(HOST) It’s summer and the circus has come to town. Commen- tator Jay Craven has been thinking about life – and art – under the Big Top.
(CRAVEN) What is it about the circus that captures universal attention and floods our emotions more than 4,000 years after pygmy clowns first entertained Egyptian pharaohs?
My first trip to the circus at age six featured beautiful women on horseback and a vendor with a walking stick who sold me a live chameleon skewered to a lapel pin. “Stick it to your shirt,” he said. “It’ll change color.” It did.
Maybe that’s the appeal of circus – a combination of the daring, the surreal and the transgressive.
In his monumental play Him, American poet e.e. cummings con- demns “everything but the circus…everything that is grim, dull, motionless, unrisking, inward turning…everything that won’t get into the circle, that won’t enjoy, that won’t throw its heart into the tension, surprise, fear and delight of the circus, the round world, the full existence…”
Circus theatrics have inspired no less than Shakespeare and Moliere, Chaplin and Mark Twain. Sergeant Pepper was the ultimate ’60s ringmaster. And who are Steve Martin, Eddie Mur- phy, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner if not modern day clowns?
And what about Federico Fellini’s circus-like films, from 8 1/2 to Amarcord, scored by Nina Rota, whose infectious music com- bines carnival whimsy with a touch of melancholy?
The circus is round. Like life. It’s dramatic structure never begins or ends; it only segues into the next act. And there are no hiding places. Without stage curtains, jesters and jugglers divert the audience while the roustabouts prepare the high wire.
The 1980s and ’90s saw the circus reemerge in North America as a dynamic cultural form. Quebec’s Cirque du Soleil reaches back into 16th-century commedia del arte when masked actors played out bawdy skits on Italian street corners. Their stylized theatrical- ity lures us onto an emotional precipice, inviting us to see into the soul of the performance – actors flying high, propelled by little more than simple human courage and trust.
Kids dream of running away with the circus. And in Vermont, for nearly 20 years, Circus Smirkus has made that possible. More than a training program, Circus Smirkus challenges teens to reach beyond their grasp, throwing themselves, full force, into the breach. They’re on tour again this summer.
So, too, the Big Apple Circus, which combines traditional and specialized acts, polished to a fine luster in a single ring. Barry Lubin’s “Grandma” is one of the finest clowns working today.
And the world-renowned Bread and Puppet Theater of Glover continues to offer it’s own unique rendition of circus. Bread and Puppet draws from age-old European traditions, informed by founder Peter Schumann’s idea that theater is essential, like bread. Its populist pageantry is spiritual, political, humorous and visually evocative of a mythic world.
With three such diverse choices, Vermonters can enjoy the circus this summer and – like the daring young men and women on the flying trapeze – catch an experience combining craft with disci- pline, camaraderie and fun.
This is Jay Craven of Peacham.
Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.