The Circus on American Experience

The Circus

American Experience on PBS, October 8 and 9, check local listings

Kids today have no shortage of distractions: Social media, video games, and streaming seem to be the preferred time sucks for young people. They’ve never been so connected and yet so detached. And many would struggle to imagine a time when kids didn’t have Google or Snapchat to experience or engage with the world. Once upon a time, children went outside. Families of the 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t have flat screens or Wi-Fi to keep them entertained. They went to the circus.

PBS’ four-hour plunge into the history and influence of this treasured pastime is as engrossing as it is overwhelming. On the surface, this documentary is about the roots of the circus in the American soil; how showman (and shyster) P.T. Barnum had the vision and dexterity to grow its popularity; how circus folk banded together in a brutal, itinerant lifestyle to create a ragtag family; and how generations of Americans found a sense of wonder under the big top.

Like all poorly regulated forms of entertainment, life for early circus performers wasn’t pretty—and as they traveled across the United States, their arrivals were often met with disdain. In the early 19th century, on the heels of a religious revival in this country, performers endured the wrath of church leaders who viewed entertainment of any kind as sinful. But Barnum’s concept could not be cast out. The lure of the acrobats, clowns, contortionists, oddities, and an ever-changing menagerie of animals proved too enticing for American audiences. We were hooked.

The Circus, meticulously researched and rendered, is a celebration of ingenuity, ability, and agility. It is an homage to the faceless entertainers who devoted their lives to the circus and its code. One early critic called performers “nomadic ruffians.” But history has a kinder retrospect. They were pioneers of entertainment—ambassadors of escapism.

One historian in the film says it best: “There is a need for the human being to try things for no reason whatsoever.”

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