Book Review Vol I No. 4

 The Same Only Different

Circus, the Australian Story, by Mark StLeon   Melbourne Books, Level 9, 100 Collins St., Melbourne, VIC 3000 Australia.  2011.    ISBN 9781877096501    Published in both hardcover and soft cover.  Copies may be ordered directly from the publisher (unsigned) online at www.melbournebooks.com.au soft cover only priced at AUD $40; air mail shipping to US is AUD $55 (approximately) or Direct from author (signed) by contacting the author at  markstleon@bigpond.com as either hardcover with dust jacket and strong slipcase, signed (limited edition of 100 copies, only about 60 copies left) price is AUD $195; air mail shipping to US is AUD $75 (approximately); funds can be remitted by PayPal; or in soft cover, signed.  Priced at AUD $50; air mail shipping to US is AUD $55 (approximately); funds can be remitted by PayPal.

 

Intrigued by his family’s past involvement with the circus and perplexed by the apparent contradiction between the seemingly patrician name and the family’s apparently vagabond past, Mark St. Leon has undertaken extensive research first into his family’s history and then, by natural extension, into the history of circus in Australia, unraveling along the way  the mystery of Australia’s wider circus history, an aspect of the country’s history that has heretofore escaped the attention of historians.

It turns out St.Leonwas a professional pseudonym, first used in 1865, although the author is able to trace his family’s active participation in the circus from the late 1840s.

What most Americans know about Australian circuses probably begins and ends with the handful of Australian performers who came toAmericaand became important stars, earning a celebrity they never knew at home.  The first of these was the equestrian May Wirth, who was adopted by a sister of the Wirth family at a young age when her parents divorced.  The second is the extraordinary tight wire artist Con Colleano who was actually born a Sullivan to an aboriginal mother.  This background made him something of an outcast at home.  In a later period there was the Flying Waynes who were formed by American Wayne Larey, and the risley artists The Seven Ashtons, one of the great circus families ofAustralia.   The history of these great stars is explored in greater detail here than they are usually accorded in most American circus histories.

But there were also Americans who followed the opposite route, hoping to win fame and fortune down under, including James A. Bailey, W. W. Cole, and Sells Bros. The American invasion reached its height in the period 1873-1882.  At least one American circus a year came toAustraliaduring that period, the last being Bud Atkinson’s American Circus and Wild West Show.

But since this is a history of Australian circus, the book quite naturally explores the history of the country’s biggest native circuses, principally The Wirth Circus which played the biggest cities and most resembled Ringling Bros, with whom they had a “close working relationship,” close enough to be able to get away with using the title The Greatest Show on Earth,” without being hauled into court.

Another of the biggest shows was the Fitzgerald Bros. Circus which was split in two when the two brothers took out separate, but entirely distinct shows giving rise to the popular misconception that it divided the show into two units, with the smaller towns getting to see only half a show, which the same criticism the Ringling/ Barnum show often faced.  Taking advantage of this popular misconception the Wirths adopted the slogan “we never divide.”  This notion was not the only similarity between the circus business inAustraliaandAmerica.  There were many others.  But the Australian circus, by virtue of the country’s geographic position, its geography and history and the resulting culture that developed over the years, was unique in many ways as well, all of which are considered and explained in the text.

One of the most telling similarities between the two countries and their circuses is that after the 1920 a long period of decline fueled by increasing legal restrictions, escalating costs, and changing tastes, almost killed the circus business altogether resulting in “the gradual demise of the family circus [which in turn] began to undermine the bank of circus knowledge and impaired the continuing development and enrichment of performing skills.”   A death sentence if ever there was one.  In fact, as early as 1971 Doug Ashton was quoted as saying “Australians do not appreciate their circus.”   The most damaging outgrowth of this was that with the growing absence of artists of all sorts audiences had become attuned to “progressively lowered standards of circus performance.”

The book’s final section deals with the contemporary circus.  The happy fact is that the circus is now enjoying a renaissance inAustralia, after several decades of marginalization.    The author sees no specific reason for this rebirth other than the timelessness of the circus arts.  Where was he, one wonders, when Jane Mullett was convening a national circus convocation, which eventually brought about the founding of the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA)?  She saw what was happening around the world and was determined to turn the circus around at home.  “When Cirque du Soleil came through people saw what was possible,” she has said.   So instead of analyzing the renaissance he sees, he simply passes over an important piece of the puzzle.

He does, however, devote considerable space to such “New Circus” ventures as The Flying Fruit Flies and Circus Oz and even acknowledges the contributions of Reg Bolton, a pioneer in the area of social circus, noting as he does so, the same sort of conflict between traditional and new circus that also continues to simmer here in the States.

Circus, the Australian Story is a big, handsome book, teaming with illustrations of all kinds.  Its 274 heavy weight pages are brimming over with text, curious sidebars, illustrations and facsimiles of important documents.  It is not the sort of tome one would curl up with in bed.  It is a reference as well as a critical analysis of the circus in a land just dissimilar enough from theU.S. to make both the obvious similarities and the subtle differences fascinating.

The book contains a very extensive bibliography and (a somewhat incomplete) index, but no footnote documentation.