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Richard Jordan: It’s crucial that traditional circus isn’t lost for good

The Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey touring arena show Circus Xtreme is typical of traditional-style commercial circus in the US. Photo: Feld Entertainment The Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey touring arena show Circus Xtreme is typical of traditional-style commercial circus in the US. Photo: Feld Entertainment
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On May 21, after 146 years, the legendary Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey circus will pack up for good and with it a piece of living Americana is over. Its last ever performance will be streamed live on Ringling.com and broadcast on Facebook Live. Created and pioneered by one of the greatest showman of all time, PT Barnum, today’s audiences were no longer interested enough in traditional circus to sustain it.

Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey’s circus built its name on the three-ring circus its founders created, and from the outset billed itself, famously, as “the greatest show on Earth.” For many years, it was, but more recently it struggled against bad press and legal action, in the latter case forcing it to retire its legendary elephants.

Feld Entertainment, Ringling Bros’ producer, blamed their loss for the circus’ demise, but I suspect in fact that it could not compete with the new breed of contemporary work that was turning the genre into a multi-million dollar business. They tried moving their productions into theatres and arenas, while maintaining a touring model that included a circus train comprising 60 carriages, a hangover from Barnum’s first tours in 1871.

But Feld’s attempts to modernise were misgiven. It was the tent and three rings which set them apart, but these emblems had been binned in favour of a model that could take the troupe into smaller cities in the US touring market. Perhaps they should have seen the writing on the wall, particularly when the competing Big Apple Circus went under.

The public reaction to the announcements of closure – in both cases – has been one of shock and surprise. Yet the majority of those who bemoaned their passing had not stepped inside their tents for many years. It’s understandable: if I see a big top, it triggers a nostalgic childhood memory and I get a thrill – but in reality I haven’t been to see circus in a tent since I was a boy. Perhaps the seasonal nature of circus tours tricks us into thinking it will always be there. You don’t miss the water until your well runs dry.

And what about UK circus? In a recent special focus on The Stage, we were treated to stories from a growing and successful British circus industry. As Cirque du Soleil dominates Las Vegas and a recent Broadway season, the US market has arguably a more visible presence, yet in the UK the spoils available are shared more broadly. You can imagine a circus like Zippo’s having a harder time surviving in the US market.

Don’t get me wrong: I consider Cirque du Soleil’s O at the Bellagio in Las Vegas one of the greatest shows I have ever seen. But it’s not pure circus. It’s its own art from with Broadway prices to match.

Cirque du Soleil may have initially propelled the term ‘contemporary circus’, but the template isn’t fixed. Consider the Spiegeltent, now a fixture at almost any festival; side-show freaks; acrobats and juggling; cabaret crossover. Most of this market is aimed at an adult market, rather than being geared towards families. The rise of newer forms of circus shouldn’t, by rights, consign the traditional model to the history books.

Yes, traditional circus faces challenges. But the talent of the artists is frequently equal, the charm available in spades, and it is the gateway for theatre – for so many people a first taste of live performance. And a memory they will never forget.

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