|Chelsea McGuffin in Circa|
- Read about her
daredevilry and the
of many other performers in
CIRCUS MANIA by Douglas McPherson
review by Mort Gamble
(White Tops Sept/Oct)
If the title of this exploration of Great Britain’s circus world is to be believed, the shows of that island nation are a bit on the wild and wacky side. McPherson’s book, however, comes across as a more thoughtful, restrained treatment of the British circus tradition, past and present. There’s nothing crazy about people earnestly carrying on a performing arts tradition, even if they do step out of the bounds or the normal, by outsiders’ standards, to do it. Outside observer McPherson is impressed.
Watching the Valez Brothers Wheel of Death act, McPherson realizes his fascination with circus performers “and the mysterious glue that binds them to their life of peril. They are, there is no doubt, a breed apart... they seem to exist for no other purpose than to make the impossible seem possible.” It’s easy to dismiss that statement as trite, but it’s helpful to remember that he is writing for a more general audience, not circus fans, not historians or scholars.
His book is a balancing act itself as an overview of circus history, tradition, contemporary formats and modern issues of management - including Britain’s struggles with vociferous animal rights protesters. It’s an inside view from the outside and, if anything, demonstrates the universality of the circus mind and spirit. As he quotes one circus owner, it’s about “the excitement of watching someone attempt something they may not actually be able to do.”
The British circus tradition predates America’s. Entrepreneur Philip Astley - like John Bill Ricketts in this country - built his early circus around horsemanship, adding clowns, acrobats and other acts. Well-known circus names like Smart, Chipperfield and Bertram Mills brought size, fame and fortune to the English circus tradition. Recent years have been less grand as shows abandoned their exotic animals and some took on other forms, morphing into the adult-only, the freaky, the water-worldly, the scary - circus escaping into the witness protection programme of cirque or stage production.
Some tradition big top shows have soldiered on, even daring to bring back their elephants, and
Great British Circus
"Circus undiluted and unashamed."
Circus Mania lacks the streetwise wit of a Bill Ballantine, functioning more like the industry observations of a David Lewis Hammarstrom. As an overview of the circus in Great Britain, it has value in illustrating a diverse entertainment tradition that may be unfamiliar to Americans. McPherson clearly admires the heroics of circus performers and, equally, the grit of circus managers who find ways to keep going despite the times. He laments that animal protesters, bent on “bullying and intimidating” have missed a good show and concludes on a hopeful note about the positive role of live, physical circus in a digital age.
There is nothing fake about staying alive while training nature’s perfect killing machine - the tiger - he writes. Similarly, in the authenticity of circus life and legend, what you see is only part of what you get. He means to take us into that world for a closer look.
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