That By Which We Call “Circus” Is Looking Like Something Else
Things are looking pretty grim for the circus of late. The elephants have been retired from the Greatest Show on Earth, the Cole Bros. Circus is throwing in the towel, and two members of the public were killed in a circus blow down. All of which will serve to embolden protesters to attack the circus even more vigorously. On top of all that what we once knew as circus is continually mutating, and as its form changes so perhaps should the name by which we call it.
What we need, it seems, is to bring in the spin doctors and have them spin their magic around the circus. The first thing they would have to change is the word “circus.” That word has been the subject of much abuse as of late, thanks in the main to the current presidential nominating campaigns. Hardly a political observer in writing or speaking about the current state of politics has failed to call what is going on a “circus,” and it is not a compliment but meant in a most pejorative manner. The word is further tainted with negative connotations via a new TV series about politics called, of all things, Circus.
As a consequence certain negative connotations have been attached to the word that once brought images of joy and wonder to mind. If that is not cause enough to reconsider applying the word to a certain sort of entertainment, certain institutions with aspirations to high culture have apparently felt a bit squeamish about presenting something called a “circus.” I’m thinking specifically of New York University’s Skirball Center for the performing arts and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, both of which by their very names and associations suggest aspirations to high art. Nonethless both of these institutions have recently presented just such offerings (two of which are reviewed here in the Passing Spectacle) but they are promoted under the genre of “physical theatre,” “theatre” being ever so much classier than “circus,” and more acceptable to certain audiences.
The term “physical theatre” first appeared around the same time as the terms “New Vaudevillians” and “New Circus,” around 1975. People who might otherwise have been called clowns, people like Bill Irwin and Avner the Eccentric, were called physical comedians. The term didn’t gain much traction at that time, and for the most part passed out of general usage. But let us not forget that it was around the same time that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey stopped appending the word “circus” to its own name. We could go back even further in time when the same Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey simply referred to itself as The Greatest Show on Earth and ignored the word “circus” completely.
Around the same time the term “cirque” was introduced to the world of entertainment. Unlike “physical theatre” it stuck—like glue. Nary a new company of acrobats could resist naming themselves Cirque Something or Other, pushing good old-fashioned circuses off the stage.
So perhaps we ought to consider banishing the word “circus” once again, particularly since it has become short hand for the inane and chaotic. Instead of following down the path of the ubiquitous cirques, using the term “Physical Theatre” instead would relieve so many of us from what was threatening to become an endless debate over whether or not one entertainment or another was really a “circus.” It might also help to solve a potential problem for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey if the much rumored new production it is planning to put on ice (literally) actually comes to fruition. “Physical Theatre on Ice” seems more accurate a description of what that show is likely to look like than “Circus on Ice.” After all, what with the elephants gone and most of the horses and who knows what is next to disappear, there really isn’t much point in clinging to a word that has almost ceased to have meaning outside of the political circle. Although nobody is moving to make the declaration, “Physical Theatre” has come to more accurately describe what, to a large extent, circus has become.
Ultimately we hope that a wide variety of entertainments could comfortably co-exist in one, big, happy world under the general heading “Physical Theatre.” In the best of all possible worlds physical theatre and circus, could exist side by side, each in its own niche with some overlap, just as vaudeville and circus did when both were in their heyday.