Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Country circus

The circus came to town last weekend, and as a reward for her help in stacking the turf, I took The Girl.

Circuses and other travelling roadshows -- vaudeville, chatauquas and so on – seem to have been commonplace in the USA and Europe for more than two centuries, and seem to be disappearing. All those “seems” are because I haven’t researched the number of circuses now vs. then, and I’m not sure if such records exist, but they figured prominently once in popular culture. They appear frequently in the silent films we watch and the stories we read from that era, enough that the mix of hucksters, acrobats, fire-eaters, animals, fortune-tellers and strong-men feels as familiar as most of my real memories.

They seem to  have faded as silent gave way to talking pictures and television, and perhaps that’s not a coincidence. Seeing an elephant must have been astonishing to farmers in 1830 or 1930, but not when you can see all the videos you want on a handheld device. Barnum and Bailey’s stadium-sized extravaganzas are the main survivor in the USA, and even then we assume they exist to amuse children, rather than to fill adults with awe. Cirque de Soleil have been able to revive the tradition somewhat with their very skillful shows, but their acrobats and contortionists still have to be the best in the world in order to wow our jaded sensibilities; you won’t have a three-man Cirque de Soleil troupe knocking on doors in a small Kansas town.

Here, though, things like electricity – and television, and Hollywood media culture – were slow to arrive, only reaching some homes a few decades ago. This country still has several small circuses – family-run, I suspect – that bounce from town to town. In one RTE documentary from 2009, a longtime clown and circus performer described riding around the country in a set of horse-drawn carriages, being sent on stage from a young age, and practicing his future musical numbers on a hollow stick of elder wood.

The Girl was excited by this circus; apparently one of her classmates in the village Catholic school was a relative. It wasn’t entirely retro; they set up in the local gymnasium instead of a tent, and had music from speakers rather than a band. They did seem to have just six people in all, though, including the ushers, so that the man who took your tickets later went up and presented, and the lady who sold the candy floss* later stood on the ground and held the trapeze rope. The trapeze artist was also the bird charmer, the snake handler and the magician’s assistant. I suspect the “masked magician” himself was also the clown after a quick change of costume.

Within those limitations, though, they were quite impressive; the trapeze girl swung high over the crowd from her neck alone, smiling as cheerfully as a flight attendant through what must have been some very uncomfortable positions. I have no idea how the masked magician made the lady disappear. Best of all, they asked children to come onstage – including The Girl -- to take part in the show, something she wouldn’t get to do in a stadium circus.  

The next day, I believe, they were gone, off to another village in the next county, as some performing families here have for a century or more. It’s a tradition that deserves to outlast this media-saturated window of history.

*cotton candy to Americans

**I was amused at how apprehensive people here are at the sight of snakes. Obviously there aren’t any here; it’s Ireland.

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