Taking the Circus Seriously
“PROFESSOR” MANUEL HERZOG, irreproachably garbed as beseems a representative of that most carefully and expensively costumed enterprise, a modern circus, had just come out of the ring in which he had been putting six magnificent black stallions through a series of graceful and complicated evolutions. Ilis horses had been led away to their temporary stable, and the trainer paused a moment at the curtained entrance of the arena, watching with an idleeye the fruitless efforts of the Auguste ” clown to make himself useful in helping the ring attendants to arrange the paraphernalia of a troupe of Japanese acrobats. It is the business of an Auguste clown to make himself fruitlessly useful. Like so many other amusing things, he was invented in Germany, where his dress suit is already traditional, and his title a natural inheritance from the first wag who called him “ Auguste ” from the spectators’ benches. Joining Mr. Herzog, I remarked that the antics of Auguste made a striking contrast to the grace and beauty of his own performing stallions.
The trainer’s eye kindled. “ Ah, that is it,” he replied gravely; “ the grace and beauty! It is for that that the artist must work.”
For it seems in very truth that the circus is not only a strikingly domestic institution (as will be shown later), but has its claim to be regarded as an expression of art. To an American this is a new point of view from which to examine a familiar spectacle, and it may even happen that the spectacle loses its former triteness and is reborn into a something different that appeals to a more subtle kind of appreciation.
As there are twro ways of reading a novel, one for the conclusion of the story, the other for the more attentive pleasure of traveling the path by wrhich the author gets to the end, so Lliere are two ways of taking our satisfaction at the circus. The first is, and must always be, the more widely popular. But as the second may lead to many re-readings of the same story, each time with some new sense of pleasant discovery, so it may lead many times to the circus, with a fresh enjoyment in each repetition of performances that are, in their general intent, necessarily and eternally identical. That this enjoyment, if we care to analyze it, will be found akin to the sesthetic pleasure that we recognize so tangibly in painting and sculpture, and more intangibly in literature, music, and the drama, is the circus performer’s claim to be considered an artist.
All the circus-posters in the world to the contrary, there is little that is really new in any circus programme, and nothing whatever in the legitimate field of acrobatics, tumbling, riding, and aerial performance. The old man is at least half right who says, “ If you’ve seen one circus you’ve seen all of ’em.” What is new is mechanical, like the somersaulting automobile. The rings of the big American circus multiply the number of performers, but cannot increase the number of feats, and are in fact simply the natural result of having to provide entertainment for an audience too large to be seated around a single centre of interest. But as for what goes on, either in one ring or many, the beginnings of these special manifestations of physical activity are so humble, and so far back in human history, that the “ original ” feat of any modern performer is pretty sure to be a repetition of some other temporarily forgotten repetition of some altogether forgotten original. Here, therefore, is one of the first requirements of definite art — a long line of accumulated tradition. When the Lowande family, for example, surprise and hold an audience by the skill and daring of a series of acrobatic feats performed on a moving coach and the backs of the horses that draw it, they are simply repeating arenic history, with the coach as an innovation; they illustrate the one possible ambition of the circus artist, — to find a new way of accomplishing feats that have in themselves already been carried to the limit of human possibility.
Like art again, the circus is cosmopolitan, speaks a universal language, and cares not a whit for national politics. Its names are foreign, not for pictorial effect, but because its men and women are of all countries. The American circus performer preceded the American actor before European audiences. If his feats cannot be intrinsically new, there is a further analogy in that they vary in the “ style ” in which they are executed. There may be dash, daring, and vigor in the riding of an American bareback equestrian, and yet a lack of the distinctive elegance that marks the exponent of European training in arenic equestrianism. And this on examination may be traced to differences in tradition. Almost from the beginning the American rider has practiced on horseback, but the European rider must first of all have acquired the art of balletdancing. The difference is characteristic. The eye of a performer — not of all performers, but of the minority that here as elsewhere represents the higher altitudes of the profession — sees these distinctions and looks for “ style” much more keenly than for the successful achievement of some startling denouement.
They are by no means easy to know, these circus people, living as they do in a world of their own, into which the outsider is not too carelessly invited to penetrate. As M. Hugues Le Roux says of them in the most important study that has yet been made of the subject: “The Mountebank is too jealous of his freedom to talk openly to every one who approaches him. The same patience which travelers use in their relations with savages must be employed before one can hope for any intimacy with this people, who are still as much scattered, as varied, as strangely mixed, as vagabond, as their ancestors, the gipsies, who, guitar on back, hoop in hand, their black hair encircled with a copper diadem, traversed the Middle Ages, protected from the hatred of the lower classes and the cruelty of the great by the talisman of superstitious terror.” Here, in a few words, is the genealogy of the circus; but the word “ vagabond,” as applied to modern conditions, hardly connotes the fact that many a circus performer, when not actually on the road, maintains a home for his family in some quiet community, where the life of the circus is temporarily forgotten in the luxury of being commonplace and domestic. Taken as a whole, however, so unrestricted and wandering are their lives, in which the one thing stable the whole world over is the size of the ring in which they make their appearances, that what is said of any one country applies, broadly speaking, to any other. But without personal acquaintance it is impossible for us on this side of the water to understand what the performer means when he refers to himself as an artist, or to realize how fully there exists under the dome of the “ big tent ” a point of view by no means dissimilar to that of the other arts.
In using the term “ other arts,” and thus frankly admitting the circus performer to the great (and little) company of artists, I am by no means seeking the cheap triumph of establishing a paradox. If such inclusion be a paradox, it is already established by the position which the circus performer has attained in the larger European cities. There, in the winter circus that competes with the theatre, he is admittedly an artist, ■without quotation marks. At the Circus Schuman, Berlin, audiences have recalled the Banvards, an American troupe of aerialists, -with an enthusiasm quite equal to that with which American audiences have recalled the famous singers in German opera. Nor is this inclusion altogether surprising, for art, in its broadest sense, is a far-reaching democracy. Combine the definitions and we shall see that it demands of its citizens only that they seek to express something of beauty, and seek to express it in all sincerity — on the other side of their natures let them be moral or immoral, humble or conceited, austere or extravagant, refined or uncultivated; there is room and to spare for Villon and Milton, Burns and Shakespeare, Mistress Nell Gwin and Sir Henry Irving. So long as they produce beauty in some one of its infinite manifestations, that is all that the term “ artist ” demands of them — no slight demand, mark you, for it means the sincere expression of what is best in the individual. And if some betray us with false coin, it is the inevitable result of conditions that make art, not only a form of religion, but the means of earning a livelihood.
It is in the visible expression of strength, grace, and vitality, that the artist of the circus holds himself at one with the painter and sculptor; but his art, like that of the actor, is necessarily alive and impermanent. Let the painter set on canvas his fixed presentment of lion, tiger, or leopard, the trainer, by his dangerous medium of whip and training-stick, will make the living animals exhibit endless graces of subtle line and lovely color. When he puts his head in the lion’s mouth, believe me, he considers it nothing better than a concession to the groundlings — a mere vulgar, necessary pot-boiler. When he compels the great tawny thing to repeat the grace of a natural movement (the training of wild animals being always along the line of what they do naturally), and leap in a long, gracious curve across the arena to an unstable landing on a rolling sphere, he feels that he is doing something worthy of himself and his animals. Or, again, let the sculptor depict a flying Mercury; Mercury must at least have a point of arrival or departure. But for one brief moment the young woman of the circus, swinging through space from one trapeze to another, is the grace of the flying Mercury. To attain this moment of self-expression she has given as long and arduous an apprenticeship as the artist who works in clay, bronze, or marble. And her tradition, like his, is to do this thing naturally, easily, without apparent effort — in other words, to acquire that highest attribute of the mechanical side of art, the ability to conceal itself. Similar analogy the thoughtful artist of the circus can carry into practically every act on the programme, although he will hardly go so far as to tell you that the contortionist is an example of the decadence of G reck art as expressed in the Laocoon. And others, less acutely intelligent, will argue that their own art is superior to the stage, in that the actor is not an independent artist but must depend on the playwright.
It is hardly surprising that this comparison, the art of the circus with the art of the stage, should have an objective interest to many circus performers, although, it need hardly be said, it has no interest whatever to the professional actor. It merely amuses the more intelligent people of the circus—those, in fact, who see clearly that there is no real basis for such comparison. Analogy can here go no further than the fact that stage and arena are both directly visible to an audience; the performer appears personally before it, and hears personally whatever applause may reward his efforts. Beyond this point the man or woman of the circus is doing one thing, and the man or woman of the stage something altogether different. The circus artist cannot be an interpreter; he creates no human character, tragic, comic, or melodramatic; and such creation is no more to be expected of him than that Forbes Robertson should illuminate the madness of Hamlet by turning somersaults. Nor do we expect in this performance of Hamlet the rhythmic — almost melodic —charm of motion that gives its own excuse of beauty to circus equestrianism.
The appeal to the mind, which is so large a factor in the highest expression of the artist in human emotion, is the least important factor in the work of the artist in human grace, strength, agility, or domination over brute force. The appeal to the emotions — our admiration of courage, our enjoyment of suspense, our interest in any struggle between opposing forces — that makes another vital element of the stage, is to be found in the circus, but it is so modified and reduced to first principles that it affords no real ground for comparison. Truth to tell we are deceived by the skill of a great actor into the belief that his fictitious danger is real, and by the skill of a great circus performer into the belief that his real danger is fictitious. It is the test of art in both cases. But the existence of the play, the presence of a specific tale to be told, completely separates the art of the stage from that of the arena, and so places our friend of the circus much more substantially in the company of those other artists whose professional pride is that they tell no “ stories.” What he does must reach his audience through the sense of vision; let it delight the majority as a “ stunt,” the few as yet another of the many varied expressions of beauty, and the initiated as an example of masterful technique. And so the art of the circus, even more perishable than that of the stage because it has no historians, actually invades for a fleeting moment the province of those arts which are considered most imperishable.
But an audience, taken as a whole, cares little enough for art, and makes no bones of preferring that which is boldly startling to that which is subtly difficult. It w7ants the end of the story. It so little appreciates the strain and nervous tension, felt by even a long experienced performer during the deeply concentrated effort of mind and body necessary to his act in the ring, that it fondly imagines the life is “ easy,” and the act not so very difficult after all, if one has the knack of it. The typical murmur of the artist that his best work is unrecognized and his w-orst applauded, is therefore no more characteristic of the studio than of the circus. I have known an elephant trainer whose soul mourned daily over the satisfaction of audiences in seeing an elephant made ridiculous.
So, too, the individual point of view of the performer toward his work is full of surprises. Rarely, if ever, is he worried over the things that the audience imagines make him uneasy — and never about his own equipment of nerve, muscle, and judgment. The bareback rider ’worries about his horse, for the slightest deviation from the animal’s customary course and gait ruin a harmony between horse and rider upon which depends the success, and even the life, of the performer. The man on the trapeze is not at all disturbed at being so high up in the air; the higher up he is the more security he feels that in case of accident he will have time enough instinctively to twist his body into the right position for falling into the net. What worries him most is the fear of some unsuspected weakness in his apparatus. The animal-trainer is more afraid of an accidental scratch from a good-natured but blood-poisoning claw than of any actual conflict with an angry animal; more than that, he has a real affection for his animals and dislikes the stern necessity of punishing them. The very clown is not so much pleased by the laughter of his audience as disturbed by the thought that it quite fails to appreciate the time and care he has expended in working out the details of his humorous contribution.
That the typical circus performer should be illiterate is a natural conclusion for those who believe that the beginning of all circus experience is a running away from school. Many of us perhaps argue from remembrance; we too have been tempted, but were too modest in our own conceit to take the irrevocable step of abandoning home and family. Something held us back, and that something proves that we have no genuine latent talent for the arena. To others the call has been more insistent, and many a circus artist dates his career from this precocious elopement with seductive adventure. But such would be few in number in the roll-call of an average circus, and to regard the performer as necessarily once a runaway boy is as absurd as to cultivate melancholy over the thought that the world’s merchant marine is manned and officered at the expense of innumerable aged and abandoned parents. The circus, in fact, is too much a domestic institution to need this assault on other domestic circles. When a boy runs after it, it is not because the circus wants the boy but because the boy wants the circus. The institution recruits itself largely from its own family circles, and the very tendency of these families to have homes of their own during at least some part of the winter, supplies a legitimate connecting link between the ring and the world, — a door, indeed, by which many undoubtedly enter the calling in a most practical and unromantic spirit. The circus family returning to the tented field brings some of its neighbors with it, and thus begins another circus family. One does not need to be so very skillful to enter the primary stages of this remarkably varied occupation; to take the road with a small circus it is enough to be able to do a passable “ turn ” in the concert, or a very moderate kind of “ stunt” in the side-show; and from this point (if one has youth, patience, and talent) any achievement is finally possible. Moreover, except in size, the small circus is not necessarily very inferior to the big one, for it often contains individual performers of equal ability.
But the true type of performer, the real artist of the arena, is born into the life, and honestly proud of his circus ancestry. By its very isolation from the rest of humanity, the circus has become domestic; its own convention is stoutly anchored to the institution of matrimony, and disinclined, with an almost aristocratic disinclination, to marry outside its traditional circle. The circus family — not that of the poster, the majority of whose members may or may not be consanguineous, but the genuine family group — may often trace its lineage through several generations of performers; and you will to-day find members of the same family in the rings of two continents. Among these people it is a commonplace to have an aunt who rides bareback, but it is equally possible, and extremely likely, that she also knows how to make her own dresses. The remarkable thing would be to have a relative who is n’t somehow or other connected with the show business. Like any other successful worker — doctor, lawyer, college professor, financier, artist, editor, or what not —the circus performer is knit by habit and association into the fabric of his occupation; criticise it he may on occasion, with all the harshness of an old acquaintance; respect it he must at bottom, and be by no means sorry when his children elect to continue the tradition that he may have inherited from his father’s father.
As for the child, it sometimes happens that he reverses the usual order of things and runs away from the circus. His young life, at all events, must be passed away from it (which, in this country of public schools, casts an interesting sidelight on the supposed illiteracy of circus performers), for a circus on the road burdens itself with no such superfluities as useless children. Man and wife must each have something to do, in the ring or in some other capacity about the show, or they must separate during the season. If they do an act together, so much the better; and better yet if it is one in which they can include the children as they grow old enough. Thus the nucleus of the poster family is likely to consist of parents and children, and such is the tonic wholesomeness of this life of careful living, fresh air, and vigorous exercise, that they are, to all intents and purposes, all young together. The circus child, moreover, is born with a livelihood, and learns almost by instinct the fundamental feats of flexibility, strength, and agility that are the ABC of every arenic performance. The lowest type of performer teaches his children these rudiments as a matter of business; he means the children to become so many financial assets, and their education is likely to be confined as closely as possible to the arena. But, even so, the wandering life of the profession is itself a university; he whom we regard from the audience as probably illiterate may have a conversational knowledge of several languages.
To the higher type of performer, he who regards his work most seriously, and realizes also that it outlaw’s him from the life of that great majority of “ other people,” the instruction of his children is a matter of precaution, taking the hour when it is ripe to provide a sound foundation for future bodily agility. The parent in this case recognizes his other responsibilities; the boy or girl is sent aw’ay to be educated, and there is no compulsion, save the call of the blood, to force a return to the circus. Yet the chances are that the child will follow in the paternal and maternal footsteps.
About this nomadic existence there is unquestionably a potent fascination, no more potent perhaps than that which holds the business man to his office-chair when friends, family, and the physician beg him to be off and enjoy himself, but to the world at large much more readily explainable. The performer, we say, lives by applause and cannot get on without it. But we forget that, in the three-ring circus, no one performer can be certain that the applause is his own instead of his neighbor’s, in which case his satisfaction must obviously supply a new quality to be reckoned with by students of human nature. The canvas man, equally wedded to the circus, gets no applause whatever. Applause is only a partial explanation; a fuller one is that the circus artist lives in a state of freedom to which his own nature, however varied may be its other manifestations, is peculiarly suited. “ It is a free life ” — such is the current phrase in which many a performer, and many a canvas man, expresses the call of the circus
And yet, from the point of view of the man in the office-chair, they deceive themselves heartily, for this “ free life ” consists of most unremitting discipline, both of the individual over himself and the circus over the individual. Seen from outside, it is the freedom of leisure and the emancipation of morals — a brief period of work each day and a long period of irresponsible idleness. The circus inherits the prejudice that the -world has originally held toward all its entertainers, and that still makes the -wandering painter a suspicious character in the gossip of small communities. But the boy who longs to become a part of this nomad life sees more clearly than his elders. What attracts him is the ability of these wonderful people to perform feats; he envies the strong man his muscles, the animal-trainer his courage, the rider his horsemanship, the acrobat his agility, the clown his humor. And these things — even in the case of the clown, who is also an acrobat — do not comport with riotous living. The circus, to be sure, has its “ booze-fighters,” as the term is; incredible things have been done on the flying trapeze by men who were actually intoxicated when they climbed the swTaying rope-ladder — but such are the exceptions to a rule of rigid training, and, in a way, almost monastic living. The exigencies of the life forbid dissipation, as a mere matter of self-preservation, and in the circus artist who has attained distinction the temperate life has usually acquired the tenacity of a confirmed habit. As the trainer of wild animals is usually a kind-hearted individual with a philosophical toleration for the inherent strain of treachery in the beast-nature, so the typical first-class performer is usually a decent enough fellow himself, with a philosophical toleration of vice in others.
Hence it follows that no young woman is more carefully chaperoned than the girl of the circus. A circus mother is often honestly scandalized at the latitude which mothers outside the circus allow their daughters. And this chaperonage is by no means confined to those circus families whose instinctive morality is fully as high as the instinctive morality that creates social respectability the world over, in or out of circuses. The purely mercenary desire to keep together the several performers in a family act, tends to extreme watchfulness over the members lest sex-attraction should draw them into other affiliations. The management itself is zealously -watchful, divides its employees into married and unmarried, and keeps the sexes carefully separated except where matrimony has joined them together and man or management may not put asunder. If this matrimony is fictitious, it must at least last out the season; and that this sometimes happens may be fairly conceded, to appease the popular notion that all circus people are disreputable. But genealogies, although even the best of them have their black sheep, cannot be founded on fictitious marriages, aud the aristocracy of the circus is singularly free from either the convenience of divorce, or the irresponsibility of race-suicide. Said a young trapeze performer in a confidential moment, “ Real circus families are like that Four Hundred you read about, only it ain’t so easy to break into one of ’em.” Which was meant as a deserved compliment to the circus, but is merely an undeserved tribute to the “ Four Hundred.”
Space forbids that one should begin quoting from the long list of rules and regulations that the management of a big circus imposes upon its employees. Let us take a simple example —the mere fact that a performer who should be caught flirting with a ballet girl (or any female member of the circus) would be fined for the first offense, and discharged if his attentions continued. A like fate would befall the performer if he were discovered making clandestine acquaintance with any woman not connected with the circus; and the same rule, the other way round, applies to the ballet girl. All told there are some thirty or forty rules governing the performer’s conduct. His costume must be spotless, and his speech decent and without profanity — perhaps for this very reason many a circus performer is startlingly profane and Rabelaisian in private conversation. But so is many a college boy, and in both cases the profanity is curbed, and Rabelais scuttles out of sight, in the presence of women. The stains of the circus are the stains of human nature; the fortunately exceptional cases where man is brutal and debased exist in every occupation, and no single occupation can be held responsible. It is so with the stage, but perhaps even more so with the circus, for here the occupation demands an almost universal condition of perfect physical training.
Yet it is not so very long since British law classed all actors together as *’rogues and vagabonds.” Respectability drew aside its skirts — all who made a livelihood by acting were, as the saying is, tarred with the same stick, and therefore none could be humanly domestic or attain to the commonplace, but desirable, respectability of “ other people.” It may be questioned whether the modern respectability of acting, as a profession, has actually improved the art of the individual actor; at all events it has opened the door to many whose vocation for the stage -would hardly have been strong enough to overcome the earlier condition. In the general estimation, the circus today holds in this country a position not unlike that of the stage in England more than a century ago — although it has no Garrick to dignify it; but in Europe the circus artist has visibly emerged into middle-class respectability. And for much the same reason. His work, which had long seemed the idle amusement of an idle hour, has attained the dignity of something that appeals to a higher instinct than mere curiosity. His character, which had long seemed coarse and immoral as a natural result of his roving existence, has been found on closer acquaintance to compare favorably with that of the workers in any other sphere of human activity.