On 14 January 2017 the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it would fold its tents for the last time and go out of business. We’ve taken our children to the Ringling Brothers circus only once that I can recall. We’ve also taken our children and grandchildren to the Big Apple Circus, which is also in bankruptcy and selling off its assets.
There are only a few degrees of separation between myself and both circuses. We have a family member on Jody’s side who is related by marriage to a dancer who has performed with both the Ringling Brothers and Big Apple circuses. Her husband, a drummer, has also performed with both. Mark Heter, who taught me to play the euphonium, played tuba for Ringling Brothers in the days when a live band accompanied the performances with tunes such as Julius Fučík’s “Entry of the Gladiators” and Mikhail Mikhailovich Ippolitov-Ivanov’s “Procession of the Sardar.” Before that he played with smaller tent circuses that he referred as “mud shows.”
I don’t have any great affection or disdain for the circus. The exploitation of animals is regrettable, especially since the species exploited by circuses—elephants and tigers in particular—also face extinction in the wild because of widespread poaching. But watching the circus is an opportunity to learn that even the most fearsome threats can be tamed, to admire the skill and athleticism of the acrobats and other performers, or to laugh at ourselves as we see ourselves reflected in the behavior of the clowns.
There’s another lesson to be learned from the role that circuses and other forms of entertainment have in our lives. Although modern circuses are not used to placate a discontented populace, how timely is the concept of “bread and circuses”? It also puts me in mind of Neil Postman’s excellent Amusing Ourselves to Death:
“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
― Neil Postman,
Or we argue with tweets and Facebook posts.
As the administration of Barack Obama was also folding its tents, the New York Times published an article on his reading habits during his years in the White House. The comments accompanying the on-line article reflect a wide range of views. No doubt any group of people who happen to read this post will also have a wide range of views on the subject, and that’s cool. I believe with President Obama that one purpose for reading, and reading broadly, is to enable us to gain new and valuable perspectives on our lives, on the lives of those around us, and on the events of the day. I would hope that the days to come will find us looking to literature that will help us gain those perspectives, and not relying on the bread and circuses of our day.
Thanks for stopping by!