LISA SCHIFFREN WRITES: After making a big splash parading its magnificent elephants across Capitol Hill, tempting all too many lawmakers of both parties to compare Congress to the circus, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—the Greatest Show on Earth—came to New York with its 125th-anniversary show. You might have thought that the circus would be one institution immune from the imperatives of political correctness and multiculturalism. Unfortunately, Ringling Bros. prove that this is not so. This year’s theme for the classic, all-American circus was built around a rap song called “Groovin’ in the Urban Jungle.” Perhaps this seemed relevant, or even exciting, when management thought about crowds in the heartland. But New Yorkers, and most Americans who live in or near cities, regard structured entertainment as a diversion from the realities of life in the urban jungle.

The central “urban” element of the circus was a troop of black and Hispanic acrobats, called the Chicago Kids, who bounced on trampolines to rap music, and seemed for all the world like an authentic urban gang that had been temporarily tamed—or, like those Chicago gang members who recently ran for political office, had realized that their street skills can be marketable. Remember when the half-time parade of performers featured plenty of pretty girls riding horses, and innumerable clowns pouring out of tiny cars? Well, this half-time parade featured performers simulating a motorcycle gang, and urban-youth acrobats marching with boom-boxes. The stately elephants seemed a bit out of place here, like great gothic monuments among cheesy glass office buildings.

For that matter, the acts that are the heart of the traditional circus—the high-wire acrobats and the lion tamer locked in a cage with a dozen powerful beasts—seemed to have lost all power to thrill. For one thing, the amazing, flying Whosis brother actually muffed the world-famous triple somersault, landed in the net, and bounced back, all without so much as a small flicker of embarrassment. And then the much trumpeted Gunther Gebel-Williams, a Fabio look-alike who is billed as the world’s greatest lion tamer, did little more than make his tigers —no lions—roll over and jump once or twice. Would that it weren’t so, but this just doesn’t hold up next to motorcyclists defying gravity by circling and crisscrossing one another, in the dark, inside a gigantic steel ball—clearly the crowd-pleaser of the day.

Speaking of animals, perhaps one reason they’re now so small a part of the circus is the omnipresent threat of action by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The group I was with, mostly executives of a firm that does financial work for Ringling Bros., had been promised a backstage tour before the show. This treat was canceled because, we were told, PETA had been infiltrating such tours, taking pictures and causing disturbances. This despite the fact that circus animals appear to be healthier and glossier than the mangy, torpid beasts in most zoo cages.

On balance, the greatest show on earth was more like a stadium-rock-concert spectacle for toddlers than a traditional circus. Indeed, the most popular souvenir was not the stuffed tigers or the pink plastic elephants, but rather the multi-colored neon lights on sticks for children to wave, as if at a rock concert, once the lights had gone down. Perhaps that’s why the audience was singularly lacking in yuppie parents. Instead it was composed almost entirely of working-class families, white and minority, from the suburbs and the outer boroughs, and non-English-speaking immigrants from Asia and Latin America, with several generations in tow.

Perhaps it is redundant to criticize the circus for vulgarity, but surely Ringling Bros. would attract the same “multicultural” audience without pandering to street culture. Or maybe, up against professional sports, the wonders of technology and TV animation, and the thrills of the real urban jungle, highly disciplined acrobats and animals don’t cut it anymore.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 9, on page 3
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