‘American Experience’ recalls ‘The Circus’

October 6, 2018

We are so awash in “entertainment” we don’t even notice its effect. Years back, critics and parents worried about people watching “the boob tube” eight hours per day. Now, consumers devote even longer hours to video games, their smartphones and watching television on any number of devices.

The four-hour “American Experience” (8 p.m., PBS, TV-PG, check local listings) presentation “The Circus” (concluding Tuesday night) recalls a time when Americans, mostly farmers, were entertained only a few days per year, and they anticipated the arrival of the circus as they would Christmas Day — a colorful break from regularity and toil.

Employing still photographs, interviews, silent films and an imaginative use of animation, “The Circus” surveys the history of big top entertainment from the end of the 18th century, when President George Washington attended one in Philadelphia, to the revolutionary ballyhoo of P.T. Barnum and the grand spectacle of the Ringling brothers.

Not unlike a religious festival, the circus of the 19th century was more of a transfixing event than a mere distraction. For residents of small towns and cities, the arrival of a horde of wild animals, troupes of exotic performers and a freak show was not unlike an invasion from an alternative universe.

For a few days or a week, people were consumed by an exciting world in which all of the rules were turned upside down. Shirtless men performed daring feats. Brazen, obviously undomesticated women rode elephants and tamed tigers while exhibiting a lot more skin than was considered decent in the Victorian era.

It’s hardly surprising circuses often were condemned from church pulpits. Some contend circuses began to include menageries of animals to show they were “educational” events, allowing people to see the actual animals mentioned in the Bible.

The documentary also shows how the circus business paralleled the industrialization of the United States. In the early 1870s, Barnum and his partners were quick to see how railroads allowed them to turn localized events into huge, multicity tours, expensive enterprises that witnessed an exponential increase in profits.

Barnum also pioneered new forms of entertainment. He invented the matinee and revolutionized hype. He promoted his enterprises with spectacular exaggeration. And when business got slow, he generated controversy by creating proxy critics to attack his own shows. A master of “fake news,” his promotions were as gaudy and gorgeous as his events. Circus posters remain some of the great commercial art of the 19th century.

This compelling history shows how Barnum’s industrialization and syndication of circus entertainment anticipated the rise of vaudeville, Hollywood and broadcast radio and television, the kinds of entertainment that eclipsed the circus itself. By the mid-20th century, few people had to wait for “The Greatest Show on Earth.” There was one going on in their living room every moment of the day.


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