Realizing What We’ve Lost
If you have been watching reviews of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey appearing in the newspapers of major cities for many years past, you may have noticed a trend for what at best would have to be rated as rather dismissive reviews, taking the circus for granted, and as often as not inserting something about the animal rights protestors who were in evidence around the arena.
Obviously, like true circus fans, critics assumed the circus would be around forever and therefore it need not be taken too seriously. Suddenly in an all too obvious corroboration of the old saw that says you never truly appreciate what you have until you lose it, reporters and critics are suddenly taking a serious look at what we are about to lose, perhaps a bit too late, but, as another old saying goes, “better late than never.”
I was particularly impressed by a review that ran recently in the New York Times penned by Jason Zinoman whose reviews of circus performances in New York have certainly fallen into the dismissive pattern noted earlier.
He begins his review of Ringling’s latest production Out of This World, by confessing “I was jolted back to the wonder of my childhood,” an ability the circus has never really lost.
He then acknowledges a sad reality, “The startling end for a storied showbiz institution, for decades a symbol of American ambition,” and finally concludes “Something irreplaceable will be lost when Ringling closes up its tents for good—a tradition of inspiring awe that connected parent to child, generation to generation.” Circus fans have always abided by a simple truism that seemed to make the circus immune to such a loss. “As long as there are children there will always be a circus,” they reasoned just as the critic has finally concluded.
But the press has not always been indifferent to the charms of the circus. Back in 1942, Brooks Atkinson, The Times chief theatre critic wrote: “Nothing save the circus can overpower you with such a tremendous mass of entertainment. It is the genius of the circus to give too much of everything.”
This, too, is an idea Zinoman concurs with, stating, the circus provides “a reminder that nothing on a screen can replicate the wonder and urgency of the live circus.”
He concludes his review with a bit of touching personal sentimentality that perfectly captures the place the circus enjoys in the hearts of so many willing to surrender to its wonders.
“When I took my young daughter to see Ringling a few years ago, just as my parents had done with me,” he writes, “it was the elephant that captivated her the most. On the way out I bought a doll of one for her, with the red sign promoting Greatest Show on Earth over its trunk. That stuffed toy sat near her bed for years, long after she had lost interest in dolls. When I threw it out to make room for less childish things, I didn’t expect how furious she would get with me. She says she still misses it.” A sentiment many of us are feeling now.
A review out of Charlotte, North Carolina echoes some of the same sentiments, most notably, “In what’s become a shockingly divisive time in our country’s history, losing a piece of popular culture that promotes so much wonder and awe among such a diverse crowd is a loss for America indeed.”
That loss is being felt more and more deeply just as we had been cautioned by the very axiom I noted in the beginning of this sad farewell. “You never know what you have until you lose it.”