The Decline of the Circus and the Big Top Today
A Perfect Specimen is the world premiere work by Nathaniel Moncrieff set in the dying days of the travelling circus and freak show. It tells the tragic, true tale of Julia Pastrana, the 'ape-woman', and her husband and manager, Theodore Lent. Once as popular as Hollywood or the NBA today, since Julia Pastrana's time the circus has undergone a tumultuous journey into modernity.
By the close of the 19th Century, the equestrian acts that had always been at the heart of the Big Top (including bareback acrobatics and dressage) were soon overtaken by lion tamers, the flying trapeze, jugglers, and clowns. The exhibition of animal and human oddities also became an integral part of the American circus experience. Known as the Sideshow or Freak Show, punters flocked to these living ‘museums’ out of lurid curiosity, gawking and gasping at the people inside.
Mostly suffering from birth defects, the conjoined twins, ‘pinheads’, ‘living torsos’ with no arms or legs, and ‘lobster boys’ with split-hands and -feet, were treated as exotic entertainment. One of the medical conditions in A Perfect Specimen is hypertrichosis: excessive hair growth over the body. Those with the condition were billed as ‘werewolves’, ‘monkeys’ or ‘bearded ladies.’
There was much debate about the morality of ‘parading’ these individuals for profit, but as they were very often ridiculed or cast out by their family and society, the circus was argued to be a place where they could use their misunderstood conditions to make a living, even becoming rich and famous. As the scientific and medical community began to understand these conditions and were able to explain them as genetic mutations or diseases, the popularity of Freak Shows declined and the poor souls that inhabited them were met with sympathy rather than fear.
Eventually, not even landmark figures like P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey Circus fame could will their troupes into profitable ventures. Cost cutting and ever more desperately far-reaching world tours couldn’t keep either the European or American strains of the art afloat, and the arrival of cinema and then television finished them off.
However, those who proclaim the ‘death of the circus’ have overstated the permanence of its decline, as a selection of contemporary troupes have attracted new audiences and enjoyed rampant success.
The tired, traditional format has been discarded or reinvented into new and exciting incarnations, creating a renaissance of circus as a performing art. With the Canadian behemoth, Cirque du Soleil at the forefront, fresh artistic and commercial attitudes have led to the rise of ‘Cirque’.
The success of Limbo and La Soirèe, whose polished routines recently wowed Perth audiences during the Fringe World Festival, highlights the ability of the modern circus to enchant audiences. Relegating browbeaten elephants and big cats to be relics of the past, their sleek tents, contemporary music, and cabaret, variety and vaudeville has crafted the circus into a theatrical experience that is sexy, edgy and intense.
A Perfect Specimen is at the Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA from 30 June to 17 July 2016. Tickets on sale through Ticketek.
Written by Samuel Cox