On Monday, crews working for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus packed up the circus’s belongings, loaded it on their train, and departed Charlotte for good. The circus will travel to a number of other cities over the next few months, but in May the circus’s 146-year history will draw to a close. There are many reasons for the demise of the circus, including the growing influence of the animal rights movement, which I support. However, I wish the circus could have carried on without animal acts.
I enjoyed going to the circus when I was a boy. I liked how the circus tapped into all of my senses. I will always remember the blaring music and the long drum rolls, the flashing lights and the moments of darkness, the smell of popcorn, and the taste of cotton candy. I also know that my son enjoyed going to the circus during his childhood. He always wanted me to buy him a souvenir to help him reenact moments from the circus. We were not unique in our appreciation of this multi-sensory spectacle. The circus has figured in the lives of countless Americans.
One of the ways in which the circus has shaped our culture is through language. We use the term “high-wire act” when we are talking about high-risk activities. We often say, “It’s like a three-ring circus,” when we are talking about an event with lots of things going on at the same time. When we see numerous people exiting a small car, we often refer to clown cars. These phrases have meaning for us because they refer to common experiences. So many Americans have seen circus performances that we instantly understand what is meant when people make such references.
Circuses have also helped us bridge generational differences. When ring masters say, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages, welcome to the greatest show on earth,” all spectators, no matter their ages, feel welcomed. I took our son to the circus during his growing-up years, and this experience brought us together. One time a clown came into the audience and tried to put some silly hat on my head. In the process, he made fun of my bald spot, but I didn’t take offense. For my son and me, this experience just made us feel like we were part of the show. There are not many other cultural events that children and adults can enjoy together.
In many ways, the circus has been a constant in our ever-changing culture. Like baseball, the circus has played an ongoing role in American culture since the mid-nineteenth century. By going to the circus, we forge a link to all those generations who came before us who also enjoyed the spectacle that is the American circus. This link to our collective past will soon be broken. I will miss the greatest show on earth.
West is chair of the UNC Charlotte English department. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.