The Circus Isn’t Dead, It’s Everywhere

Last night, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its last performance.

People have always turned to escapist entertainment as a salve for the brutality of everyday existence. The Romans invented the word “circus,” meaning “ring,” and built such facilities to house horse races and historical reenactments (along with gladiatorial combat, thereby overlapping somewhat the role of amphitheaters like the Colosseum).

Our idea of a circus originated in the late 18th century as a trick-riding show in London, to which jugglers, clowns, and other itinerant entertainers were added as crowds showed their appreciation for a one-stop entertainment experience. By the time Ringling Bros.’ circus was founded a century later, there was a huge spectator appetite for experiencing fantastic, exotic, and death-defying moments.*

Ringling was the Blockbuster of its day, buying up lesser circuses and building what would become a global brand. It succeeded because it presented sanitized mayhem, letting spectators watch, and even laugh at the dangers and pains in their lives, only recast as safe entertainment.

A trapeze artist was a stand-in for the tenuous hold people had on their own physical safety. Clowns satirized the assumptions of intelligence and responsibility of those in power, as well as of those who suffered from it. Marching, dancing, and jumping animals were a far cry from the suffering animals experienced in the real world (remember that when circuses were founded, people thought it was fun to watch chained bears get attacked by dogs until one animal died).

Those qualities have less value in a world where we enjoy even imperfect healthcare, online videos that skewer anyone and everything, and animal rights are an expectation, not an exception…

Read the entire essay at Medium