Janet M. Davis, The Circus Age: Culture & Society Under the American Big Top (University of North Carolina Press, 2002)

I ran across a thumbnail sketch of this book in the New Scholarly Books column in The Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago. It sounded interesting and appropriate, so I asked the Green Man to request a review copy from the publisher. When it arrived, I jumped right in.

The Circus Age is an interesting amalgam of social history and cultural criticism. Davis, presently an assistant professor of History and American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, focuses on the three-ring circuses and Wild West shows that traveled by rail around the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, providing entertainment and a limited form of cross-cultural exposure to residents of large cities and small towns alike. The book describes the evolution of these large-scale shows out of the less ambitious and more geographically limited wagon circuses and dog-and-pony shows (oh, so THAT'S where the expression started!!). It also provides documentation of the complex -- and relatively costly -- organizational structures needed to sustain these shows.

As she notes in her acknowledgements, The Circus Age is based on Davis's doctoral dissertation, which was inspired by a photo exhibit of turn-of-the-last-century circus parades she saw at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in the early 1990s. Readers of Green Man Review will doubtless appreciate her meticulous scholarship; nearly sixty pages of the text are comprised of endnotes that elaborate on the narrative or provide links to primary and secondary data sources. She spent time at several museums, libraries, and other places with collections of archival circus material, gathering the detailed information that makes this book so interesting.

Unless I miss my guess, Green Man readers are less likely to appreciate Davis' rather heavy-handed application of her overarching theme: the circus as vehicle for affirming the period's dominant beliefs about race, class, and gender. For example, Davis equates the exaggerated manliness of many male circus performers (both human and animal) with efforts of late nineteenth century American men to reassert their patriarchal authority in the face of the advancing movement for women's suffrage and its attendant developments. Likewise, she makes reference to the circus as a place where middle class white Americans could view members of exotic tribes on display in juxtaposition with similarly exotic animals, thus suggesting their common savagery. As someone who has also experienced the torture of the dissertation process, I can appreciate the necessity for these thematic frameworks, although -- in the interests of appealing to a wider, less scholarly reading audience -- I think Davis could have reduced their presence somewhat as she revised the dissertation into a book.

Davis also has an occasional tendency to overlook the societal context in which the circus flourished when rendering her judgments against some of its practices. For example, she describes in some detail the dangerous and difficult conditions under which the unskilled laborers worked. These "roustabouts" were responsible for setting up and breaking down the big top and its related tents and exhibits at each stop. Apart from the constant travel, their jobs appear to be comparable in hazard exposure, low pay, and just plain effort to work undertaken in the same time period by construction workers, longshoremen, steel workers and farm laborers.

The publisher did a splendid job of packaging the trade paperback edition of the book with a spectacular cover illustration taken from an old circus poster. Black and white lithograph images of an elephant march across the bottom of the first several pages. A center section features full-color reproductions of more circus posters. In addition, each chapter includes black and white reproductions of relevant circus posters, performers, and/or scenes. One of the most remarkable of these images is a full-page photo entitled "Statue Girls." It depicts two semi-nude women covered in greasepaint and posed like Renaissance statues, apparently part of a sideshow act.

I wrote this review over Thanksgiving weekend (November 28 - December 1, 2002), when the Bravo cable station here was showing back-to-back videos of the Cirque du Soleil. I was struck by the similarities and differences between the Cirque's version of the circus and that depicted in The Circus Age. While all the performers in the Cirque du Soleil are human (thus avoiding the animal welfare protests that plague more traditional circuses these days), they still wear tight, colorful clothes and engage in death-defying acts. It is possible to identify particular troupes of performers in a Cirque du Soleil show who are all of a common ethnicity -- and their costumes, routines and musical accompaniment frequently play off that ethnic identity. Davis makes note of an important distinction between the Cirque du Soleil and the railroad circuses. Whereas the earlier circuses provided entertainment for people of all social classes (the parade was free and admission was relatively affordable), ticket prices for the Cirque du Soleil are out of range for most middle and working class people. And watching a circus on television just isn't the same experience! While television viewers can see aspects of the show that the live audience cannot, such as aerial perspectives or close-ups of performers' faces, we miss the all-encompassing magic that a circus can offer.

[Donna Bird]

Green Man Review has reviewed O, a performance by the Cirque du Soleil.