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  • Writer's pictureNaomi P. Cohen

The Show is About to Begin

I realized recently that I am passionate for circus stories.

Perhaps I should have realized this long before I was a year into writing a novel of my own that involved a circus, but it came as an epiphany to me while I was in the midst of reading Caraval by Stephanie Garber. I thoroughly believe that story would make a wonderful video game, but I quite enjoyed the enchanting novel.

What does a history nerd do when discovering a new passion? Thoroughly research its origins, of course.

For my first blog post I will trace the circus’s travels throughout history with some examples of delightful literature you might enjoy.

The Roman circus is the well-known historical origin, drawing on the tradition of horse racing in the Greek hippodromes. Roman circuses are far different from the shows we know today, including chariot races, gladiator fights, and displays with animals. The Roman empire spread this practice into Asia and Europe.

The other main entertainment during this period was the theater, also drawn on a Greek tradition. Roman pantomime was much different than what might come to mind in present day. Performers could speak, but used masks depicting a single emotion, and so they used their voices and physical acting to portray the roles.

Fast forward a millennium and some centuries to the 1700s, when the Circus as we know it was born.

Philip Astley, a gifted horseman, put together a show that combined equestrian and acrobatic acts, followed by a pantomime. It also brought in the clown, a theatrical character. Astley’s show became a major success.

Astley’s rival, Charles Hughes, started a show known as the Royal Circus, the first modern amphitheater show to use the old Roman name.

P.T. Barnum revolutionized the American circus, with P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus; the first freak show. Freak shows are a whole other, twisted topic, often mingling with the mystique of gypsies and other traveling performers.

Some Roman elements returned to circuses in this period, with exotic animals such as elephants and giraffes being brought into the trains and taken around for the wonder and delight of people in an age when photography was being established and such sights were rare.

After Barnum’s death, his circus combined Bailey’s circus, and became Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth.

This is the traditional circus as we know it, and the inspiration that authors such as Ray Bradbury drew on for Something Wicked this Way Comes. Another wonderful example of this period, with a romance fantasy twist, is Freaks: Alive on the Inside by Annette Curtis Klause.

Pantomime evolved over the years along with the circus. The mime who established the performing style as most people think of it was the French actor, Marcel Marceau.

Marcel Marceau worked with the French resistance during German’s occupation in World War II. After that, he became a performer. He referred to pantomime as the “art of silence”, performed worldwide for over 60 years, established his own mime school in Paris, as well as the Marceau Foundation to promote pantomime in the United States.

With that list of accomplishments, it is easy to see why he is what most people picture when they think of a mime.

Charlie Chaplin and other performers brought some pantomime antics into movies but it wouldn’t last.

In modern times movies and sports are the main forms of entertainment. Circuses and pantomime remain strongly represented, though.

My favorite example of the modern circus is the Cirque du Soleil, a company that harkens back to Astley’s circus, with acrobatics, horses, and pantomime, among many other things.

What are some of your favorite circus stories and performances? Are there any you would like to see?

Go out and have fun this fall! But remember, as Mollie E. Reeder wrote in The Electrical Menagerie, “Never trust a mime.” After all, they are a tricky lot, easily able to strike poses, and feign strong emotions.

Trivia: I love morning glories and scented candles.

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