Life Beyond the Three-Ring Circus

Why ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ foundered—and what’s next

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The modern circus, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, has attracted such famous fans as Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway, who wrote in 1953, “It’s the only spectacle I know that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”

Recently, however, the “happy dream” has struggled with lawsuits, high-profile bankruptcies and killer clown scares inspired in part by the evil Pennywise in Stephen King’s “It.” Even the new Hugh Jackman -led circus film, “The Greatest Showman,” comes with an ironic twist. The surprise hit—about the legendary impresario P.T. Barnum, co-founder of “The Greatest Show on Earth”—arrives on the heels of last year’s closing of the actual Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey Circus, after 146 years in business.

The word circus is Roman, but Roman and modern circuses do not share the same roots. Rome’s giant Circus Maximus, which could hold some 150,000 people, was more of a sporting arena than a theatrical venue, built to hold races, athletic competitions and executions. The Roman satirist Juvenal was alluding to the popular appeal of such spectacles when he coined the phrase “bread and circuses,” assailing citizens’ lack of interest in politics.

In fact, the entertainments commonly linked with the modern circus—acrobatics, animal performances and pantomimes—belong to traditions long predating the Romans. Four-millennia-old Egyptian paintings show female jugglers; in China, archaeologists have found 2,000-year-old clay figurines of tumblers.

Circus-type entertainments could be hideously violent: In 17th-century Britain, dogs tore into bears and chimpanzees. A humane change of pace came in 1768, when Philip Astley, often called the father of the modern circus, put on his first show in London, in a simple horse-riding ring. He found that a circle 42 feet in diameter was ideal for using centrifugal force as an aid in balancing on a horse’s back while doing tricks. It’s a size still used today. Between the horse shows, he scheduled clowning and tumbling acts.Circuses in fledgling America, with its long distances, shortage of venues and lack of large cities, found the European model too static and costly. In 1808, Hachaliah Bailey took the circus in a new direction by making animals the real stars, particularly an African elephant named Old Bet. The focus on animal spectacles became the American model, while Europeans still emphasized human performers.

When railroads spread across America, circuses could ship their menageries. Already famous for his museums and “freak shows,” P.T. Barnum and his partners joined forces with rivals and used special circus trains to create the largest circus in the country. Although Barnum played up the animal and human oddities in his “sideshow,” the marquee attraction was Jumbo the Elephant. In its final year, the Ringling Bros. animal contingent, according to a news report, included tigers, camels, horses, kangaroos and snakes. The elephants had already retired.

Once animal-rights protests and rising travel costs started eroding profitability in the late 20th century, the American circus became trapped by its own history. But the success of Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, which since its 1984 debut has conquered the globe with its astounding acrobatics and staging, shows that the older European tradition introduced by Astley still has the power to inspire wonder. The future may well lie in looking backward, to the era when the stars of the show were the people in the ring.

Remembering the Pueblo: Hostages as Propaganda Tools

The Pueblo incident, involving the North Korean takeover of a spy ship, turns 50

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Fifty years ago, on Jan. 23, 1968, North Korean forces captured the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo in international waters. North Korea took 82 crew members hostage (one was killed in the attack) and subjected them to 11 months of sporadic torture and starvation, humiliating appearances and forced confessions before an international radio and TV audience. Communications technology had given the ancient practice of hostage-taking a whole new purpose as a tool of propaganda.

Hostages have always been a part of warfare. By the second millennium B.C., Egyptians would take the young princes of conquered states and hold them as surety for good behavior, treating the young nobles well with the aim of turning them into future allies.

The Romans admired this tactic and imitated it. But others were simply interested in money. As a young man, Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.) was held for ransom by pirates. A biographer of the time writes that while hostage, Caesar amused himself by reading his poems and speeches to his captors. The pirates assumed he was mad, especially when he promised to come back and hang them all. Once the ransom had been paid, the future general fulfilled his vow, hunting down the pirates and executing all of them.

During the Middle Ages, a hostage was better than money in the bank. Negotiating parties used hostages to enforce peace treaties, trade deals and even safe passage. In 1412, for instance, a French political faction sealed an alliance with the English King Henry IV. As part of the guarantee, the 12 year-old John of Orléans, Count of Angoulême, was sent to England, where he remained a political hostage for the next 32 years.

If a deal fell apart, however, retribution could be devastating. During the Third Crusade (1189–1192), King Richard I of England, known as the Lionheart, ordered the massacre of nearly 3,000 Muslim hostages after the Sultan Saladin reneged on his promise to pay a ransom and return his Christian prisoners along with relics of the True Cross.

Brutality toward hostages has been a lamentably common feature of modern warfare. The Germans showed little compunction during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, when they used civilians as human shields on military trains. During World War II, amid a range of other atrocities, the Nazis killed thousands of civilian hostages across Europe, often in reprisal for earlier attacks. During one massacre in German-occupied Serbia in 1941, 100 hostages were to be shot for each dead German soldier.

The idea of hostage-taking as an end in itself is largely a 20th-century development—a way to exploit the powerful reach of mass media. The North Koreans were hardly alone. Domestic extremists also saw the propaganda value of hostages, as in the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Just five years later, students supporting Iran’s Islamic revolution stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 66 American hostages. The students had various demands, among them the extradition of the deposed shah. But their real motivation seemed to be inflicting pain on the captive Americans—who were beaten, threatened with death and paraded in blindfolds before a mob—and on the U.S. itself. There were some early releases, but 52 hostages were held under appalling conditions for 444 days.

Today, memories of the Pueblo incident and the Iran hostage crisis have faded, but both hostage-takings have had a lasting influence on American attitudes. In certain ways, they still define U.S. relations with the regimes of North Korea and Iran.

WITF TV Picks for the week of August 20, 2017

Sunday August 20 at 9:00pm – Endeavor on Masterpiece – Follow Endeavour, who while struggling with Joan Thursday’s sudden departure, is consumed by a nightmarish hunt for a serial killer. He must race against time to find the connection between a chess-playing “thinking” machine and a baffling drowning.

Monday August 21 at 9:00pm – NOVA – Join scientists and citizens alike as they observe the first total solar eclipse to traverse the US mainland in more than a generation. Discover the storied history of eclipse science and follow current, cutting-edge research into the solar corona.

Tuesday August 22 at 8:00pm – Diana – Her Story – Twenty years after Princess Diana’s death, this new film reveals her story in her own words. What emerges is the narrative of a shy young girl who stepped onto the world stage in 1980 and departed in 1997 as its most famous woman.

Wednesday August 23 at 9:00pm – The Farthest – Voyager in Space – Launched in 1977, NASA’s epic Voyager missions revolutionized our understanding of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and their spectacular moons and rings. In 2012, Voyager 1 left our solar system and ushered humanity into the interstellar age.

Thursday August 24 at 10:00pm – The Ascent of Woman: A 10,000 Year History – Dr. Amanda Foreman journeys around the world to study the experiences and expectations of women living in various societies throughout history.

Friday August 25 at 9:00pm – Great Performances at the Met – Hear Sonya Yoncheva sing the tragic courtesan Violetta in Verdi’s classic, with Michael Fabiano as her ardent lover Alfredo and Thomas Hampson as his disapproving father Germont, in a revival of Willy Decker’s staging conducted by Nicola Luisotti.

Saturday August 26 at 9:00pm – Death in Paradise – When a prisoner is killed in their custody, DI Goodman and the team are under pressure to solve the case quickly. Humphrey’s father visits Saint Marie intent on meddling in his son’s life.

‘Ten women who ruled the world’ – BBC

Statue of Hatshepsut on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Statue of Hatshepsut on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dr. Amanda Foreman explains the legacy of Pharaoh Hatshepsut, one of ten powerful women highlighted by the BBC for their political accomplishments:

‘. . . And the greatest of Egypt’s known ruling Queens was Hatshepsut. She came to power in the 15th century BC as the regent for her stepson Thutmose III; but it was how she ruled for over 2 decades that demonstrates her genius for government. Hatshepsut appropriated for herself the symbols of kingship… Famously, her statues depict her wearing the divine pharaonic beard. But just as important was how she concentrated on what Egypt did best. Building and trade. She organised the largest ever trade mission in her country’s history to the land of Punt. Her legacy was peace and prosperity. But even in Egypt there’s a sting in the tale. We don’t know why, but after her death, the next Pharaoh literally defaced Hatshepsut from the public record. In a sense, she represents the fate of so many women, not just in the ancient world, but throughout all of history.’

Read more here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zp9qmp3