102). Exotic animals in the circus are (or were) not truly wild. Most were born and bred in captivity and have forgotten how to be wild. I have been in a cage with two lionesses, with their trainer I might add, and I found them to be as gentle as my domestic house cat. To say that a ‘wild’ animal, as seen in a circus, is by nature dangerous is a fallacy.
Domesticated animals can also be dangerous; many people are killed every year by cattle and other farm animals, domestic dogs can bite and even kill, even a domestic cat can inflict a nasty scratch.
As for the argument regarding animal cruelty in circus that is often put forwards by activists, I would ask how many cases have been brought to prosecution recently? I can think of only one. Pre-pandemic, the RSPCA brought over 1000 cases to prosecution for the neglect and cruelty of domestic animals, i.e., either pets or farm animals. A member of my family is now a retired Vet. During his career one of his duties was to inspect circus animals in his region. He has told me that he never came across a case of neglect or cruelty, and commented that often the animals were better looked after than many house-hold pets. It seems that the legislation against the use of animals in circus is based upon an age-old prejudice against the circus, fuelled by populist ‘woke’ ideology and activism; it must be bad because it is the circus! If the government was really concerned about animal cruelty, then surely the legislation should extend to cover the use of animals performing in advertising, on television, and in films?
Movement 3 is devoted to the demise of the circus clown, and I agree with much that the author has written. The word clown has existed in the English language since the mid sixteenth century but in terms of a performing character since the early seventeenth century. Grimaldi, as a stage clown, brought the character to the fore in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, although his style acrobatic clowning can be seen in the earlier Commedia dell’Arte style of performances. His use of garish facial make-up certainly supports the discussion on facial make-up and mask creating a ‘social distancing and ontological separation’ (p137). Your comments on p138; “clown” is a recent addition to the vocabulary that designates comic characters in the context of the modern circus. It evokes awkwardness, ill-manners, body deformation such as hunchback or other forms of crippling, limping or abnormal walk, all features that are found in many other cultures to identify mythological tricksters and comedians performing transgressive actions is interesting, because I have long held the opinion that this trait of the clown can be found in the medieval jesters, or ‘clowns, who were often deformed or disabled in some way. Their existence as something external to the social norm, and the way in which they could be laughed at, only served to reinforce the sense of social normality in the medieval mind.
People laughed at these figures within the Bergsonian concept of laughter. On p148, two distinct forms of laughter are discussed; the Bergsonian laughter and Nietzschian laughter, each with its own distinct nature. Carlo Bosso, the founder of a Commedia style theatre group named Tag Teatro, contends that laughter can also be a release of tension and fear as a sense of relief. For example, we see a man walking down the street looking back over his shoulder. He walks into a lamp post. We laugh. Why? He may be injured. Are we not concerned? Bosso would contend that we laugh, as a sense of relief that it was not we who had walked into the lamp post. A personal anecdote also reflects this. Some time ago I was teaching a class of children on the upper floor classroom. A window cleaner was working outside. Suddenly his ladder slipped sideways and with a cry he fell to the ground. We all rushed to the window. The poor chap was lying on the ground having clearly broken his leg – yet our first reaction was to laugh! Can clowning ever be taught as an academic subject?
Certainly, the psychology of clowning can be studied, as can performance theory. But the art of clowning is something more than just an academic study. It is more to do with the assimilation of life experiences that are then distilled into performance. Qualifying as a clown does not make a clown, there has to be a deeper personal understanding of the nature of a clown. There has to be soul. Do clowns need costume and make-up? There is a public perception of how a clown should look that is rooted deep within our common psyche and shared understanding of what a clown is. Clowns are intrinsically physical creatures and create laughter through their actions (and reactions). The costumes and make-up are all part of this perceived image. So, in my opinion, stand-up comedians are not clowns – they are literary fools, wordsmiths, in some ways in the tradition of Shakespeare’s literary fools with their acerbic and pointed commentaries on life.
Movement 4 is focused on ‘bodies’ within the context of the circus. Along with perhaps the demise of animal acts, the greatest schism between the traditional circus and the ‘new’ or contemporary circus is seen within the field of physical acrobatics. I also include aerial work within this framework. There has always been an inherent danger within these acts and this had an important effect upon the expectations and perceptions by the audience. There was always the possibility of something ‘going wrong’ in an act which added to the thrill of the audience experience. Health and Safety measures, now rigorously applied, ensure the safety of the performers but have partly removed the ‘thrill’ for the audience. I am not arguing that such measures should be removed as they are a natural and logical development within the circus but we must acknowledge their existence as something that alters the experience for the audience.
Narrative based performances within the contemporary circus can sometimes detract from the essential physicality of an act. In fact, the narrative can often dominate the physicality to the point where the audience become more involved in the story rather than appreciating the physicality of the performer(s). At the recent Budapest Circus Festival, the following comment was overheard at the beginning of an aerial hoop act;
Not another act where ‘oh my lover has deserted me and I have fallen in love with my equipment!’
This comment was made from someone within the traditional circus genre. But contemporary circus advocates would applaud this act as giving meaning to an otherwise purely physical demonstration. It is interesting to note that many of the younger contemporary artists (and students) are largely unaware of the traditional circus genre. As an occasional visiting lecturer at the National Centre for Circus Arts in London I have often
been disturbed at the lack of knowledge and understanding shown by the students of the traditional circus. Most of the students I have dealt with purport to be ‘New’ Circus performers, and that the circus was created somewhere around 1970. They seemed quite surprised when I explained that the circus has a long tradition that goes far back beyond that date. For many of the students, their aspirations are to work with contemporary circus- theatre groups such as the Cirque de Soleil. Few, if any, have any intention of working within a traditional tenting circus. They seem to want all the glory and attention without all the hard graft that touring circus requires. Much of their work involves new technologies and moves towards something that I have termed ‘technocirque’. Perhaps this is the continued development of the circus. What next? Holographic Circus? Robocircus? Who knows?
Throughout history, all art forms adapt and develop. They have had to do so in order to survive and continue. Many are reactions to existing forms. If they do not, or are not, allowed to develop then they become ‘museum’ pieces, locked within their own specific time frame. Circus is witnessing a resurgence of interest. The traditional circus will survive, albeit in a modernised form and alongside other contemporary styles. The circus cannot, and perhaps should not, be limited to one particular style in order to be validated. All art forms
are valid within the framework of their existence.