In May 2017 the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ended its 146-year run. Seeking explanations for its closure, many evoked the inattentions and disaffections of a modern generation. “In a world of distractions,” explained New York Times and Associated Press reports, the circus “found it impossible to compete with cellphones, video games, and endless on-demand entertainment.” The Feld family, owners of the Circus since 1967, found that the Barnum Brand of awe and enchantment was no longer viable in a modernity better characterized by YouTube celebrities and handheld devices. This was the end of an era.
A religious history of the circus might well begin in several places. The circus often showcased persons designed to represent particular religious traditions, thereby shaping their public image and reception. It provided cover to certain groups—as when African Americans traveled in the guise of Hindus during the Jim Crow era—even while it critiqued others—for instance when clowns and magicians burlesqued “primitive” or spiritualist practices. Since 1920 the circus has been the official mission field for a small troupe of Catholic priests and catechists, as well. In all of these ways it has fostered particular types of religious work, providing audiences and performers ample opportunities to debate the location of genuine superhuman ability, cultural particularity, species diversity, ritual obligation, and wonderment in the world.
Perhaps most importantly for present purposes, though, the circus offers us here—in its closure—an opportunity to track periods of enchantment and disenchantment. Better yet, it offers an opportunity to track arguments about periods of enchantment and disenchantment, and indeed to work against their own propensity to distract us from seeing some of the more persistent mechanisms of culture.
The End of an Era?
End-of-an-era announcements regularly suggest that awe and wonderment were once inevitable and ubiquitous characteristics of circus performances: It was impossible not to love them! But there is ample evidence to the contrary. Consider the fact that “Is That All There Is”—the song penned in 1967 and popularized in 1969—describes a trip to “The Greatest Show on Earth” that resulted more in bored shrugs than wide-eyed ovations. Granted these were the first years of ownership by Feld Entertainment Inc., which was actively working then to reboot a franchise that had come to rely—arguably too much—on musical theatre acts. But boredom and inattention had been the bugbear of the Barnum Circus since its beginnings. People yawned and shrugged in 1871 just as they did in 1969 and 2017.
Consider that many visitors of Barnum’s American Museum in New York—his pre-circus exhibition of scientific, cultural, and animal wonders—looked upon the fully-bearded Madame Clofullia with “little more than a shrug,” unconvinced that her pogonotrophy constituted either scandal or subversion of gender. “Save for members of the cultural and medical elite,” writes historian Sean Trainor, “those who saw her in the 1850s accepted her womanhood as a matter of fact—one that required no explication, examination, or defense.” This disinclination to fascination was unacceptable to Barnum, challenging as it did the very legitimacy of his having located Clofullia alongside other (supposed) wonders of the world. Therefore he fabricated a controversy to “engender” further audience interest: Barnum solicited someone to sue him for fraudulently advertising a dressed-up man as a bearded woman, and he invited museum-visitors to decide for themselves whether they too might be duped.
The Clofullia incident points to several things about Barnum’s brand of business, not least its occasional cruelty. (Those looking to cast Barnum as an essentially democratic provocateur and defender of difference could stand to be reminded that his Clofullia trial encouraged binary thinking among persons previously comfortable with a great queerness of being.) Above all we see here the tendency for Barnum’s business to thrive through—and arguably also to consist in—the strategic enticement and incorporation of audience critique. This was Barnum’s principal modus operandi: with Madame Clofullia as with Joice Heth, the Feejee Mermaid, impossibly large animals, and any number of other attractions, Barnum endeavored to host questionable displays, raise questions about them himself, and then encourage debate among would-be visitors and observers. The goal in any case was to make and market a certain type of critical posture: a “shrug” animated not by boredom or disinterest, that is, but by active curiosity about the identity or utility of some ostensibly ambiguous thing. By this mechanism and measure he was often successful. Indeed Clofullia soon became one of Barnum’s greatest attractions.
When P. T. Barnum launched his traveling “Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome” in 1871, with shows throughout New England and New York, he again encountered audiences disinclined to awe except when called to consider the mechanics of his exhibits. In that context, however, visitor attention was more readily (re)directed to the sheer size and complexity of the circus assemblage than to any single attraction. Indeed many newspapers reported that the greatest thrills were to be found in watching workers unpack caravans and erect temporary accommodations: “The tent is so quickly raised that it almost seems like magic,” said one, “but it is simply the result of perfect discipline.” Individual attractions—like Barnum’s new bearded girl—received press only in long lists meant to impress upon readers the elaborate juggling act of the whole.
Barnum increasingly catered to this line of interest, over time, by building his three-ringed circus so as to attract attention to each ring’s gear-like interactions with the others, by employing more and more acrobats to draw audience eyes upward to tent wires, and by teaming with emergent transportation industries to ensure both efficiency and visibility between stops. These again were techniques of disciplining distraction, aimed at transforming possible yawns into yells and criticisms into critiques. But their deployment at this more comprehensive level also allowed Barnum to sell or subcontract the services of individual “oddities” like “the Infant Esau, or Bearded Child” to other outfits. “I can . . . soon spare the living girl born without arms—cuts, writes, sews &c with her toes—also bearded girl 5 years old full whiskers & covered with hair,” Barnum wrote to one museum director in April 1871. “Would you like either or all of these?”
Mechanics of Wonder
The museum director to whom Barnum wrote was none other than John W. Young, son of Mormon leader Brigham Young. The younger Young was then designing exhibits by which to showcase Utahn culture for curious “Gentile” visitors and tourists, and Barnum seems to have assumed that Young’s Deseret Museum would resemble somehow his own American Museum of wonders. Whether or not that assumption was in turn founded on the idea that Mormonism was itself a “curiosity” akin to bearded women and armless stenographers, is unclear from Barnum’s overture. Regardless, Barnum would have been right to think that many tourists held such a view, and thus that they would be coming to Salt Lake City to see a freak show. For their parts, John and Brigham Young, even while rejecting Barnum’s overture, recognized that they would need to find different ways to cater to or capitalize on precisely that type of critical and salacious gaze.
The methods by which Mormon leaders managed their own spectacle in Salt Lake make for a different story. But the fact of Barnum’s 1871 offer returns us to important insights about the business and business-cycles of wonderment, and, thus, to lasting lessons for religion and religious studies. After all, Barnum recognized always what we seem sometimes to forget: that certain wonders consist in the corporate transmutation of criticism, and also that religious groups themselves necessarily generate, animate, and incorporate criticisms of their own.
Is wonderment ever more than a corporate product? Was there ever a time when awe existed apart from mechanisms of buff(er)ing boredom and transmuting criticism? The beauty of the Barnum enterprise is that it encouraged audiences to ask precisely those questions. And it is in reminding us of those questions that Barnum will forever live on in our popular and scholarly imaginations, no matter the end of this most recent run.