That Old Feeling IV: A Tale of Two Circuses

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Across the Hudson River, two circuses faced each other — extravaganzas from the same family, but of different species. The contrasts were evident even before the lights went down. The "children of all ages" who enter the yellow and blue tent in Liberty State Park, N.J., where Cirque du Soleil's touring show "Dralion" is playing, may not know it's a circus: The round stage is bare, and the strongest smell is from the small bags of popcorn the patrons have bought for $3. But visitors to Madison Square Garden earlier this month, during the run of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's 131st edition, could have no doubt the circus was in town. They were instantly assaulted by the odor of elephant droppings.

That mulchy smell could trigger an olfactory flashback of Proustian ripeness in children of a certain age. It conjures up old reveries of carnivals and roadside zoos, sideshows and state fairs — huge tents fetid with the sweet stench of anticipation. On display were strange creatures, whether four- or two-legged, whose very otherness announced to an impressionable boy that a wide weird world lay beyond his timid domesticity. In the jumble of bizarre and enthralling images (and, of course, fragrances), a simple message rang out, to calliope accompaniment: Come join the circus. In popular mythology, kids used to run away from home to do just that.

These days, I bet, they're more likely to run away from it. For if there is a scent more overwhelming than pachyderm perfume, it is the sense of the traditional circus as a living anachronism. Today's children may find the proceedings as ponderous as the lumbering stroll of Bo, the elephant star of the current Ringling show. And they may think the antics of Ringling's white-faced japesters are cornball or scary. Don't send in the clowns — send them out! Don't they give everyone the creeps? They seem remnants of a sad, sadistic, vanished religion. In "The God of Dark Laughter," a New Yorker story a few weeks ago, Michael Chabon wove an eerie fiction around the ancient unease at the source of a clown's grimace. Only Robin Williams, who in "Patch Adams" played a jolly-bullying doctor with an enema-bulb nose, can think clowns lift spirits instead of crushing them. Williams, that is, and every circus entrepreneur in history.

The proper parents of today's jaded kids have their own problems with the circus. They are repelled by scare headlines from PETA and the SPCA that allege, and sometimes document, misuse of nature's noblest creatures. As the circus came into New York City, the local press trumpeted photos of abused elephants. That sort of image can lodge in the mind as indelibly as a childhood memory of the beautiful bareback rider; it lays an indignant or guilty conscience upon the once-uncomplicated frisson of watching wild animals doing sit-ups and headstands at the crack of a tamer's whip. Mixing hokum with the perception of brutality, the traditional circus seems uncomfortably out of place in today's entertainment market. It's the interspecies version of a minstrel show.

Should a Ringling-style three-ring circus go the way of the city zoos, which have been PC'd into wildlife sanctuaries? (That's an improvement for the animals but not so hot for the visitors, who can wait for hours hoping a lion will wander into view.) Not an option: The show must go on, on time. Perhaps drop the wild-animal acts completely? From 1925 to '29, Charles Ringling did just that, citing the public's belief that "it is cruel to force [wild creatures] through their stunts." But to do that is to lose the circus' central Darwinian metaphor of survival of the smartest: man compels the obedience of majestic beasts who could easily kill him.

Someone had to realize that the circus was a fine idea that just needed a bit of smartening-up. Thank Dieu it was the right someones: the gaggle of Montreal street performers who came up with the one-ring Cirque du Soleil. The equation of founders Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix was simple: subtract the animal acts and add a mystical theatricality. Since its 1984 appearance at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, the appearance of a new Cirque show has become a votary occasion from millions of people who wouldn't go near a ratty, tatty old circus.

From its first traveling show, "Le Cirque Réinventé" in 1987, the company has grown into a substantial industry without ever losing its intimacy or eccentricity. This year, three resident shows ("Mystère" and "O" in Las Vegas, "La Nouba" at Florida's Walt Disney World) and four touring shows will play to about 6 million spectators on four continents. The revenue from tickets and merchandise could amount to a half-billion dollars — not Canadian but American. Real money, and every penny of it earned.

Cirque's "Dralion" — now across the Hudson River from Manhattan's financial district — opened the same week as the Ringling menagerie came to the Garden. (Ringling has moved on to Philadelphia, through April 29; Cirque stays put till June 3.) I went to both, to see if there was any symmetry in the coincidental collision of the old and the nouveau circus.

Here's a joke so old it might have been told by the first carnival barker. A guy goes to visit his friend, who works in the circus. Turns out the friend's job is to sweep up the elephant effluence. "Why don't you quit this disgusting, demeaning job?" the guy asks. "What!?" the friend replies in horror. "And leave show business?"

The headliner of the Ringling circus, five-ton Bo, has big silver thimbles on the ends of his tusks — the gaudiest of capped teeth. He stands on two legs, beats a big drum with a stick held in his trunk and disports himself with the grave grace one always admires in these imposing creatures. Bo is one of 15 elephants who parade around the three rings and, at their trainers' bidding, "perform behaviors" (circus animals don't "do tricks" any more). Stepping on a seesaw, one elephant propels a clown to somersault onto its back. But the beasts haven't been paper-trained; someone has to clean up the mess. And there, discreetly shoveling the turds, are several men who... are in show business.

Today's circus owners may occasionally feel like the feces sweepers. The format is encrusted with so much cultural waste matter that the big question is whether to cover it up or play it up. By design or default, Kenneth Feld and his staff at Ringling Bros. have chosen the latter tactic. Embrace the American circus' centuries of tradition, dating back to 1793, when George Washington visited John Bill Ricketts' circus, and ripening with the Brahmin of bombast, Phineas T. Barnum. Fill the air with rodomontade! Highfalutin huckster talk not only gussies up a familiar product, it lends the wink of chicanery to your boasting: everyone knows you're exaggerating, and nobody cares. And the costumes: They can't have too many spangles. It's a circus, for P.T.'s sake! Just put it on, the whole gallimaufry — the clowns and critters, the acrobats and aerialists — with as much pizazz as possible. And hope that children's delight will overcome their parents' scruples.

There were plenty of kids at the Garden, and they didn't seem to mind spending a couple of hours in a big room with big animals, bright costumes and enough bustle in three rings to give a child the sensation of being in front of the TV with the remote clicking every few seconds of its own will. But I'd guess that, for many families in attendance, a circus visit was the parents' idea. And they may be there because it was something they enjoyed when they were kids, when the young had fewer options for entertainment. An old pleasure was now a duty: a trip to, at worst, the Museum of Passé Attractions and Attitudes, and at best the Museum of Natural History — with the woolly mammoths standing on their hind legs at a trainer's bidding.

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