The last great American circus is about to pull down its Big Top for the final time! Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, heir to the legacy of the great nineteenth century impresario P.T. Barnum, has announced that its pair of traveling shows will close after appearing in Providence and Long Island in May.
The business executives of the circus partially attributed their declining ticket sales to the retirement of their performing elephants. But before we decide to heap blame on the mammoths for the closure, perhaps we should remind ourselves just how long the show lasted as a pillar of western culture.
The first modern circuses were introduced in England and the United States during the 1700s, and the genre flourished during the following century. Well into the 1900s, it was widely accepted as a popular form of mass entertainment, along with carnival shows, boxing matches, vaudeville performances, and other amusements that came of age during the Victorian era.
That’s not to say, of course, that the circus occupied the lowest rungs of the entertainment universe. During the heyday of its clown, trapeze artist, and animal performances, a night under the Big Top was considered far more respectable than an evening at a cock fight, crap game, or burlesque show. On the other hand, it never quite matched the respectability of high-brow nineteenth and early twentieth century activities like the opera, the symphony, and the public lecture.
By the way, have you spotted a common characteristic across all of these venerable forms of public entertainment? Each and every one has suffered through a deep and enduring decline in popularity, with some essentially reaching extinction. Even a once-powerful entity like the New York City Opera has struggled to remain open in the heart of the world’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan metropolis.
So instead of blaming the elephants for the demise of the circus, perhaps we should simply tip our hats to a venerable institution that has run its natural course after thriving for centuries. After all, how many nineteenth century amusements are still entertaining twenty first century audiences today?
Well, of course, we still do enjoy at least one such amusement. It’s spring training season in the United States; time to play baseball!