Long the Greatest Show on Earth

It has come time to pen a requiem for the circus.

“Why?” you wonder. Did not the unexpected announcement Saturday night of the closing in May of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus just mean the end of one circus? Do not many circuses remain, here and especially in circus-loving countries like Russia and Mexico? Did not the Cirque de Soleil of Montreal — the one the circus people call the Cadillac — already reinvent the circus form for the modern age?

All true, gentle reader. But the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was the Greatest Show on Earth. This was the American institution with roots in the spirit of P.T. Barnum, the uber-showman who pretty much invented hucksterism, and the aphorisms popularly attributed to him — “There’s a sucker born every minute,” “Every crowd has a silver lining” — now have extended far beyond the sawdust, all the way to Washington. If one person could have been said to have invented self-promotion, if one man could be said to have been the first to figure out that selling was more important than content, Barnum was your man. And the all-American circus was his baby. For 146 years, American audiences sat down convinced that they were watching, right there in their second-tier town, the biggest, the grandest, the most dangerous, the most spectacular, the best. “Win!,” Barnum surely would have tweeted. Had he been able.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus never wanted to be anything other than affordable, traditional, family-oriented entertainment, a world run by a ringmaster, controlled by trainers and celebratory of its anachronisms: It moved around the country by train (what other business moves its people that way?), it carried its own schoolroom, it liked a parade. It only had screens when kids forgot how to pay attention, it only messed around with postmodern narrative when pushed to the brink by those arty Canadians with their three-figure tickets for admission.

Cirque always was red wine in the lobby; Ringling was popcorn in your seat. Cirque was for adults. Ringling was beloved by 7-year-olds and their moms and dads, who became heroes of a Saturday morning without needing to buy an electronic device.

And at a time when live entertainment is trying desperately to diversify its audience, 20 years of never missing that year’s Ringling show taught me this: There is no more diverse audience for live entertainment than the one that goes to the Greatest Show On Earth, be it in Rosemont or Madison Square Garden in New York City. Why? The form is omnicultural and global in origin. There are shows in Spanish and in English; the core of the show needs no language. And the scale of the enterprise has meant the tickets could stay affordable. Even the Chicago Bulls scheduled a road trip when the circus came to town. It had that much clout.