By Jordan Stier
It is true. Although I do not remember it well, my mother can tell the story of when she took me to the circus at a young age. I cried, and cried, and cried some more, and accused her of torturing me.. To be fair, I accused her of trying to kill me when she put me on a bicycle and it wavered from leaning on the left training wheel to leaning on the right… I was that kid.
Since my youth, my opinions of circuses have not really improved. In fact, they have probably deteriorated, through the combination of having read Dalene Matthee’s Kringe in die Bos and Steven King’s It, which have left elephants with a homely spot in my heart and clowns with an unwelcome regularity in my nightmares.
Luckily, at Brian Boswell’s Circus in Grahamstown on Wednesday night, I saw no elephants, and the clowns were not very clownish at all. Their make-up wasn’t extreme, and they weren’t wearing awful wigs. They were just slapstick performers. They got the crowd laughing a lot, so that’s all good.
Some of the performers’ talent was undeniably incredible. The motorcyclist in the cage, the trapeze artist swinging up on high, the strongman who balanced a twenty foot pole on his forehead while two gymnasts swung about on the top of it. Even the jugglers, were awe-inspiring. Seriously – I’ve been trying to learn how to juggle since Christmas, and I still can’t get it right, never mind doing it while Riverdancing up a flight of stairs.
However, I admit, I was bored a lot of the time. I spent a good deal of the evening watching the crowd. Young and old alike oohed and aahed for the woman who walked a balancing beam blindfolded, and for the men that climbed vertical poles feet-in-the-air with just their two hands, and for the clown that balanced a broom on his head.
However, there was a group of acts that won less of a reaction from the crowd however: the animals. Despite the initial excitement at seeing a camel, or a llama, or a Falabella pony that was too short to have been able to nuzzle my knee, the crowd looked quite bored throughout most of these acts, especially the younger children. And who could blame them? The show went on for more than two hours! In small child terminology, that translates to: “ Mommy I’m borrrrrred”
After the show, circus staff roamed the departing crowd, asking people to complete questionnaires. The three questions were: “Did you enjoy the show?”, “Did you enjoy seeing the animals in the show”, and “Did the animals look in good condition to you?”
I tried to sneak a peek at some of the answers that had been given by audience members, but the staff snatched completed questionnaires up eagerly without letting people have much of a look. However, the questionnaires do signify that the circus is reacting to the inevitable protests that follow them from town to town.
I too am against the use of animals in the circus, but for the sake of the discussion, let’s move away from the moral arguments and face the basic fact that the animals are really boring. When I have spent the evening watching people clinging to a bar high in the air by only their teeth, or seeing a three-man human pyramid that can still find the strength to smile and wave at me, or laughing at a clown setting his hair on fire, seeing a goat hobble over a hurdle or a horse trot with a comical pink Mardi-Gras feather on its head is incredibly underwhelming The reactions I noticed in the crowd would correlate. Even the ringmaster looked more bored during these acts, not that he ever looked particularly enthralled to start with.
When a show aimed at little children hyped up on candy floss and popcorn lasts as long as a Hobbit movie, you cannot deny that cutting some acts would be welcomed. When those acts are not only the most boring, but are also coincidentally the ones losing you the most ticket sales and public approval, why might one not do this?
Professor Harry Dugmore, the middle-aged Journalism lecturer I sat near, may just have given me the answer. “You know, this circus has been going for 70 to 80 years,” he told me. “I remember seeing it when I was about three. It’s still the same. The acts are almost exactly the same, to be honest. But the vibe is the same too. It’s just a lot of fun… It’s a tradition.”
In a month that has seen universities around the country challenge its traditions in a most serious, critical, progressive manner, perhaps the folks at Brian Boswell’s might consider doing the same .