American Experience: ‘The Circus’

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey big top won’t be raised again, having ended what was billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 2017, but that doesn’t mean the tradition of the circus is dead. But these are different times from when P.T. Barnum first took his show on the road. In 1871, America was an agrarian society. Barnum would build a show that would feature performers, a traveling zoo and a museum. Imagine a big top that entertained 5,000 people.

When the zoo came to town, it was like an invasion with horses, elephants and camels parading down the street. Through the mid-19th Century, the circus was considered risqué. Women showed their legs and the character of the performers were questionable.

“All of these forms of circus arts, they pushed boundaries of human strength and the limited nature of our humanness in a way that allowed us to transcend it” is one of the first comments in the two-episode program.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey survived the Great Depression and even the horrific Hartford circus fire that killed 167 people and injured more than 700 out of the 6,000 to 8,000 people in attendance. The documentary doesn’t look at the PETA protest nor does it include the rise of a different kind of circus, ones with one kind of animal like Odysseo – Cavalia or the many variations of the animal-free Cirque du Soleil. Instead the documentary celebrates the big top old-fashioned circus that began as disreputable entertainment for adults and became a family thrill as essentially American in its exuberance, commercialism and its bigness.

American Experience: “The Circus” airs on Monday and Tuesday, 8 and 9 of October.

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