Book Reviews Vol. VI, No. 1

Sawdust Sisterhood,   How Circus Empowered Women

by Steve Ward, published by Fonthill Media Limited.  ISBN: 978-1-78155-530-9

Despite its title the author of Sawdust Sisterhood insists that his book is “not intended as a catalogue of female circus performers; that would be a massive undertaking.  Neither is it an academic treatise on gender issues, although I have given a brief history of the growth of women’s rights.  The book is more a celebration of women in circus—a reflection on how the art form gave them power and freedom—and I have focused upon some of the more famous (or infamous) artistes across the history of the modern circus as examples.”

The first three sections of the book cover “ The Long Road to Suffrage: A History of the Growth of Women’s Rights,”  and “Circus:  A Historical Overview Pre and Post-Astley. ”  After presenting this historical background the author then launches into the biographies of “These Dangerous Women: The Rise of the Female Performer,” and finally he moves into the present with “Women’s Voices: Performers Past and Present Share Their Views.”

It seems to me his discussion would have made more sense if he had been able to integrate all of the material (the historical and the biographical) into one extended narrative instead of isolating each of the subjects apart from the social setting that influenced their work.

The women he gives the most attention to are cannonballer Zazel, rope dancer Madame Saqui, Adah Isaacs Menken and her equestrian performance as Mazeppa, Nellie Chapman and the lion queens, Sandwina and other strong women, and aerialists Charmion and Lillian Leitzel. Oddly the most disappointing biography is that of Leitzel, as Ward adds nothing new to what we already know of her.

The book’s last section deals with more contemporary figures like Yasmine Smart, the Smith Twins, Carrie Heller and Nell Gifford.

Although, according to the author, all these women turned out to be role models of sorts, it is difficult to see this or, for that matter, any discussion of women in the circus as a feminist tract. These early female performers and the people who hired them were fully aware of the sensationalism associated with their very public work as artists and were at pains to add to their fabulousness,  little of which had much, if anything, to do with promoting women’s rights.  They were mainly, if not exclusively, interested in promoting themselves as the curiosities they knew they were and the lucrative living they were able to derive from such boldness.  Even Robert Ringling when he guided Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in the mid 40s was fully aware that male aerialists were not what the public wanted to see, and so the only men he was willing to send aloft worked with women, who did all the dangerous parts of their acts.

Sensation is one of those qualities a successful circus must have, and almost from its very beginning that was provided by women, and ultimately that is what this book strives to produce as well, often succeeding quite admirably.

 

 

Une Histoire du Cirque

by Pascal Jacob  ISBN 978-2-02-130361-2. Published in French.

Before I received this new circus history book in the mail I already had six books by Pascal Jacob in my library. Besides being a prolific author Jacob was the costume designer of two Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey productions, including the gorgeous Living Carousel in 1999.  He is currently the artistic director of Paris’ Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain, (The World Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow,) and Cirque Phenix.  Beside all that he is a collector of circus memorabilia extraordinaire.  Most of his remarkable collection, filled with artistic treasures related to circus history, now resides in Montreal.  Many pieces of it can be found among the glorious illustrations that make this new book such a pleasure to flip through for non-French readers.   I do have a nit to pick, however.  Such small print and light type face as is used especially when identifying the illustrations, must make it difficult even, I would assume, for French readers. But then there are those photographs, gloriously rich in color , historical significance and artistic merit that fill the 234 pages with endless fascination.

 

 

 

 

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Ringling’s Living Carousel in performance and backstage. Photos by Paul Gutheil

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