Today, we go to a circus. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
I got up at four o'clock one
summer morning back in 1944 and bicycled off to the
fairgrounds. I'd heard that if you helped put up
the circus you'd get free tickets. Roustabouts were
already at it when I got there. With hardly a word,
I was put to the backbreaking labor of setting up
Around me circus professionals, humans and
elephants alike, put their shoulders to the task.
Six men with sledgehammers surrounded a single
anchor for the big tent. One swung his sledge, then
the next. They started a slow chant, picked up the
rhythm and, for a moment, hammer blows rained down
like a machine gun fire. The men circled an acre of
ground, pounding post after post. Through the
morning and into the afternoon the circus rose
about our heads while I violated every canon of
Child Labor law.
In the mid-afternoon I wobbled home with two
tickets for the evening show. I took my mother, and
it was fun; but I was past exhaustion and remember
almost nothing of the evening. No matter, I'd seen
the real circus with all its tatty texture and
In one sense the circus is millenia old. The word
circus comes from the Latin word for circle
-- a vestige of the old Roman arenas. And today's
circuses are going hi-tech with fancy sound, light,
and indoor auditoriums.
What I'd seen that day, over a half-century ago,
was a creature that came long after Rome and which
is, by now, largely gone. The circus of the big top
-- the circus young boys ran away from home to join
-- that was an 18th-century creature. Howard
Loxton's recent book The Golden Age of the
Circus traces the idea to an Englishman, Philip
Astley, who created a horse-riding show in 1768.
After trick riding he added "educated" pigs and
dogs. Human acrobats followed. But animals remained
at the heart of the show. By 1791 most elements of
the classical circus were in place: rope walkers,
lions, tigers, clowns, and every kind of horse
Astley and a competitor named Hughes took their
shows to Europe. Europe seized on the idea and
began developing it. Here in America George
Washington enjoyed his first circus at least as
early as 1793. Astley had called his show Scenes
of the Circle, and general use of the word
circus followed around 1800.
P.T. Barnum, born in
1810, spent most of his life mounting exotic shows.
He didn't get into the circus business till he was
over fifty. It was 1884 before the Ringling
Brothers started their first circus. But now the
classical circus was fully evolved. A full railroad
train had spilled the pieces of a Ringling
Brothers' circus out on to the fairgrounds before
sunup that day in 1944.
Now I look at the modern spawn of the old circus --
the superb theater of the Cirque du Soleil.
Barnum's new Kaleidoscape "circus". What's
missing? I suppose it has to be the manure, the
rancid popcorn shady characters, young boys and
elephants worked to their limit. Great art is
always born in vulgarity, and that's what's gone.
All that wonderful multicolored vulgarity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds