The Thirty Minute Blogger

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What a Circus Should Be: by Mr. Phineas Taylor Barnum Himself

Toward the end of his autobiography, a colorful affair, Mr. P.T. Barnum sketched out what he believed a circus ought to be (afterwards I'll provide a little perspective from P.T. comparing HIS circus to others of the day):

The Mission of the Circus
 When under proper management [the circus] is decorous and orderly in operation and composed of features which appeal to all ages, classes and conditions. While modestly submitting to bear the generic title of circus, a genuine tent exhibition under that name must comprise a menagerie and museum, the accumulating of which necessitated a diligent searching of the whole earth at an incredible pecuniary outlay. In the proper circus of to-day the athlete demonstrates the perfection of training of which the human body is capable. His feats of strength and graceful agility pleases the understanding as well as the eye, and if the average small boy does stand on his head and practice turning "hand-springs" and "flip-flaps" with exasperating persistence for three weeks running after going to the circus his physique will be all the better for it. The juggler shows the marvelous precision and nicety of touch which can be acquired by patient practice. In the real circus of to-day the intelligent lover of horse-flesh will find the finest specimens of the equine race trained to do almost anything but talk. There the scientific mind is attracted by such strange examples of mechanism as the talking machine, an ingenious duplicate of the structure of the human throat, giving forth under manipulation a very human, if not very sweet, voice. The ethnologist finds gathered together for his leisurely inspection representatives of notable and peculiar tribes, civilized and savage, from far distant lands--types which otherwise he would never see, as they can only be sought in their native countries at the risk of life, and at the expenditure of time and money possible to very few. The menagerie of wild life, from the denizens of the torrid African jungle to those of the Polat regions--form a study that will impart more valuable information in two hours than can be obtained from reading books on zoology in a year. 

Now, that's entertainment. It is easy to tell this is the man who ran the "American Museum," a structure filled with entertainment and enlightenment. Mr. Barnum goes on to describe how much better his and Mr. Bailey's circus is in comparison to the shabby affairs that besmirched the name "circus." Of these low establishments, Mr. Barnum stated that for entertainment, drunken characters were represented and broad jokes made, that clowns made vulgar jests accompanied by vulgar gestures that they passed off as fun. Those "circuses" hired rowdy folk including card-sharpers, pickpockets, and swindlers. Law-abiding citizens dreaded the appearance of such shows and the attendant drunkenness and disorderly conduct that followed them like a slimy slug trail. These disreputable establishments would engage the local firemen in a town to protect the circus company against angry "rabble" who grew increasingly annoyed as they were repeatedly swindled. Ticket-sellers were not paid, but kept as much money as they could cheat customers out of by shortchanging them. This description reminds me of the Depression era carnivals that would sweep through one town, pull up its public flowers in the dead of night and use them to decorate the show in the next town over.

We tend to forget in the passions of the moment the passions of yesteryear. So abhorrent was the conduct of some miscreant circuses that, "Years ago no two institutions were more actively antagonistic than the Church and Circus. The former waged fierce and uncompromising war against the latter, the Methodist Church going so far as to make it a part of their discipline that attendance at a circus entailed forfeiture of membership."

So there you have it, the late nineteenth century circus as it was and as it should be as penned by the incomparable showman, P.T. Barnum himself.

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