A New Era of Circus?

Feld Entertainment made a surprising, but not necessarily unexpected announcement that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (which presently tours as two separate shows) will hold its final performance(s) in May. The present show traces its roots to 1871, which was the first season that P. T. Barnum fielded a circus, so some combination of its present title has been touring for over 146 years!

There are, I suppose, two ways to react to the news. The first is to bemoan the passing of the great American railroad circus, even though many traditionalists will tell you that the era already ended in 1956 when RBB&B abandoned the “big top” for indoor arenas. The other is to recognize that the model of touring a large and costly circus around the country is simply not viable in this day and age, and that it’s impressive that this all lasted as long as it did.

I would also add that when one era ends, another begins. Perhaps the greatest asset of the American circus historically has been its capacity for reinvention. And while this announcement coupled with the closing of the Big Apple Circus last year is a tough blow for circus fans, it’s not as if the circus arts are going to disappear. As I have argued in Circus and the City and elsewhere, it only looks like the circus is in decline if you have a very narrow and traditional idea about what the circus is. Cirque du Soleil is a veritable global entertainment empire. Les 7 Doights and other innovative companies put together and tour incredible shows. Organizations like the American Youth Circus and, in my neighborhood, the Boston Circus Guild show that circus retains its vitality and appeal. At the core of the circus is the delight people take in seeing the spectacular feats by performers, and the fact that one of our biggest entertainment companies does not find it viable to tour a large arena show does not mean that the circus is going to go away. I am hopeful that a reinvented American circus will find the audience that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus no longer could.