Roll up! Roll up! Gather round the big top and bring the kids because guess what, the circus has come to town. Until May 3rd you can immerse yourself in the fantastical world of the circus, with examples of show-business paraphernalia – some of which date back to its humble beginnings of the circus in the eighteenth-century.
The National Fairground Archive has curated the collection, which can currently be seen in the exhibition space of the Western Bank library. It shows an overview of the history of those who innovated and shaped the magnificent showcase of the circus. Displaye
d is an array of posters, costumes and other memorabilia, recreating the magic and spectacle of the circus. It’s free, and a nice bit of respite from a day of hard work in the library. Take a break, pack up your books. Step out of the silent study area, and in to the rich tapestry of the history. Perhaps use this as an opportunity for escape: ignore the toils and stresses of deadlines and dissertations just for a while, and run away with the circus.
Maybe this is what we all need really, once in a while. One of the greatest appeals of the circus is that it can serve as an escape: whether it is fleeing from society to become an audaciously bold acrobat, or merely being an observer, using the dazzling spectacle to remove yourself from the clutches of the grey ordinary of the real world. The written introduction to the Circus Showmen exhibition defines the concept of the circus itself as ‘a space for the celebration and exhibition of great skill, humour, strength, dexterity and courage’. Admirable qualities, assuredly. Something everyone could do with a little more of, don’t you agree?
The National Fairground Archive was founded by the University of Sheffield in 1994, and has a far-reaching collection of historical primary sources, encompassing the cultural history of the travelling performing community.
This is crucially important because of the significance of its history, its influence can be felt across the realms of modern entertainment, and is undeniably part of our own cultural heritage. The National Fairground Archive’s most recent endeavour is the current exhibition in the Western Bank library, and it serves as an interesting gateway into a world of potential for further research on the subject. The Circus Showmen exhibition showcases and celebrates the characters of the circus over the years. With each generation, a new personality shows up to challenge and modify the art form. This is surely where the long lasting success of the show comes from: bravery, accomplished performers and light-hearted entertainment never go out of style, and its constant re-invention by the showmen portrayed is what keeps the circus en vogue.
After all, the circus has changed a lot, over the years. A quick search online yielded numerous videos of the Bertram Mills’ Circus, a true testament to what the circus used to represent, also shot in what now feels like heart-warmingly antiquated shaky black and white. Bertram Mills was one of the re-inventors and once-household names of the twentieth-century circus, and although the name might be unfamiliar to the circus rookie, his influence and legacy on the English circus tradition is palpable. His shows included wild and dangerous stunts, including horses and elephants performing tricks that, frankly, animals were not really naturally built to do. Plus, a bear on a bicycle, which is not something you see all the time these days. And regardless of where your opinions lie in terms of animal rights, what is undeniable is the popularity of the show: close up shots of the crowd depict the unrestricted glee of mirthful applauding children.
The audience descend into genuine hysterics from the slapstick japes of the clowns: which even now, decades later, can still tease a chuckle out of the biggest cynic.
While the use of circus animals has become the subject of a lot of scrutiny, the fact that the show can reinvent itself, and continue to present fabulous entertainment is a continuing process, and isn’t going anywhere.
Additionally, while some elements of the circuses of old may seem a bit crude, or blindly politically incorrect – for example the showcasing of the ‘circus freak’, arguably exploiting those who are deformed, mistreating both humans and animals.
These are tricky concepts in the day and age where everything is so severely criticised, but watching the audiences shows what is at the heart of the circus: at the core of the matter, it is supposed to be fun.
Hearing the reaction to the overtly light-hearted entertainment, to shock, to surprise, but ultimately to amuse.
That is what light entertainment should be about.
Thankfully, modern circus entertainment has progressed past the abuse and exploitation of animals, replacing this with consenting adults, who are equally able to be outrageous and entertaining.
Although it is constantly changing, it appears that the circus is most definitely not a thing of the past, but it has been seen to evolve in form to something a little more macabre.
Gerry Cottle’s circus in the 1980s faced scrutiny for the inclusion of animal acts in the circus – undoubtedly a growing source of stigma – and so took a new direction in the 1990s.
It was here that the circus grew a little darker, a little edgier, and a little less family-friendly. Thus, the blood curdling Circus of Horrors was born.
Embracing old-fashioned showmanship with an influx of rock and roll, throwing in a healthy dose of the gruesome and grotesque, the circus had been reborn yet again.
The Circus of Horrors have been relentlessly touring theatres around Britain over the last few years and also appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, proving that after hundreds of years, the fine art of the circus can still be as prolific and popular as it was in its infancy.
The exhibition itself promotes a sense of unmitigated nostalgia.
The joy of the circus of decades gone by seems to portray a sort of innocence, a prevailing cheerfulness that continued across the twentieth-century, not wavering in strength despite it being a century of political upheaval and two World Wars.
While the majority of the student population do not have the experience of age to feel this nostalgia, the public guest book shows that the exhibition has not only been visited from lands far and wide, but by those who enjoyed the art of the circus from previous decades.
‘Lovely to reflect on past joys’, writes one visitor, and so it is clear that the circus is able to represent and capture the blithe joy of childhood.
But you don’t necessarily have to have been witness to the circuses of yesteryear to be caught up in the magic, a second-year student remarks that ‘I’ve always found the culture of the circus interesting.
There’s this air of mystery around it.’ So, ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages, the circus is family entertainment at its finest – from old to young, there is frankly nothing wrong with a bit of clowning around.
So if you are considering a life of electrifying spectacle, and potentially packing your trunk to run away to join the circus, it may not be as remote a scheme as you think.
The University of Sheffield’s very own circus society, the Flying Teapots, meets weekly and you could pick up a myriad of skills ranging from juggling to unicycling.
They also have free tea and biscuits, which is a pretty sweet deal. Or pick up a leaflet for Clowns International, the longest established clown organisation in the world.
It welcomes clowns, aspiring clowns, and ‘friends of clowns’.
Sounds like a right laugh. Pun intended.
But if taking part as a performer is not quite your thing, there is so much more to find out about. An ‘extra for experts’ realm to discover what lies in the National Fairground Archives themselves, with collections housed in the Western Bank containing literally thousands of historical artefacts to appreciate. Portraying the circus and the fairground as an important element of our cultural heritage, it is difficult not to get carried away in the whimsy of the art of performance.
So give in to the flamboyance, and get swept away with a puff of smoke and a flourish of sequins into circus-land. After all, it’s only show business. While the cruelty of lion-taming may be a thing of the past, and the clown masks might be, admittedly, slightly creepy, trapeze artists will continue to astound, and tight rope walkers will continue to balance on the brink of catastrophe. And who knows what will come next? With a new generation of shows and performers, the centuries-old tradition of the big top will surely carry on to excite and astonish.