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Monday, 7 April 2008

Circus and Other "Low" Arts: A Defence

Joseph Carey Merrick "The Elephant Man"
Joseph Carey Merrick "The Elephant Man" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently re-watched one of my favourite films, “The Elephant Man”. Released in 1980, this is perhaps one of director David Lynch’s most conservative pieces. The director’s notoriously surreal style is restricted to short dream sequences instead of dominating the piece as he is often want to do. I like some of Lynch’s work, particularly “Lost Highway”, and I am also an admirer of the two stars of the film, Anthony Hopkins, who plays the compassionate Dr. Treves, and John Hurt, who plays his most famous patient and the film’s eponymous hero, the tragically disfigured and disabled John Merrick (actually a portrayal of the real-life Joseph Carey Merrick). When I saw this film as a child it was the first feature I ever recall moving me to tears. Imagine my horror years later when I heard a rumour that Mr. Merrick was once an employee of my Victorian ancestors. Later on I found that this rumour was suspicious at best, but what I did uncover was a very different story about the life of Joseph Merrick. I also had to face the fact that a loved film “The Elephant Man” reflects much of the Edwardian snobbery that set a firm divide between the “high art” of straight theatre, a representative of dignity in the film, and the "low art" of sideshows, which the film depicts as the representative humiliation and exploitation.

During the time I researched my historical book “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” on Britain’s two real performing elephants, Salt and Sauce, I uncovered several points that led me down this train of thought about the way my country view my culture. I grew up on a travelling circus. My mother’s side of the family has a performing lineage that stretches back to before the modern invention of the circus by Phillip Astley in 1768. Our ancestor is billed as performing at the "Frost Fair" on the frozen Thames River in 1684. The traditional circus is a British invention from working class roots that over certain eras united the tastes of the two classes and brought entertainment to the furthest regions of the UK before the arrival of the middle classes, which eventually suppressed it and even "airbrushed" a good degree out of it of our history.
The only surviving letter written by Merrick
The only surviving letter written by Merrick (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the first points that made me re-think my views on the plight of Joseph Merrick was the discovery of his real-life “freak show” employer, Tom Norman. I have one source that credits Norman as the employer of “The Cruet”, the original troupe of elephants Salt and Sauce belonged to and it was from here that I read about his career in providing travelling sideshows. Contrary to popular thinking, there is scarce evidence that so-called “freaks” in sideshows were treated like animals or slaves in the western world during the Victorian era. Tom Norman was no different than any other employer running a business in those hard times. Unlike his fictional counterpart, the alcoholic and brutal Bytes, as played by Freddie Jones in “The Elephant Man” film, Norman was a genuine friend of Joseph Merrick who looked after his employee's interests. As for Merrick, after an unsuccessful career in street-hawking he twice ended up in the miserable existance known as the work house. In light of these awful circumstances, as the book "The True History of the Elephant Man" by Michael Howells says that Tom Norman must have seemed, to Joseph Merrick, like the closest thing he had known to a "fairly godfather". Merrick sought a group of impressarios out and they arranged for him to exhibited by Tom Norman. This employment continued up until 1886 when "Freak shows" were banned in the UK. By this time he had amassed what some sources record as £200, which was pretty good going by Victorian standards, and travelled to Belgium to pursue his sideshow career. In this singular instance Merrick did seemingly encounter a villainous side show proprietor who apparently stole £50 off him and abandoned the show. This was when Merrick made his famous return to the UK and, for the first time, booked himself into Dr. Frederick Treves’ hospital having kept the famous doctor’s business card from a previous meeting.
Film poster for The Elephant Man
Film poster for The Elephant Man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The facts of the matter are that apart from the incident in Belgium, Merrick received no recorded incident of maltreatment and the only maltreatment he received in Belgium was the type any naïve person might risk at the hands of an unknown employer in a far-off land – he was robbed. He was not beaten, he was not kept in appalling conditions, he was not owned as property, he was swindled like everyone else on the show. The sad fact that Joseph Merrick actually pursued this dodgy job in Belgium in the first place speaks volumes about the unforeseen impact the abolishment of freak shows in Britain had on those it was supposedly trying to protect.
As seen in the excellent documentary “Born Freak”, such well-meaning moral acts had far more to do with appeasing the middle classes, who would later be won over by Merrick once he was in the care of Dr. Treves, than it did to do with the practical welfare of the disabled and the disfigured. In an ironic twist the film has “John” Merrick reassure Treves that he feels he is not being exploited again by the medical world or high class Victorian society, as he was in Bytes’ sideshow. This may have been the truth and it would appear that Merrick did have a much better life during his final years at the hospital, however, when he began his career as an entertainer he wrote the following words about his new experiences:

“In making my first appearance before the public, who have treated me well -- in fact I may say I am as comfortable now as I was uncomfortable before”.

Nevertheless, the freak show lives on today in many different ways. For all those who have been born with physical deformities and battle everyday to live a normal life, there is an entire society of “normal” people who vote with their feet and their hard-earned cash to watch the strange and abnormal. This can be seen in the mainstream success of such magazines as the semi-pornographic “Bizarre” and the pseudoscientific “Fortean Times”, as well the worldwide success of such modern day curiosity museums as “Ridley’s Believe it or not”. Video sharing sites like “Youtube” are filled with footage of bizarre natural occurrences and “freaks”. In fact, the sheer volume of freak show websites, that range from the mild to what is probably illegal in most countries, is testament to its continued popularity well over a century after its official abolition in the UK. Furthermore, as there was in the past, there is an entire subculture of professional amateur self-made “freaks”. And even in mainstream television, Ricky Gervais’s “Extras” character, Andy Millman, echoes the clichéd thoughts of many when he proclaimed on the 2007 Christmas Special that the Victorian freak show was live and well today in the form of the reality TV show “Big Brother”.

If you think about it, this is quite a disturbing truism. Reality TV in its many guises along with the shows like “Jerry Springer” has progressively promoted the “freakish” elements of society. I know, as I was once involved with staging such an incident when I used to promote professional wrestling. However, unlike the so-called freaks of yesteryear these exploited people are not doing this to earn money, but simply to become famous. Even before the days of reality shows, self-made freaks have emerged from the sideshows and world of variety performance to create their own institutions. The “Circus Strongman” is a known act and caricature of the traditional circus. Today bodybuilding and strongmen competitions have split into two distinctive sports that are held the world over and are supported by a prosperous industry in equipment, nutritional supplements and sponsorship.

Their close “alpha male” cousins of professional wrestling and boxing may not have their absolute roots in the travelling show industry, but during their respective golden ages many a grappler and pugilist began their careers on the fairs, circuses and carnivals of the UK, Europe and America for easily over a century. In contrast to the bodybuilders and strongmen competitions, these combat sports have actually moved a lot closer to the “freakish” showmanship of exhibitionism after their distancing from the sideshow industry. This can certainly be seen in professional wrestling, which is acknowledged as a form of physical theatre rather than an actual contest today. Boxing is not a million miles away from this either. Muhammad Ali admitted to being inspired by the “marketing” of the pro wrestling heels (bad guys) and his own approach would go on to inspire many future flamboyant boxing personalities.

I have concentrated on the freak show element mainly because of the Tom Norman connection, but also because it is an area of entertainment that seems so indefensible on a popular ethical basis in the modern age and yet, as I have detailed, it clearly addressed something in the public consciousness that is far from extinct. To those who know anything about traditional circus, they will realize that the freak element has long gone as an exhibit. Yet the circus still employs people with various genetic conditions, which the general public would deem as a handicap. In fact, circuses have had to fight the “do-gooders” on certain occasions to actually allow “freak” performers to have equal opportunities. In 1991 the Mexican “wolf boys” intended to work at Peter Jay’s “Tower Circus” in Blackpool. This was opposed by the local council who deemed it as exploitation. This time, however, the general public came down heavy with the circus and were backed by a strong media campaign. The two young Mexican brothers won their battle and the council allowed them to perform in the trampoline and flying trapeze acts.

The circus is far from being a utopian culture, but at times it can provide a microcosm of a society that many political doctrines aspire towards. The circus, far from merely being exploiters, is often the unsung champions of minorities and the oppressed. To begin with the traditional circus is multicultural and multiethnic. As mentioned in John Turner’s note in his “Victorian Arena” dictionary of circus, circuses were probably among the first to employ ex-slaves after the abolition act was brought into force in the UK.

Women have a long and well respected role in circus history. Long before they even had the right to vote women were co-running circuses and appearing as the centre attraction in even the most masculine of roles, as wild animal trainers. The famous Madame Clara Paulo, whose family Paulo’s Circus would employ the services of Salt and Sauce, was the sole proprietor of her circus from 1929 onwards – just one year after the legal age allowing women to vote had been brought into line with men in the UK. The traditional circus was a travelling show that brought entertainments to the working classes as well as those in the aristocracy. In many ways it is a socialist’s as well as a liberalist’s dream come true. And being a self-contained and self-financed free enterprise that, unlike the so-called “high” arts, has rarely asked for government sponsorship or charitable donations, it is the embodiment of effecient capitalism. The family values that are at the core traditional circus would find a lot of favour with conservatives.

I make these points, as a lot of what brings scorn on circus and its relatives is down to politics despite the fact that the traditional circus rarely engages in politics. Its unpretentious main function is to entertain the family. Yet circus, music hall, vaudeville, fairs, carnivals and sideshows have been regularly used by other forms of art, such as film, to represent the uglier side of our nature. In “The Elephant Man” film, Merrick wins the heart of a famous actress who enchants him with the wonder of the theatre. Towards the end of the film she publicly dedicates a performance at a high class theatre to him, establishing his dignified place in high class Victorian society. Merrick has gone from being a mistreated exhibit only valued for his “monstrous” outward appearance to being respected for his beautiful inner self. Yet the true story of Joseph Merrick is far more positive and inspirational. Whereas the dignity that John Merrick received in the film seems to have large been derived from a sense of pity for him, the real Joseph Merrick appears to have been a far stronger individual.

The truth is that Merrick, despite being horrendously afflicted and physically handicapped by his condition, not only booked himself into several hospitals – originally to have surgery on his mouth so that he could be better understood and later to be cared for by Treves – but also found a way to turn his ailment to his advantage. Likewise my book on Salt and Sauce the elephants, revealed many individuals that suffered tremendous hardships through both world wars, but nevertheless made their way forward to become huge successes in their own right. This independent drive to overcome problems is something I have grown up watching in the circus community. It is not an institution built on anything else other than genuine human spirit. At school I remember a boy once saying to me “it is easy to get in the circus. People without a job just learn how to juggle”. It was obviously an attempt at a putdown, but it also revealed the true strength of the circus. Despite being a tight community it is always willing to accept people who want to work. Unlike the “high arts” there isn’t an elitist policy, you become part of the circus elite on your own initiative and you win your acclaim not through some self-elected board of critics, but on those who really watch you, the people my grandfather dedicated his autobiography to: the public.

Essential Resources and Further Information
Perhaps the most accurate and succinct investigation into the life of Joseph Merrick. A superb resource that relies completely on primary source material:

This product is a prejudiced and totally unfair stereotypical portrayal of "show people" that trades sentimentalism for historical integrity in a way that is comparable to "Braveheart". Nevertheless, it is still a beautiful film and I cannot help but like it from start to finish:


The double standards of today's media. Exploitation is not fashionable or acceptable in today's society? You decide:


Mat Fraser's fantastic insight into the culture of the freak show and what it means today. This documentary provides factual research and is told by a modern day disabled performer. One of the best documentaries I have seen on the subject:

A great documentary on circuses in the UK: "When the Circus Comes to Town"
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penandspindle said...

Jamie, as always, I am impressed with your reasoning and the range of historical issues with which you grapple. I will link this post to The Pen And The Spindle so that our readers can enjoy this article as much as I have.

Jamie Clubb said...

Thank you, Heather. You are very kind. I hope that your readers will enjoy the piece.