JOHNATHAN LEE IVERSON
I’m the first person you hear in the circus. I give the circus a language. Nothing happens until I say it. Nothing matters until I say it. I take you in. I bring you across. Because people have to be told, they don’t always know how to act in the face of the extraordinary… I don’t know what I’m doing next. I mean, I just lost my job and now I’m getting interviewed. I think I’ll write a book, not a tell-all. Try and do some hosting, some voicework. People are always bugging me about getting into politics…
The “grandstanding” is over, the “platform” is in splinters, the “bandwagon” has left town. The “tentpole” issues? Forget them. The inclusive “tent”? Without a pole, forget that too. No rings remain into which to throw your hat: the circus is shutting down.
On January 14, 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (henceforth RBandB&BC)—America’s oldest and best circus, America’s last true touring circus—announced that it was closing, and six days later the country mourned, with an exit parade, a grand-finale funeral: the inauguration of Donald J. Trump.
From its very inception, which was coeval with this country’s inception, the American circus has been the imaginative grounds of American politics; its touring circuits became campaign circuits; its audiences became constituencies; its capacities for fame became convertible to power. And so the fact of its folding, especially now, can seem like a tragedy: equivalent to the tragedy of Trump, or even entwined.
At the very least, the shuttering of America’s top big top represents the shuttering of a substantial American culture: a medium, an aesthetics, a way of life, which has been dragging itself around this country, and around the world, under some merged, acquired or freestanding variation of RBandB&BC’s moniker almost continuously for the last 146 years—ever since the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.
The circus: no other art form has ever been so vulnerable. No other art form has so swiftly become endangered and gone extinct. You can’t, after all, bring about the end of the novel. You can’t, try as you might, suspend the poem. But Feld Entertainment (the circus’s sole proprietor) can drop and—with a proper display of fanfare, hesitancy and remorse—has dropped the curtain on the three-ring lions-and-tigers-and-bears-oh-my Greatest Show on Earth®, and ladies, gentlemen and kids of all ages, the loss feels as fundamental, but also as fundamentally contentious, as the death of jazz, or the death of the blues.
Because just like old black music was “appropriated” into newer, whiter pop, the American circus comes to a close having been gutted of nearly all of its major technical innovations, attractions and acts, which have since gone on—as if in a descent into an antiseptic afterlife—to become the baseline components of contemporary performance, especially of contemporary recorded or mediated performance.
Not to be a joss (circus-people slang for non-circus people) by spelling this out, but: the circus was how acrobatics and juggling got to the Super Bowl halftime show; it was how magic got to Vegas. The circus trained the animals to sit, stay and roll around for TV and Hollywood, and pioneered the stunt work involved with leaping out of a conflagrant speeding vehicle and landing safely, way back in the dinosaur days before CGI.
The chief genius of the circus, of course, was to have staged all this spectacle and more, always more, all at once, and for one low price of admission—not merely live, but so precariously, proximately live that we the glutted audience were forced to contemplate the mortal risks being undertaken for our entertainment.
The earliest modern “circi” were glorified riding demonstrations, single-ring answers to that most ancient of questions: What do you do with your soldiers in peacetime? In 1768, on the eve of what the British call the American War of Independence, Philip Astley and his fellow cavalrymen of the Fifteenth Light Dragoons opened an outdoor “riding school” at a track outside London. What made their presentation a circus, in the sense that we’d know it, was that it combined the displays of equestrian prowess—including trick-riding, jumping and military maneuvers in the styles of the Prussians and Hessian hussars—with interludes of clowning that allowed the riders and horses to rest, and were thought to appeal to women and children. Astley’s most popular routine was, at heart, a lampooning of democracy. It involved a clown, cast as the folk hero Billy Buttons, an everyman tailor who keeps trying to mount a horse to ride to the polls to vote in an election, but can’t quite get his act together: his saddle slips; his boot becomes stuck in a stirrup and he’s dragged; finally, he sits up in the saddle, but in the wrong direction, ass-facing; he spurs the horse into motion only to fall.
In January 2016, almost exactly a year before RBandB&BC’s end was announced, almost exactly a year before Trump swore his oath, the following exchange occurred on Meet the Press:
CHUCK TODD: As you know, people call you a lot of names. Some of it’s positive, some of it’s negative. I want to throw some by you. Let’s see. Some people are calling you the Music Man of this race. Kim Kardashian. Biff, from Back to the Future. George Costanza. P. T. Barnum. What’s—any of those do you consider a compliment? Or do you—
DONALD TRUMP: P. T. Barnum.
TODD: You’ll take the P. T. Barnum?
TRUMP: P. T. Barnum. Look, people call you names. We need P. T. Barnum, a little bit, because we have to build up the image of our country.
Racism, misogyny, poor-hating, know-nothingism—by that point in the campaign, Trump had conditioned the public to expect anything, everything, from him, except this: insight. This introspection that most of America—that most of even Trump’s America—had simultaneously been hoping for, yet hoping against. Here was a Trump who not only appeared to understand Barnum, but also appeared to understand himself.
Either that or he was just repeating the last thing he’d heard.
A year later, however, it’s tempting to wonder whether now-President Trump has changed his mind—which is to say, with the end of RBandB&BC, might Trump regard its founder as a FAILURE … a LOSER … SAD? Or might he still admire Barnum, because though the business is perished, the name yet survives?
The name or, as Trump put it on Meet the Press, the “image”—a conceit for which Barnum, who had the benefit of Gilded Age lexical niceties, tended to use terms like “public opinion,” “reputation” and “character.”
Also “appearance,” as in Barnum’s nostrum: “Put on the appearance of business, and generally the reality will follow.”
Generally: but not in the case of the circus.
In 1782, one of Astley’s former riders, Charles Hughes, founded his own clown-and-pony show, which he called—in a mingling of Roman imperial and British monarchial gravities—the Royal Circus, and, in 1793, one of Hughes’s former riders, John Bill Ricketts, brought a rowdier version to America, taking over a hippodrome in Philadelphia, where President Washington was among the first visitors. According to legend, Washington so enjoyed himself that he agreed to sell Ricketts his favorite white battle charger, Old Jack, for $150, and, in 1797, when Ricketts opened a circus in New York City, Old Jack hobbled along, and spent its retirement on exhibition, being fed lump sugar and petted by patriotic strangers.
On the surface, at least, which is where all vain fame addicts are happiest, Phineas Taylor Barnum (b. 1810) and Donald John Trump (b. 1946) might seem to share some traits in common: obsessions with pachydermatous size and promotional hype, along with a manic drive to project themselves, or their wishful selves, for profit. Both entered politics only later in life, capitalizing on their earlier careers as showmen. Both had lucrative sidelines in land speculation and development and mortifying dalliances with bankruptcy; both married significantly younger women (Trump and Melania Knauss: 24-year age gap; Barnum and Nancy Fish: 40), inveighed against smoking and alcohol, and wrote or “wrote” volumes of self-aggrandizing self-help (The Art of the Deal is basically Barnum’s The Art of Money Getting, just with cruder prose and monetary sums adjusted for inflation by roundabout 200 percent). Both achieved notoriety through making unfulfillable promises to their countrymen who lived in the interior, far from the coasts they called home, and, above all, both amassed their fortunes by lying, and then by proprietizing their lies through licensing or “branding,” which in Barnum’s day was more usually performed upon the bodies of livestock and slaves.
That said, Barnum—who became more liberal as he aged, or just more of a fervent Unionist during the Civil War—never got any further in politics than two terms in the Connecticut General Assembly (where his big issue, as the owner of an itinerant circus, was the breaking of the railroad trusts), and one term as the mayor of Bridgeport (where his big issue, as the head of a circus that wintered in Bridgeport, was utilities modernization). Trump, by contrast, has by the time of this writing already managed (among much else) to drop the largest non-nuclear bomb in the American arsenal on Afghanistan.
That the first hundred days of Trump’s presidency coincided with the last hundred days of Barnum’s circus seemed a sign. It seemed to represent a final “appropriation”—not of any circus routine this time, but of a basic circus principle: chaos, or the artful manipulation of the image of chaos, was now being staged not in the center ring but in the Oval Office.
CEO, FELD ENTERTAINMENT
OWNER AND OPERATOR OF RBANDB&BC:
The biggest resentment I have is when they say Washington is run like a circus. If only it was so disciplined and organized.
Here’s the provenance, the tangled line of succession: In 1870, Barnum and William Cameron Coup established P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome, which met with great acclaim, and train derailments, collisions, labor disputes and fires, until, in 1881, it hitched itself to a rival circus run by two Jameses: Bailey and Hutchinson. After Barnum’s death in 1891, Bailey—formerly the ringmaster—assumed control, and after Bailey’s death in 1906, five of the seven Ringling Bros. of Baraboo, Wisconsin—the sons of a German immigrant (Rüngeling), who’d been running their own circuses since the 1880s—purchased the remnants of Barnum & Bailey’s, and presented it as a separate enterprise until 1919, when they consolidated all their properties into a lone extravaganza.
John Ringling North, a Ringling Bros. nephew, spent most of the Fifties partnering with, and in 1967 finally sold his family’s show to, a man named Irvin Feld, a son of Russian Jews who’d parlayed the success of his Washington, D.C.-area record emporium into the then-novel field of concert promotion, primarily packaging black artists for majority white audiences: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Platters, the Drifters.
America under Eisenhower was in the midst of a building boom, fueled by its large labor force of veterans. To be considered a city in this country—a true destination city—you had to have an amphitheater: a War Memorial Stadium or Soldiers’ Arena. This was the last age in which public buildings were still named after public servants or epochal events, and not yet banks or cable companies. But with only eight teams in the NBA and six teams in the NHL, there wasn’t much happening inside them. Irvin Feld, more than anyone else in Fifties and Sixties America, developed and promoted the “content,” whatever would fill the seats.
And so the circus: it was Feld’s innovation to ditch the tent and bring the American circus indoors, and he announced this grand-scale relaunch with a purchasing ceremony at the Coliseum: not the one in Nassau County, Long Island, where the circus held its last show on Memorial Day Weekend this year, but the one in Rome.
By promoting a relatively luxurious circus experience—a circus roofed, and amenitized with A/C and upholstered seating—Feld gave RBandB&BC another half century of life, but also changed the nature of the spectacle. The show, now, had to get bigger by the season, not just to impress in bigger surroundings, but also to re-impress itself on younger generations weaned on screens. What followed was an increasingly unsustainable balancing act, between the circus’s constant adaptation to impatient if not childish tastes, and the maintenance of the slower-paced traditional elements preferred by the paying adults, who yearned for RBandB&BC as it used to be, or as they imagined it used to be: Americana, not America.
But by the time Irvin Feld died, in 1984, and his son Kenneth took over, running a circus in this country meant hiring the preponderance of your performers from overseas. The best strongmen were Bulgarian; the best trampolinists were Romanian; the foremost equilibrists were from Russia and Ukraine (often alumni of the USSR Olympic gymnastics program), while most of the horse talent was sourced from Central Asia. In the Soviet sphere, the “circus arts” were always considered official national arts, on par with academic painting and sculpture, and so were supported with state money at state circus schools connected to state circuses. Kenneth Feld would fly behind the Iron Curtain almost annually, seeking performers to sign to twelve-week stints (the maximum that they were permitted to travel and work in America), and though defections were common, his access was never completely curtailed, because the governments—acting as talent agents to Feld’s talent-scout—would take a percentage on all contracts, and RBandB&BC deals were reliable sources of hard cash.
With the USSR in collapse, RBandB&BC began hiring a rising number of Chinese performers—who, along with the current ample contingent of South and Central American performers, help to put on this most North American, this most proudly American-American, of shows. These immigrant or, more precisely, these wandering-migrant, performers are doing the jobs that most natural-born Americans now just can’t or won’t do: hanging upside-down and executing multiple somersaults between trapezes.
The circus, like the Circus Americanus—aka America at large—is and has always been about foreigners and the otherwise Othered putting themselves in harm’s way for the delectation of paying natives. But while both madcap enterprises are decidedly capitalistic, RBandB&BC functions internally like a planned economy, a heterogeneous mobile welfare state governed in toto by a single family (Kenneth Feld’s three daughters are company executives). Due to the logistics of touring, all circus employees receive, in addition to their salaries, full room and board. They eat with the circus, they sleep with the circus. Most of what they casually wear, at least most of their casual outerwear, appears to be circus-branded. Their children, both the children who perform and the children who don’t, learn with circus teachers and go to circus dentists and circus doctors. Their pets, like the animal performers, go to circus veterinarians. This bizarre but constitutive expenditure is one reason, but only one, why the circus is failing.
Barnum’s management turned the American circus into the tented embodiment of this country’s expansionism: he increased the number and type of its acts and brought on midway attractions (games of chance, not games of skill) and sideshows (ranging from temperance sermonizing to burlesque striptease). Before his innovations, the American big top shaded only a single performance area, demarcated from the bleachers by a single wooden ring, which meant that there were frequent pauses, to clear the area of excrement, or prep the apparatuses for subsequent acts. To rid the circus of such pauses, and so keep the audience enrapt, Barnum added a second ring, and then a third, which he found to be the minimum that permitted uninterrupted entertainment: in the event that two rings would have to be serviced—re-turfed, re-rigged, or caged—one ring would still always be available for performance. This three-ring model ensured that the show would go on, the circus would never stop, and that the audience was regularly gavaged with fresh stimuli. It was Barnum’s belief—a belief arrived at on the road, and through having to advertise and superlativize his every appearance—that people were never as interested in what was in front of them as they were in what was in front of others, and that they were best engaged when being made actively covetous, concerned with what other people were engaged with elsewhere. To be at Barnum’s circus—not merely in the round, but in the tripartite round—was, and still is, to be trapped in an antique, physicalized split-screen, tugged perpetually between expectation (the mental chyron of “What comes next?”) and neurosis (the mental chyron of “What’s going on now in the rings to my left and right?”). Barnum’s ideal circus customer has become today’s ideal consumer, not least of “breaking news”: kept in a state of constant distraction, constantly solicited diversion, suffused not with fear for someone’s life, but with what is acronymized online as FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out.
In 1884, Barnum dispatched 21 of his elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge as a public-service demonstration of the span’s resilience—to verify that it would bear any and all trafficked weight—but obviously too as a publicity ploy, a jumbo lumbering billboard-parade for his circus, whose final incarnation I attended at the newish, mallish Barclays Center six times in one week—walking there across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan.
And the first thing I noticed was: no elephants. Stampeding children, yes. Stampeding parents buying children cotton candy and popcorn and light-up top hats and crowns, yes. Even a sad, tiny gaggle of PETA protestors. And yet: not a single solitary pachyderm. The GOP’s mascot (or its endangered Asian variety) left the circus last year, after a decades-long spate of PETA-filed lawsuits and PETA-backed animal-rights legislation finally succeeded in making their presence too costly, and Feld Entertainment transferred all of their elephants to the Center for Elephant Conservation, a private nonprofit preserve in central Florida about an hour inland from corporate headquarters, where the big gray rugose beasts are cared for, bred and used for genetic-disease research, and re-employed as “therapy animals” for children with cancer. Nearly every Feld executive I spoke with blamed the precipitousness of RBandB&BC’s demise on the elephants’ absence—they were surprised when ticket sales declined by roughly 30 percent in the six months since their departure—and, I’ll admit, I’m inclined to agree with their conclusion. There at the Barclays, I missed the tuskless wonders myself; not visually or apparitionally, say—not as much their delicate, almost dainty high-stepping, not as much the way they used to chorus-line, linked trunk to tail, mounting each other for the climax of the ménage—but, honestly, as I queued through the metal detector into the concourse, I missed their shit, the reek of it, the warm fecal atmospherics.
The first circuses I ever attended, as a kid in the 1980s, were the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. circuses, which by their phasing out in the mid-2000s were the last American touring circuses to still be held in the open air, under tattered tents, redolent, in the doldrums of summer, of sawdust and straw and hot piss-puddles of dung. That dung remains my fondest circus memory: its smell so strong that it was also a temperature, a climate, so tropically intense as to transcend the sensory and become, nearly, a philosophical condition. What I mean is: the shit was there, it was plainly there, just where the shitters had dropped it, and I and my siblings and the other children would joke about it, while all the grown-ups around me, including my parents, would ignore it. They’d pretend that it didn’t exist.
Now—as a grown-up myself, in a time of streaming media, when no one ever has to leave the couch (except to go to the bathroom)—I can’t help but regard the experience of being forced in my youth to sit in public amid the officially unacknowledged fetid stench of the feces and partially digested plant matter of the world’s largest land mammal as not merely educational, but morally educational: morally improving, compared to which the Barclays experience seemed fraudulent, weak and coddled. There was even something evil, something lazy-evil, about showing up to witness scared live animals follow commands and whiplashes delivered by scared live imperiled sweaty humans, and smelling nothing: utter shitlessness, and I had to resist suggesting to the circus’s press-agent—who’d met me at the box office to conduct me to my roomy ringside seat fitted with two beverage holders and a food ledge—that RBandB&BC ought to sell their elephants’ excrement as merch, coprophilic concessions, or else have the odor laboratory-synthesized into a liquid, spray or gel, so that I might, one day, in the circusless future, use it to anoint the VR headsets of my offspring.
RBandB&BC still tours around by train, not for the romance, but for the efficiency: even at this late date, rail remains the only way to ensure that all of the nearly three hundred people, five dozen or so animals, and umpteen tons of heavy equipment get exercised, fed, showered, rested and to the show on time. To perform as many dates as possible, in as many cities as possible, RBandB&BC splits up—into a Red Unit and a Blue Unit. Each unit maintains its own mile-long train—the longest privately owned trains in the world—and each plies its own route across the country, one up north, one down south, because that’s the way the train lines are in this country: mostly latitudinally oriented, rarely intersecting along longitude. The circus heads, as the tracks head, as the country spread, east to west, and so its itineraries can be read as archival maps, drawn by North-South animus, forgotten industrial feuds, and obsolete freight monopolies. Circus acts are so dependent on individual talents that they’re essentially unduplicable—you can’t just go online and find a substitute family of prestidigitators, plate spinners, or llama wranglers—and so the Red/Blue split requires RBandB&BC to present two different productions, both of which were rejiggered this past year, to compensate for the loss of the elephants. The Red Unit presents Circus XTREME—in which the classic circus arts alternate with extreme-sports demonstrations sourced from a score of other properties owned by Feld Entertainment (Monster Jam, Monster Energy AMA Supercross, Marvel Universe LIVE!): BMX biking, slackline, parkour. Meanwhile, the Blue Unit, which was the unit that stopped in New York, presents Out Of This World, the last production that RBandB&BC will ever put on, yet also the first in all of its history to have a story—as if the circus couldn’t bear to leave us without a narrative; it couldn’t go gently without a plot.
Once upon a time in faraway deep space (or so this last RBandB&BC production begins) there was a circus Starseeker named Paulo, who was out canvassing the universe with his Magic Telescope when he spotted two stars, Johnathan and Davis, both of whom he hoped to recruit for his extraterrestrial circus. But—due to union rules, or HR issues, or just the basic ambiance of nonsense that pervades every turning point in the circus’s script—he was able to pick only one, and he picked Johnathan. The pair flew from planet to planet in a caboose-like spacecraft, scouting out the best circus routines and talent.
That’s the backstory. The story itself begins just after the “spec,” or opening number, with Davis left behind and feeling (clownishly) dejected. Indeed, he’s fallen in with a band of clowns that has the tragicomic luck of becoming imprisoned (not “recruited” but taken hostage and imprisoned) by the evil Intergalactic Circus Queen Tatiana.
Queen Tatiana, then, offers Davis a deal: she’ll release him along with the rest of the clowns, but only after he leads them on a mission to find Paulo and Johnathan, steal their Magic Telescope, and their roster of performers.
Which is a crazy move on the queen’s part, of course: to negotiate with clowns. To trust a clown—even a clown bent on revenge—with anything but clowning.
Queen Tatiana, Davis and his merry squad pursue Paulo and Johnathan across four planets (two before intermission, two after), each named for an element: Fire, Sand (which I guess is Earth), Water and Ice (no Gas). On the Sand Planet, Paulo and Johnathan find Alexander Lacey and his tribe of “big cats” (lions, tigers); on the Ice Planet, they find troupes of contortionists and ice skaters, and, under the massive Snow Mountain, the Vortex of Ice, which is actually a globe made of steel, in which nine motorcyclists ride simultaneously.
Just then, a moment before intermission, Queen Tatiana, Davis and his bozo platoon catch up with Paulo and Johnathan, and proceed to hijack their spacecraft, kidnap the talent they’ve amassed, and rob them of their telescope.
Cue the pyro, smoke and Queen Tatiana’s Russian-inflected cackling.
I love the circus but I do what I do because I love big cats. And so as long as I can carry on doing that, wherever that may be, then I’ll be very happy. Sometimes people say, the animals would be better off in a preserve, where they can relax and do nothing, they can live their lives and be peaceful—but these are working animals, these animals are used to being busy, and you can’t expect an animal that’s used to being busy six days a week to all of a sudden sit down and do nothing.
ME: You’re sure you’re not also talking about yourself?
LACEY: Well, yeah.
The second act of the circus feels only slightly shorter than, but just as predictable as, the lines for soft beverages ($8), cheesy nachos ($10) and bathrooms (gratis). Here, chaser and chased have just been changed around: now Paulo and Johnathan go after the Queen Tatiana/Davis/clown troika, who make an escape to the Water Planet (where they conscript the King Charles Troupe, an act that plays slapstick basketball on unicycles), and from there to the Fire Planet (where they impress into their ranks acrobats, hoop divers and, finally, the Constellation of Cossacks, a pack of daredevil equestrians). With Davis and the clowns busy corralling the acts, and bungling the corralling, Paulo and Johnathan are able to retake the Magic Telescope, though once it’s back in their possession, they make the inexplicably generous offer to share it, and Queen Tatiana accepts (how can’t she?). As a finale, they announce their intention to join forces and combine all the myriad acts they’ve been squabbling over into a single mega-circus, and then they take their bows, in an emphatic endorsement of what the souvenir program ($20) describes as “Out Of This World Friendship.”
The horse, I think, is the circus.
ME: Is the circus? Why?
TCHALABAEV: Because it is—versatile? It can be in comedy, or in acts like ours, with a lot of adrenaline and speed. But also there are dancing horses, and the liberty, in which the horses do the tricks on their own, with no rider. The horse has been part of Ringling Bros. for a long time, very long. How did they bring the circus? The horse. How did the audience go to the circus? The horse. The ringmaster, who does he dress as? He is the man who rides the horse.
ME: How does it feel, then, to not only be in charge of the horses, but also to
be married to Tatiana, the Intergalactic Circus Queen?
TCHALABAEV: Not bad, not bad. We don’t
have to sleep in the stables.
Here are the acts I liked: the spacewalking, in which gymnasts in astronaut suits balance on the rim of a revolving wheel, simulating zero gravity; the silks routine, in which aerialists jump and twirl and unravel themselves to mimic shooting stars; the gradual, measured, concentrated way that three leotarded women twisted themselves into becoming basically balloon animals, or balloon human furniture for one another; the fat/buff-husband-fat/buxom-wife team who brought out the shivery dogs and prodded a hog over hurdles.
I even liked the circus’s theme song:
Fast and strong, turbo speed, they don’t need any rest!
We’re on fleek, our space fleet, Paulo knows we’re the best…
But each time I filed out of the Barclays—the aisles clogged by audience members pausing to applaud or clock the Jumbotron, which was scrolling the social-media posts they’d been encouraged to share throughout the show: “dat wuz awesome!!! #ringlingbros,” “the sutton and riley families thank u 4 the memories @ringlingbros”—each time I was returned to the street, I had the weird sensation of having missed something.
Not having missed some act, but having missed some deeper message.
There was something odd, something stupid-odd, about this fairy tale/reality show in which all of the characters had the same names as their performers—“Paulo” played by the Brazilian dwarf and capoeira master Paulo dos Santos; “Johnathan” played by the ringmaster, the American Johnathan Lee Iverson; “Davis” played by fourth-generation Italian clown Davis Vassallo; “Queen Tatiana” played by Russian equestrienne Tatiana Tchalabaeva, etc.—and in which each planet seemed to have its own national themes, which were often different from, or just not generally associated with, the nationalities of its resident acts: the Ice Planet, designed to have a Chinese vibe, hosting the Ecuadoran Torres family of motorcyclists yelling in Spanish; the Water Planet, with its Caribbean aesthetics, full of chihuahuas, a kangaroo and a German dressed in superhero lederhosen.
Was it possible, I wondered, that this ridiculous story I sat through (six times) was actually the story of its performers’ own lives—their real true lives—a dramatization of how RBandB&BC had ingathered them all from their respective planet-countries, and in doing so had made them citizens of the mongrel landless circus?
Or, alternatively, was it possible that this story was actually a restaging of American circus history—the account of how rival organizations were always competing to hire, and trying to poach, new performers; how they’d try and filch each other’s tricks, and price fix, poison, injure, arson and just generally undercut one another until, with the public’s interest in circuses dwindling, they finally had to cut their losses and pool their resources—like how Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey together became RBandB&BC?
Or else—in the interpretation most obvious to me—was this story that started touring the country over the course of the last campaign really just a wishful pre-election fable, in which an attractive, deep-voiced, red-white-and-blue-attired, undeniably Obamaesque American black man (Johnathan)—the first black ringmaster in RBandB&BC history—teams up with his disadvantaged friend, a Latin American dwarf (Paulo), to take on and ultimately tame a megalomaniacal Russian adversary (Tatiana) with a deliciously campy lady-Putin accent and enough compromising or just violent leverage over the Trumpian clowns so as to compel their complicity in her nefarious plans for intergalactic circus domination?
Of course, when I proposed as much—to the performers I was interviewing, to the Feld Entertainment PR reps who wouldn’t leave me alone during the interviewing—when I suggested to them that their pride and joy circus wasn’t just a mindless farce, but was in fact a vast geopolitical parable or allegory, consciously/unconsciously made out of a mix of current anti-isolationist, anti-nativist, be-wary-of-Russia-but-don’t-blame-Russia-for-everything-especially-not-the-election imagery and signifiers that it didn’t take a Magic Telescope to spot, I got either no response or denials, headshakes of confusion or pity.
I like the fact that it’s a little bit of a mystery, the character of the clown. Because a clown is someone that nobody really knows who he is—nobody really knows what’s in his head. We call it clown logic—why sometimes does a clown do this? Or that? Or some gesture? Or nothing? I think this is why the clown is the most interesting character in the circus, because you’re never sure what to expect…
ME: You’re saying you can’t tell what’s going on, psychologically,
behind the makeup, the costume?
VASSALLO: You go to the circus and what? What do you expect? You know that the juggler is going to juggle, the acrobats are going to be doing acrobatics…
ME: But you don’t know what—
VASSALLO: You don’t know what the clown is going to do. He has to be able to do all of it, but still you’re never sure what or why or how he feels about it, ever.
The American circus, like the Circus Americanus, was an exploitative business based mostly on humbug, and given to animal cruelty, blackface minstrelsy, indentured servitude and slavery—in which dwarves and giants, the hypertrichotic, the “seal-limbed,” “the Siamese,” and hordes more of the congenitally deformed and disabled were shamelessly presented to the public as “freaks”—but it was also, and sometimes at the same time, something like an aspirational sanctuary, for all the world’s discriminated-against, outcast and shunned, in which they, and the young, and the young at heart, were at liberty to dress and act and perform themselves as they pleased, in the free exercise of their myriad strange talents.
The face of this contradictory nature—the rictus face and embodiment of this democratic paradox—is the clown, who must always remain relatable to his audience, while also serving as an agent of anarchy, the sworn enemy of all continuity and sense.
The clown, then, is the politician of the circus: working both sides of the aisle.
RBandB&BC Clown Alley—which is the traditional name for its battery of clowns—officially recognizes three clown types: the Characters, the Whitefaces, and the Auguste. The Characters are the utility clowns, whose roles find their sources in normal, or occupational, life: they’re the clown construction workers and clown car drivers, the clown tramps, clown hobos, the clown firefighters and clown cops. The Whitefaces, by contrast, are the more classical clowns, whose pale-all-over-not-just-on-the-face appearance and demeanor derive from the harlequinade and the commedia dell’arte: they’re the self-appointed aristocrats of clowning; smart, crafty, clannish joculators, slightly pompous about their heritage.
And then there’s the Auguste. There can be any number of Characters and Whitefaces in every Clown Alley, but there can only be one Auguste: he’s the sad clown, the tragic clown, the grotesque, whose name betrays him as older or “venerable,” with hair typically red and shocked straight out on the sides, and just three ovoids of white around the mouth and eyes, as if to imply an estate—a Whiteface estate—from which he’s been excluded. He’s the dumb clown, the dim clown, clumsy, klutzy, casually rude, who can never do anything right. That said, the Auguste is the most difficult clown type to play. This is because the Auguste has to be especially good at appearing bad or incompetent, without hurting himself, or hurting others. In the traditional division of labor in Clown Alley, the Whitefaces tell the Auguste what to do, they give him a task, and the Auguste manages—invariably—to screw it up. They order him to reach for a rope, and he reaches, and misses, and takes a tumble. The Character clowns are gathered for a meeting in the center ring, and the Auguste wants to join them; he wants to sit, like they’re sitting, in a proper chair, and he goes for the one chair still vacant, but at the last moment the Whitefaces tug it out from under him, and he falls on his ass, and we in the audience can’t help but sympathize.
Meanwhile, in the other rings, all of the circus infrastructure—all of the platforms and harnesses, all of the safety nets—are being dismantled.
JONATHAN LEE IVERSON
And to a large degree the cynical side of me goes, Yeah yeah, America doesn’t deserve a Ringling Bros. It really doesn’t. Because for 146 years we’ve been teaching you. Yeah. How we can all live together, how we can all work together, to make something beautiful. How every person matters, every job, and this is what we’re mourning. Not a show but a society. Lots of shows close down but this is a society. Black, white, woman, man, performer or crew, everyone’s equal here, everyone’s important. You know, since I’ve been here I’ve developed a great affection for animals, but seriously, I’m from New York City, I’m from Harlem, before the circus the most exotic animal I’d ever been around was a squirrel, so I’m not going to get into that cage with the cats, I’m not going to get up on that trapeze bar, but we each have our own role, which gives us dignity. My first dressing roommate, Mark, was as white as day and he wouldn’t go on to perform unless this one member of the floor crew, Rafael Suarez, who’s Mexican, had rigged his apparatus, and they didn’t even speak the same language, they just talked with their hands. But they had this mutual respect. This sense of responsibility for each other. Of all the lessons I’ve learned in the circus, about humanity, about being an artist, about making art and how to sell art, which is also an art, which the circus did a lot to invent, this was the most profound. That you’re responsible. I am. We are. For each other. You understand? And that’s what the circus is. Just what its name says it is. What does it mean? From the Latin. From the Greek. It’s a circle.
◡Art credit: Lisa Kereszi, The final Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Red Unit Performing Circus Extreme in Hartford, Connecticut, April 29, 2017 11a.m.