|The Circus, by Georges Seurat, painted 1891. Original in Musée d'Orsay, Paris. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
These are my People
Think of a society that, on a political basis, is both the capitalist and socialist's dream.[i] Think of a society that employed ex-slaves[ii] ahead of everyone else and by its very nature is multicultural.[iii] Think of a society that has a hierarchy and even a system ingrained in culture and tradition[iv] and yet opened its doors to absolutely anyone who was willing to work hard and provide them with the realistic dream of climbing to the top of their professional tree[v]. Think of a society that always provided equal opportunities for men and women[vi]; a society that had a woman heading a strong family business years before women had the equal vote.[vii] Think of a society that provided highly profitable employment and success for the disabled when the rest of society only offered poverty or the workhouse.[viii] Think of a society that brought animals from all over the world to people who never knew they existed[ix] and further worked with institutions that to this day work to conserve these species.[x] Think of a society that through exposing people to said animals brought awareness of said animals' plight in the wild. Think of a culture that entertained audiences of all classes and creeds.[xi] Think of a culture that takes the form of a global family accepting leaders as equals of any sex, race, religion, philosophical position, sexual orientation or moderate political persuasion.[xii] Think of an institution that boosted the economy, never asked for government support or public funding; that worked off their own steam and integrated themselves into every community they visited, often providing job opportunities. Think of a society that built buildings over a century ago that still stand today[xiii] and brought elements that are part of the very fabric of modern entertainment.[xiv] Then imagine if that society is shunned by the country that invented it and suffers fashionable prejudice.[xv] Imagine if said society's very name prompts disdain to such a degree that it has become accepted as a noun for general lowliness.[xvi] These are my people.
[i] A travelling circus is laissez faire capitalism and socialism personified. All the most successful circus directors came from nothing and built their way up through vision and hard graft. Historically they never asked for grants or any sort of funding. The travelling circus is a self-funding institution; its success is based purely on its ability to produce a spectacle the general public wish to view. Circus typically offers equal opportunities no matter your gender, race, culture, religion, political persuasion or sexual orientation. There are countless examples of people running away to join the circus and working their way to the top.
[ii] John Turner’s “Victorian Arena” and numerous surviving circus posters demonstrate the employment of ex-slaves close. These all happen after the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act in the UK.
[iii] Traditional circuses boasted its international status for centuries. There have been circus directors from virtually every race, culture, religion and creed.
[iv] Circus families typically run traditional circuses and pass it down through the generations.
[v] Many circus directors such as James Bailey simply ran away to join the circus from nothing and worked their way to become top directors.
[vi] Unlike any other profession in the Victorian/Edwardian era, the circus allowed women to play virtually any role that outside society might regard as “masculine”. For example, there were many female lion and wild animal trainers in an age where women were prevented from being employed in several “manly” professions.
[vii] Madam Clara Paulo headed her family circus one year before women were granted the equal vote. When she started running an entire business, issuing orders to men and women alike, the outside world did not allow women to vote before they were 30.
[viii] The freak show might be universally reviled as a form of sad exploitation, but the truth of the matter is that many deformed and disabled people made a very profitable income by displaying their differences to the general public. It is arguable that despite the 1886 Act that banned freak shows in the UK, magazines and television programmes (particularly reality shows) today still regularly “exploit” members of our society that suffer from congenital deformities (Bizarre magazine, Body Shock and Big Brother are three such examples). Joseph Carey Merrick “The Elephant Man” is a case in point. If it wasn’t for the impresario Tom Norman, Merrick would have lived the rest of his life in a workhouse or on the streets. Being too deformed to make a success as a hawker, his only option was the workhouse. His single surviving piece of writing does nothing but sing Norman’s praises. In the 20th century we have “Sealo” who enjoyed a very profitable career and the life of a celebrity with all the trimmings by using his deformity to his advantage.
[ix] For almost 200 years travelling circuses and menageries toured all over the world and took in people of all classes. They often would journey into areas of the country to see people who would not have the time or money to visit the zoos of the city.
[x] Zoos and circuses shared a close relationship for many years up almost the present day in the UK. They still do in many other countries. Jimmy Chipperfield, a circus director from an old circus family, is responsible for the innovation and creation of safari parks all over the world. These institutions have helped bring greater awareness of the plight of endangered species and have worked hard to conserve them in the wild. Furthermore, they are the source of the majority of education we have on the natural world.
[xi] Despite enjoying royal patronage in most countries, circus is part of the music hall, vaudeville, fairground, carnival
[xii] There have been in history and are circus directors that have conform to each and every one of these categories. I have known female circus directors, homosexual circus directors, conservative circus directors, socialist circus directors and circus directors of a wide range of races. None of these are especially rare examples either. They all have historically done business with each other and worked together. Of course, I have seen blatant examples of superficial racism, sexism and strong political views – as you do in any society - but this is not part and parcel of the cultural infrastructure of traditional circus. This is what marks it out from most other cultures.
[xiii] Any building with the name hippodrome, arena or coliseum often started its existence as a circus building.
[xiv] See Phillip Gandey’s remarks in “The Circus Comes to Town” 2012 BBC documentary. Circus has influenced a huge amount of art and showbusiness. Circus shares its roots with pantomime, fairs/carnivals, music hall/vaudeville, sideshows and travelling menageries. Many circus people are blood-linked to fairground people (showmen) and music hall booked the same acts that were shown in circus. Many circus impresarios were also music hall impresarios. Body-building, professional wrestling and even burlesque have their roots in these businesses.
[xv] The modern circus was invented in the UK. However, today making blanket derogatory statements about circuses and especially animal circuses, rarely meet opposition.
[xvi] The word “circus” is often used a metaphor for disorder and the circus is often considered to be a form of low art.
Jamie Clubb's other blogs: www.beelzebubsbroker.blogspot.com www.clubbchimera.com