This afternoon I went to the Ringling Brothers circus in Redmond, Oregon, and as is my fashion I could not watch the spectacle without a great deal of reflection that somewhat hindered my involvement in the actual show itself. There was so much going on that watching the circus was exhausting, which may have been part of the intent of the show. That said, despite the often frantic pace that the almost two hours took, there was enough time in the show where the repetition of elements made it possible to reflect on the theatrical nature of the show itself as well as the larger context of the show both in what it showed off and what it was missing in comparison with the past. In many ways, there was a mixture of old and new in the show, a nod to tradition as well as to contemporary elements, some aspects of the show which were highlighted and others which were deliberately obscured.
It so happens that there were protesters outside of the expo hall where the circus is being held. The first wave of protestors were very polite young people (probably college age or so) who were passing out leaflets protesting the animal cruelty that is inherent in the circus industry. These people, one male and one female, were stationed in the area right in front of where we hold our normal church services at the Redmond-Bend feast site. The second group of protesters was far less friendly, with provocative statements mocking the fines paid by Ringling Brothers for their treatment of animals as well as the fact that people supposedly go to the circus to see animals in their natural habitat when the behavior of the animals is anything but natural. To be sure, I saw two particularly revealing aspects of the circus that appeared to reflect a bit of cruel treatment. The first was the presence of whips and sticks when one was dealing with the animals (although, in fairness, there was a whip-cracking man who used his whip to strip off the outer skirts of the two attractive young ladies who were his “assistants,” which meant that the whips were not only being cracked with animals around, but with people around as well). The second was the strange behavior of some of the dogs who were doing tricks of running up a ramp, jumping over a bar, and landing on a pad. Those dogs that landed on the pad ran around immediately and jumped again, but those which did not stayed still for a few seconds, seemingly frozen in a bit of terror for their mistake in what looked like a short “time out” before running back with the rest. I found the behavior of those dogs odd but somewhat revealing.
I think there are two very large points that most of the protestors I saw seemed to miss, and both of them are revealing of a larger disconnect between a legitimate concern about the treatment of animals and the political agenda of the protestors. The first point is that people do not go to circuses to see animals (or people) behaving in a natural way. The Ringling Brothers circus bills itself as “The Greatest Show On Earth,” and while that claim is at least somewhat debatable, the fact is that the whole performance is based on artifice. The people and animals in the show are not acting naturally at all. Rather, they are doing tricks for the amusement of the audience. They are all performers doing well-practiced routines, most of which contain a significant degree of danger and at least the hint of possible death if they are not done correctly. In fact, the whole show and its appeal is the way in which nurture triumphs over nature, and where artifice and performance are seen in a particularly spectacular way.
The second major point that the protestors seemed to miss was that the danger and treatment of the human beings involved in the show was far more cruel and degrading than the treatment meted out to the animals. The animals got treats at least for doing their tricks successfully, and none of them ever had to play with fire or have knives thrown at them. Of course, it could be said that the circus performers at least got paid for their work, but in many ways the animals involved in the show were treated better in the show than the human beings were. And while it may seem degrading for an elephant to make a headstand or for a camel to have ponies running around under it, or for dogs and horses to engage in delicate choreography, it is also degrading for a man to be known as Mr. Power and to drag around heavy objects with his teeth or be known as a human helicopter carrying two young women dressed like cheerleaders for the amusement of an audience.
It is important when going to a show that is designed as an obvious spectacle like the circus to notice what is missing or hidden or obscured as much as one notices what is there, because the show is designed to distract attention from certain areas to put it on others. For example, the hardest working people in the show were the stage crew, dressed in black to avoid drawing attention to themselves in darkened parts of the floor, but whose choreography and work was sometimes more interesting to me than some of the acts themselves. Likewise, the musicians were extremely hard working as well but were put in a place where they were off center and attention was only deliberately drawn to them one time, at the beginning of the second act of the show. In this case, many of the acts were slight of hand, where those people to whom attention was supposed to be paid were dressed very colorfully or flamboyantly, and often with either skin-tight clothing or in a state of considerable undress. I found this to be a bit disconcerting personally, although I thought that the acts were very skilled, if not perfect. For example, the man throwing knives did not throw very far from the young women (thankfully), and one of his knives missed and the other failed to stick, which slightly marred his performance.
There were a few things that one might expect at a traditional circus, particularly given the Ringling Brothers name, that were entirely missing. One was on the animal side and the other was on the human side. On the animal side, there were no lions or tigers or other predatory animals. Instead one saw cute dogs, a couple of elephants, some camels, and some horses and ponies. One of the ponies in particular was striking to me, trying very hard at doing tricks but always managing to be at least a little bit behind the rest and a bit out of step, something I found rather touching even if it was a bit flawed. I wonder how such an animal was treated, because one could see the earnest sincerity and hard work that it put into its routine, but clearly the pony was not as talented or in step with its peers, which made me feel a bit sad. On the human side, the show was missing clowns. This is not a bad thing, as far as I am concerned. I find clowns to be rather creepy, and this is apparently not an isolated phenomenon. The fact that the performers managed to fit relatively basic circus tropes (the strongman and woman, the trapeze family, the gymnasts) while having the performers in the clown role appear more human and avoid the uncanny valley was definitely a good change, and a concession to modern tastes and sensibilities.
There was at least another way that the show made some significant concessions to modern sensibilities. This was through the character Anton, who was set up as a mock rebellious figure constantly being told off by his supposed boss, but also a performer of a wide variety of skills, not least of which is appearing to be maladroit when he is really quite skilled, stealing the show with his constant talents. It is a difficult trick to be a person of many and conspicuous talents and avoid having to at least play dumb (something I don’t do particularly well) to avoid attracting the envy of jealous people. Fortunately, I don’t have to play to be a bit absent-minded or clumsy, something that draws the humor and attention of others who like to see those areas of humanity that remind everyone that I am a human being just like everyone else. The fact that his mock-rebellion was a part of the act only makes the appeal to the independent and rebellious spirit of our times while taming it as being part of a larger planned element of the spectacle only makes the concession more cynical in nature.
For me, there was one overriding sadness about the spectacle that I saw. In looking at the progression of the various tricks, I was reminded that life in many ways is like the spectacle. Some of us work in vital roles that demand a great deal of hard work but that are hidden from public sight and often not even appreciated or noticed, or designed to be noticed, since noticing the work would only detract from the enjoyment of the show itself for many people. The circus, after all, is meant to be a seamless spectacle, and having attention drawn to the fact that so many people have to work so hard to set up the staging itself while others are drawing attention from these tasks diminishes from the effortless surface appearance. Likewise, the way that the acts started with easier tricks and then got harder and harder reflects the fact that in life there are constantly harder challenges that come when one masters easier tasks. Our lives are like the MMO games that many of us (myself included) like to play, with mastery leading to increased challenges and tests that are more challenging, with an often diminished feeling of satisfaction as one increases in level, just as the early tricks of a circus act feel more impressive than the variations and elaborations that follow afterward. Our lives are a spectacle for the enjoyment and criticism of an audience that often does not even pay us for the pleasure. We’re all stars in the dog and pony show, and most of the time we are content to spend our time laughing at those whose spectacles are more obvious and flamboyant than our own, and who actually get some rewards for playing alone with the show.