The Circus

Sep 22, 2017 8:30:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


“Men, women, and children who cannot live on gravity alone need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is, in my opinion, in a business established by the Creator of our nature. If he worthily fulfills his mission and amuses without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain.” - P.T. Barnum

The final performance of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, took place in a New York suburb on May 21st, 2017. Though the circus began in Europe and will continue in one form or another there and elsewhere, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, represented the peak of the arts; it was simply “the greatest show on earth.”

At the last performance, the ringmaster, Johnathan Lee Iverson, urged the audience, (“ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages”) “to keep the circus alive inside you.”

Photo: public domain

I only discovered this event by accident in a very small item in the inside page of a London daily newspaper.

I was taken by surprise by my reaction. Something of my youth came back to me in a torrent of memory and awakened a feeling akin to grief. I haven’t been to a circus for years. I know that, even if I had, I would not see it through my childhood eyes. Instead of death-defying mysteries that made mockery of gravity, I’d have spotted the wires; the clowns would look shabby and be less than funny. The glamour would have faded: the ringmaster’s top hat would look gray with age and the exotic acrobat’s costume would be torn at the knees.

In the world of dreamed landscapes, reality is of little matter. There are other eight-year-olds who will never shake with excitement or enter (as my children did when I took them to the circus) a world re-defined by stardust.

I went to my first circus at the age of eight. My long-suffering grandmother took me and my cheeky cousin Betty, some months older than me but inexplicably years wiser, to Victoria Park in Hackney, in East London where we lived. Victoria Park was about five minutes away from our house but, quite mysteriously, a traveling circus had pitched its great tent -- the Big Top -- in the center of the park and transformed that familiar space into a Shangri-La.

Our universe was defined by eight streets. The fact that this apparition appeared from nowhere and belonged to no place enhanced its romantic impossibility. We caught glimpses of astonishingly exotic circus people who came from a world far beyond our experience or comprehension. I began a campaign of urgent yearning that, finally, after a strategy of unsubtle transparency, led to victory. Off we went, across mud and muck, to the circus!

It was to my urchin eyes, magical and beyond remarkable – a glimpse into an alternative universe full of drama, comedy, and unbelievable exoticism. There were tightrope walkers of unspeakable, cheerful courage; lions as strange to me as unicorns, controlled by a figure whose bravery matched that of David facing Goliath; an elephant lumbering along fresh from fantasy; clowns who made the soul soar and eyes sore with laughter. I fell, quite hopelessly, in love with the theatrical that day -- and in Hackney!

Photo: public domain

Hackney was not a magical place in which to live. It was a curious combination of mundane poverty and small menaces. We never really knew we were poor but we shared some level of deprivation. I was not aware that such things as indoor toilets existed or that some kids had been to somewhere called abroad. The population of our immediate neighborhood was about 50% Jewish (us) and about 50% them (not Jewish). That was the source of the small menaces and minor threats that were a familiar part of our landscape. We were not aware that this was in any way unusual – it just was.

Jewish kids hurried home from our primary school in pairs (or better still small groups) because we were wary of our Gentile schoolmates who had some mysterious aversion to us. Individually, we had friendships across this great divide but those were kept private as if they represented some kind of shameful betrayal of group loyalty, for us and for them.

Nothing much usually happened. Some kid, who you swapped football cards with in private, might with the encouragement of his mates grab your cap and throw it over a fence, or take your books and chuck them in the mud (we read books but “they” seemed liberated from that burden).

We actually envied them. They had freedoms not given to us and they were, astoundingly it seemed, not required to rush home to undergo interrogation about what we had (or more often, had not) learned at school. They were free to do whatever they wanted; not to go to the dank and grim Hebrew School we reluctantly attended after we had finished our homework. They were free to be not nice.

To be not nice was a secret aspiration of most of us. Instead, we were the ones undertaking avoidance strategies based upon group defense as a shameful alternative to submission to minor torment. It was a mistake to try to run because we were, except for an exceptional Adonis with the unlikely name of Stephen Crossick, all fatter, slower, easy meat. Just like our fathers (tailors, taxi-drivers, waiters, door-to door salesmen) we were not blessed with physical powers. It is no surprise that Superman was invented by two nerdy, short-sighted Jewish kids in Cleveland who, clearly, must have shared our wish-fulfillment fantasies. Superman was our golem: a mythic savior who (somewhere between the Messiah and the dreamed avenging father none of us had) would emerge to rescue us in extremis.

Photo: public domain

One event united our divided community of dirty faced gamin: a universal astonishment at the appearance of the circus in Victoria Park, a staggering, remarkable, earth-moving apparition as unexpected and wonderful as the arrival of a Jewish Superman would have been. We shared a profound yearning to gain access to this holy ground.

The Jewish kids approached this strategically. We had been taught patience; in the ill-lit classroom of the Hebrew school we were, after all, instructed to wait for the Messiah (an event that is still anticipated). However, in contrast to that divine arrival, the circus was a verifiable fact even if it had landed from outer space. The temporary residence of the Big Top, close to the rancid pond where we tried to catch tadpoles, transformed us into yearning aspirants anxious to enter into the kingdom of what looked suspiciously similar to heaven. Our more liberated classmates planned to sneak in and plotted audacious modes of illegal access. We knew we would never make it so, instead, Betty and I worked on the weakest link in our family -- my grandmother -- to take us even though this meant actually paying, rather than gaining furtive access.

I have never forgotten the day we went to the circus. Even now, after years of cynical disaffection from magic, I am moved by the memory. Of course, I have become aware of the ambiguous treatment of wild animals, though that is surely a minor matter when compared to the daily torture of millions of animals in factory farms. It is also the case that increased regulation has ameliorated the suffering of circus animals to the point where moral outrage lacks true conviction.

Whatever the ambiguities, something has been irrevocably taken out of our lives. The smell of the sawdust and the music, that was more discordant than tuneful,  is still embedded in the memory of my senses. Do I remember the bearded lady? The strong man (who was as far from being Jewish as the Pope)? I think so, but memory is shaped by dream as much as by reality.

The circus persists in our everyday language: “the show must go on… rain or shine.” The adjective “jumbo” derives from the elephant who first appeared in Barnum and Bailey’s circus in 1880. Next time we “throw our hat into the ring,” engage in “a balancing act,” or urge colleagues to “hold your horses” we are drawing upon the language of the circus which has entered our consciousness whether we know it or not.

Photo: public domain

The writer Tom Robbins exactly and eloquently summarizes my perspective: “I have always been a romantic, one of those people who believes that a woman in pink circus tights contains all the secrets of the universe.” Memory distorts our sense, of course, but one irrevocable conviction remains in my mind and heart: the circus enriched not just my childhood but also my sense of a reality that cannot be confined by gray conformity. The world gives us glimpses of magic: spectacles that transform consciousness; doorways into ineffable spaces that teach us that the world is more than mundane; there are riches within us, and beyond us. if we can just reach towards them.

The end of the circus is a victory for political correctness and another blow to potential joyfulness in our lives. A light went out. In 1642, the Long Parliament under the control of Oliver Cromwell closed the theater in England on the grounds that it represented “lascivious Mirth and Levity." That was another victory for puritan consciousness: a view of the world without much joy or laughter.

In the end the circus is, for me, a metaphor for an enriched universe. It ultimately does not matter if you have a different metaphor nor is it crucial that you share my particular nostalgia. It is important, however, that we all have such a space in which to discover alternative worlds. I too, like many in our field, discovered these in places abroad. Engagement with foreign landscapes many years later demonstrated that the world I inhabited did not represent the limits of human experience. That is what we teach. Nevertheless, I first learned of that marvelous complexity at the age of eight, at a shabby circus, in the mud of Victoria Park.  

Anne Sexton in the poem “The Bells” precisely captures that which we have lost:

Oh see the naughty clown
and the wild parade
while love love
love grew rings around me.
this was the sound where it began;
our breath pounding up to see
the flying man breast out
across the boarded sky
and climb the air.
I remember the color of music
and how forever
all the trembling bells of you
were mine.

Thanks Mike!

Read More From Dr. Michael Woolf

Topics: Study Abroad