Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

at the United Center, November 21-December 3

Why are Cirque du Soleil and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus–both successful, moneymaking shows with acrobats, aerialists, and clowns–treated by the arts community as if they were as different as classical ballet and live nude dancing? Every urbanite I know readily accepts that Cirque du Soleil–the only touring circus regularly listed in the Reader’s performance section, the only circus people brag about having tickets for–is a form of alternative entertainment. When it comes to town, Hedy Weiss covers it as if it were theater, Victoria Lautman chatters about it on WBEZ, and everyone agrees the show is somehow akin to high art. Meanwhile, Ringling Bros. slips into town, performing at both the Rosemont Horizon and the United Center, and its presence is barely noted by the arbiters of taste.

Some might argue that the 125-year-old circus is too old and set in its ways to pass as performance. How could a show sponsored this year by Sears–that bland, middle-class American institution–be called subversive and daring? Yet there are many more similarities than differences between the tony Montreal-based circus and the Greatest Show on Earth: the acrobats are similarly daring, the clowns similarly funny, the spectacle similarly dazzling.

What accounts for the difference in how these two circuses are received? The answers would please P.T. Barnum, America’s first master of spin, the man who made millions giving suckers uneven breaks: marketing, packaging, and product. Ringling Bros. has positioned itself as a purveyor of regular American entertainment, something you can safely take your kids to and not worry that you’re undermining their faith in American-style democracy or capitalism or whatever God or gods you worship on Sunday or Saturday. And the presence of kids and moms and dads in comfortable but inelegant weekend clothes is part of what makes sitting in the audience at Ringling Bros. so different from watching Cirque du Soleil. The last time I caught that show I sat in front of someone who was painstakingly explaining why she’d become a vegan and why she hated animal acts, fur coats, and the use of animals in lab testing. At Ringling Bros. the person behind me was an anxious father who asked his daughter after every act: “Did you like that? Do you like the circus? Wasn’t that clown funny? Wasn’t that exciting?” Which made me realize that death-defying acts, like magicians, make much more sense to grown-ups than to kids. I think the circus is really meant for adults of all ages.

This “family fun” aesthetic is what makes the Ringling Bros. acts seem less impressive, less scary, less inspired than the ones at Cirque du Soleil, which focuses on being as foreign and edgy and exotic as possible–even its name is exotic. Meanwhile Ringling Bros. works just as hard to tame the circus. Its souvenir booklet includes article after article about circus families. Here’s featured clown David Larible with his mama and papa, who worked in European circuses, and his wife America (!) and his sister Vivien, who’s a trapeze artist in the show. Here are the daredevil Espana brothers, sons and grandsons of circus people.

Yet according to Ernest Albrecht’s book The New American Circus, Kenneth Feld–who took over Ringling Bros. when his father died in the early 80s–has worked hard to update the circus, borrowing freely from hipper organizations like Cirque du Soleil. Certainly the show now moves with a videolike quickness I don’t remember from my last trip to Ringling Bros., in 1970. And paradoxically this show aims to be both dazzlingly huge and as intimate as an evening home alone with the tube. The famous Ringling Bros. clowns too seem to be held to a higher standard–and to have material that’s both fresher and more classic: no more squirting water, pratfalls, and tiny cars that uncomfortably seat 20. Instead these clowns, like the great clowns of the silent era, have their own distinctive personalities, and a good deal of their shtick is character-based–and surprisingly funny.

But even as Feld and company have packed their show with elements from smaller, edgier circuses–fireworks, smoke machines, live pop-rock bands, bizarre acts from around the world–they’ve also worked overtime to make the exotic familiar and the dangerous safe. Every remotely scary act is parodied by the clowns. Consider the famed (and much-criticized) animal acts–which are themselves based on the idea of turning tigers into pussycats and elephants into chorus girls. Here they’re introduced with sketches like the one in which a group of clumsy clown-firemen try to save a kitty from a tree and discover puss is really a tiger–well, actually a stuffed toy tiger, which they wrestle with the fervor of a puppy shaking a pillow.

The Ringling Bros. clown acts are themselves much safer than the cruel routines the Cirque du Soleil performs: these clowns would never steal glasses from paying customers or engage in primal staring matches with audience members. Instead they remain safely in the realm of mocking themselves and harmlessly joshing others. Larible is the king of this sweet, gentle kind of clowning. In his baggy suit, red vest, and funny hat, he comes off at once as a funny puppy dog and Charlie Chaplin’s kinder cousin. Like Chaplin, Larible speaks volumes with every glare and shrug; but unlike the Tramp, he’s too sweet and harmless to ever get angry or fight back, and he has none of Chaplin’s sexuality.

Since he’s the featured clown, Larible never performs with the other clowns, so his status is never challenged. And his one extended audience-participation bit–he tries to teach four volunteers a remarkably complicated juggling act–is designed to show just how much frustration he can endure without losing his temper. By the end of this segment, Larible has proved himself in every way the perfect, patient, long-suffering, thoroughly house-trained dad.

This domestication of the wild and normalization of the exotic runs to the roots of Ringling Bros.–and of the American experience. Can it be coincidence that Wild West shows and circuses appeared in America in the late 1800s, just as we were losing our frontiers? What were all those rubes doing who queued up to see P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome, if not proving to themselves that Jumbo the elephant wasn’t really all that scary? If he was, he wouldn’t be in captivity, now would he? As long as “alternative” entertainment is defined as something wild and out of the ordinary, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which works so hard to be safe and American, will seem no more cutting-edge than Norman Rockwell or Lawrence Welk.