With a flourish, America’s oldest circus Ringling Bros and the Barnum and Bailey’s Show, has announced curtains. The USA’s much-loved circus, after which the Charleton Heston movie The Greatest Show on Earth was made in 1952, delighted America’s great open spaces, its dozy suburbia, its city slickers from New York to Newark, for over 50 years. But the show can no longer go on, given declining ticket sales, rising prices and routines involving animals, scrapped under pressure from animal rights groups.
Worldwide, the circus seems in a state of crumbly decline. But once upon a time, the circus was a thing of wonder, marvels gathered in a rippling tent. Trapeze artists flew across its sequinned skies, jokers waddled on its floors, tigers and elephants roared, then purred, tamed into sitting on stools or rolling in hoops, “human cannons” fired people across the ring, men on stilts doffed top-hats to the crowd and motorcyclists performed daredevil stunts. It was a time before smartphones, TVs and tablets delivered the world straight to your hands, when to see the extraordinary standing live before you was a marvel in itself, when people believed in magic and there was a certain trembling prayer in the lonely art of the acrobat, balanced on a tightrope high above, poised to take a step into the great unknown. The circus was a carnival fairground and place of quiet entreaty, museum, zoo, a mad laboratory, a palace of skills and spells where human beings could rule the unpredictable — and revel in the freakish.
In our age, wonder rolls away, replaced by ever-redoubtable (if slightly doughty) technology. Alongside, the freakish spills into everyday life, traffic providing thrills, politics becoming the modern circus as the traditional troupe, all satin tights and sad-eyed clowns, slowly folds up. There are gains. But there is a loss too. Of a simpler world, where we, not so jaded, didn’t hesitate to wonder. Or believe.
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