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The Circus: Past And Future

Acrobat Duncan Wall ran away to join the circus, and found the circus has changed.  He’s with us.

A circus tent and worker  in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. (AP)

A circus tent and worker in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. (AP)

The circus, of course, goes back to Roman times and beyond.  In its recent heyday, it was the super-spectacle, the monster show, of the 19th century. The circus train, Barnum and Bailey, all that, would unload a roaring menagerie and waves of performers that would transform a town and set imaginations ablaze.

These days, that heyday is long ago.  And the circus is changing again.  Back to some old, old roots made very new.  Think Cirque du Soleil.  Think high circus art.

This hour, On Point:  an insider’s view of the the changing world, the evolution, of the circus.

-Tom Ashbrook


Duncan Wall, author of “The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The New Republic “This question—is the circus art?—is at the center of Duncan Wall’s book The Ordinary Acrobat, a history of the circus up to the present day told through a memoir of his year at a circus school in Paris. Each chapter introduces an aspect of the circus as Wall encounters it, so we learn about the origins of the flying trapeze, for instance, when he finally screws up the courage to enroll in his college’s trapeze class. On the way, Wall interviews performers and other writers about their approach to the circus.”

The Observer “When economists bemoan the foreign drain on homegrown talent and skills, they probably don’t have trapeze artists, acrobats or high-wire walkers in mind. Yet Britain has lost a generation of highly-trained performers to circus troupes based abroad.”

Excerpt: “The Ordinary Acrobat”

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  • DrewInGeorgia

    Clowns scare the crap out of me and I’m not too keen on constant exploitation of animals. Other than that, The Circus is great.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gkeefermcgee Glenn Keefer-Mcgee

    There is room for both kinds of circus.  I love both of them for so many reasons.  

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1042404403 Lisa Shaw

       Where is there room for animal abuse Glenn?  What are those reasons?

  • J__o__h__n

    Clowns on both hours today.

    • Pointpanic

       HA HA HA HA right on the money ,John

  • maraith

    Circuses are synonymous with animal abuse. Cirque de Soleil is the way of the present and future. Ringling Bros is the shameful past we need to abandon with apologies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bailey0101 Michael Bailey

    I’d like to take this opportunity to brag about my Grandfather, Edward Van Tassel. He hand painted the graphics on the old circus trains and carts for Barnum and Bailey. All the trains you saw in the movie Water for Elephants, were hand painted by him.

    • sickofthechit


  • DiannaBH

    I work with Clowns Without Borders, an international federation of organizations based in many countries around the world. The amazing thing about circus is it is universal! Our focus is to perform in crisis areas with the intent to bring communities together to celebrate and for a moment and enjoy being together, sharing laughter and joy. We find circus works in every culture from a public school in Washington DC to a refugee camp in Sudan. It is an amazing culture of its own that welcomes everyone! It is also an incredible tool to use in education, trauma and the medical field. The social circus movement exciting!

    • JGC

      I gave a donation once to Clowns Without Borders. Cool idea. Even the name makes me smile…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=661429834 Thom Wolke

       If there’s any way I can help with Clara-Belle the Calliope, that I talked about in this piece, don’t hesitate to call.  Reach me by liking Clara-Belle on Facebook.


  • bostoncircusguild

    The Boston Circus Guild (bostoncircusguild.com) is a modern collective of circus performers, musicians and dancers. Our goal is to make circus accessible to our audiences through our shows and classes (see for yourself at our upcoming show this week!) Our other primary goal is to provide career opportunities for our circus performers. We book our performers and musicians for everything from corporate events to weddings to bar/bat mitzvahs. You don’t need to run away to join the circus…we’ll come to you!

  • DiannaBH

    Not sure if my last comment was posted. I work with Clowns Without Borders, a fantastic organization based here in the USA, but founded in Spain as Payasos Sin Fronteras. We bring circus performers to areas of crisis to volunteer. We aim to bring communities together to share moments of celebration, joy and laughter, especially those living in crisis situations. Circus is universal. We have found it to be as effective in a Washington DC public school as in a refugee camp in Sudan. The world of social circus is truly growing, as it should be. It is an incredible tool for working with youth, crossing language and cultural barriers and building self esteem. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=661429834 Thom Wolke

       Your initial post went thru, and I replied there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=631887089 Dawn Felsing

    There is a wonderful youth circus founded in Vermont in 1987. They tour New England every summer and run a circus camp. Members of the troupe come from all over the world and many have gone on to join Cirque de Soliel and Ringling Brothers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=661429834 Thom Wolke


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=661429834 Thom Wolke

    Thanks for talking about the music, though I think I might’ve gotten cut
    off.  To see Clara-Belle the Calliope, check out her Facebook page and
    “like” her.  Though I must warn you, she’s a bit brash and flirtatious -
    think Ethel Merman meets Phyllis Diller.
    Now, I gotta go get this book !

  • Beatrice Chrystall

    (I just put this on your Facebook page too)

    I am a devoted fan of On Point and Tom Ashbrook,
    as well as a contributor to WBUR. I have to say I am deeply disappointed in Tom
    and the program for their serious neglect of the issue of animal cruelty in
    this program. I could not believe that the issue was not seriously addressed,
    and that the guest was allowed to duck the question and not tackle it head on.
    I am all for the romance of a person running away to the circus. But we don’t
    allow bull-fighting and dog-fighting in this country, why do we continue to
    allow animals to be tormented and forced to have miserable lives for our
    entertainment? And why did Tom not address this seriously? Anyone in any doubt
    about it should check out these two links — the first to the ASPCA and the
    second to PETA: http://www.aspca.org/fight-animal-cruelty/circus-cruelty/about-circus-cruelty.aspx
    and http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/circuses.aspx

    Just because we do not see the suffering in front of us when they are performing, does that mean we can just pretend everything that happens when they’re not performing doesn’t?

    Tom, I think you should rectify the program’s now-sullied record of journalistic integrity (impartiality, showing all sides of an issue) by running a future program on the situation of animals in the circus.

    A big fan of the show, and Tom Ashbrook, and NPR — to my mind one of the best things in this country — and very very disappointed.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=511535281 Eileen Emond

      ..and you are not alone and not the only one to notice…many countries have now banned using animals in the circus, I wonder when the US (a supposed “progresssive leader” country) will be next….not soon enough for me..or the animals.

      • Michele

         I took my nieces to the Ringling Bros. Circus a few years ago and I completely agree with your comments and those of Beatrice C.  It saddened me deeply to see the animals doing their tricks for the humans.  They seemed so empty.  It broke my heart.  I won’t be going back.  There are many other forms of entertainment that don’t require the subjugation of another being.  Thanks for your eloquent comments.

    • sickofthechit

       Thank you for bringing this up.

    • Pointpanic

       goood job Beatrice. I don’t know why ,maybe he is bowing to corporate underwriter pressure but yes Tom Ashbrook and BUR have shown with programs like this that they have compromised “public” radio’s integrity and independence.

    • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.wentzelfisher Barbara Wentzel-Fisher

       Number one, the circus is about so much more than animal acts.  I think that this program reflects that.  Number two, do you have pets? Do you feel the same sort of vehement frustration at not being able to see how people treat their pets when not out walking them through the neighborhood?  Do you assume that they are all abusing them behind closed doors as well?  It’s so easy to hear one perspective on an issue and cry it from the rooftops, while neglecting to acquire any other information on the subject.  Perhaps a discussion on this particular issue would be interesting to hear, but know that there is another story that PETA is not telling you.

      • Beatrice Chrystall

        Did you check out the ASPCA website too?

        • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.wentzelfisher Barbara Wentzel-Fisher

           The information that has informed my position is not website based.  I worked for 8 years as a trainer, mostly with exotic animals, though not with a circus.  I’m not saying that abuse doesn’t happen, but I will say that the vast majority of trainers do not use abusive methods.  Not only for ethical reasons, but also because positive reinforcement methods simply work much better and are immensely safer.  Perhaps it would be beneficial to take the advice that you gave to Tom in your first comment, and look at all sides of the issue before forming an opinion.  Especially when persecuting someone’s occupation without any other information other that what can be gleaned from two websites.

          • Beatrice Chrystall

            “Traveling from town to town is also inherently stressful for circus animals—they are separated from their social groups and intensively confined or chained for extended periods of time with no access to food, water, and veterinary care. It’s no surprise that many animals suffer psychological effects. ”

            “The ASPCA is opposed to using wild or exotic (non-native wild) animals, whether taken from the wild or captive-bred, in circuses, carnivals and other traveling animal shows because of the stress, cruelty and physical, social and psychological deprivations that the animals inevitably suffer, many as a direct result of extended confinement and  being on the road much of the year. The ASPCA rejects the claim that there is educational value in seeing wild animals perform unnatural or dangerous behaviors, as well as the claim that large, wild animals such as elephants, bears, lions and tigers can be trained without cruelty to perform these behaviors. Furthermore, exotic animals in these venues are not bred to propagate the species for return to their native habitat, but rather to provide a steady supply of young animals who are subsequently trained to perform.”[http://www.aspca.org/about-us/policy-positions/circuses-and-traveling-shows.aspx]

            “Who We Are
            The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was the first humane society to be established in North America and is, today, one of the largest in the world. Our organization was founded by Henry Bergh in 1866 on the belief that animals are entitled to kind and respectful treatment at the hands of humans, and must be protected under the law. Headquartered in New York City, the ASPCA maintains a strong local presence, and with programs that extend our anti-cruelty mission across the country, we are recognized as a national animal welfare organization. We are a privately funded 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, and proud to boast more than 1 million supporters across the country.”

          • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.wentzelfisher Barbara Wentzel-Fisher

             Yes, that is what it says on that one website from which you seem to glean all the info necessary to form a vocal opinion on the subject.  I read it too.  I’ve read others that make similar claims.  And I’ve traveled with animals.  So I know that it is not true.  No food or water?  Transporting animals without air conditioning through a desert?  Chaining for long periods?  No vet care? These things don’t tend to happen with professional trainers because they would make it impossible to do the job.  Some of it may be true it a few very old style circuses, or for a few hosers who got some animals somehow and don’t know what they are doing, but for modern animal trainers it is just not true.  The ASPCA can reject what is common sense to someone like me, but they don’t have the experience on a broad enough scale to defend that rejection.  They and some other groups recently sued Ringling Bros. over this and lost.  Doesn’t that tell you something?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=661429834 Thom Wolke

       I think you’re being a bit unfair.  A careful listening to this show and the hugely broad topic covered here, combined with actually reading the book, (I’m only on chapter 6 and I can tell the author is sympathetic), I think you’ll find the author is sympathetic to the cause you’re championing.

      I’m with you on your argument, but not all things talked about have to all go back to your issue.  I agree it’d be nice to have a guest on to discuss this topic, but railing here with your cause isn’t winning over new fans, just the converted.

  • 2Gary2


  • Pointpanic

    Romanticiizing circuese at the expense of any inquiry into how cirus animals are treated even today by the vile Barnum and Bailey

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1266410766 Phyllis Craine

      Not every circus you should not make such a general statement because that is factually not true and I know this from personal experience.  Big Apple Circus are not abused.  I worked as Circus Project Manager at The Children’s Museum and I was on the lot every day for all 40 shows in the Boston run.  Those animals are the likelihood of the performers and an abused circus animal won’t perform.   The animals in the Big Apple Circus here treated like family.  Oh – and the animals in the dog act are shelter dogs rescued from kill facilities.

      • Pointpanic

        Okay Phyllis , you may well be right about certian circuses but my point was that “On Point” was too busy romanticizing the circus that there was no time for any inquiry into the uinhumane conditions many circus animals are subject to. I live in Wellfleet, MAss. where an “Old Time” circus used to come to town. I saw how the elephants had to stand out in the hot sun . there is a movt. afoot now on FB demanding that Barnum and Bailey treat their elephants more humanely and we’re trying to dicourage communities from accepting them until they do so. Honestly, I don’t believe that wild animals should be abduscted into circuses anyway, however well they may be treated. They belong in their native habitat. dogs are a sifferent stopry becuase they’ve been domesticated for ages.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1266410766 Phyllis Craine

          So who exactly was this “old time” circus that “used to come to town”? I doubt it was Ringling Bros because they do arena shows and haven’t used a tent in decades. Was this the recent past or a long time ago?  You didn’t even name the circus.  As for wild animals being abducted,  in the US these days circus animals are bred for the purpose, just like a race horse. 

          • Pointpanic

            I think it was called “Videl’s” or somethinglike that. I don’t exactly remember the name ,that’s why I didn’t name it.It was 20 years ago.
            Also, if animlas are bred ofr circuses where did the original ones come from?

          • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.wentzelfisher Barbara Wentzel-Fisher

             Speaking as someone who trained big cats for 8 years at a facility that did breed cats, I can tell you that they are many many generations removed from the wild.  Not one or two, but more like 20 or 30.  No one abducts animals from the wild.  The idea is laughable.  I know of elephants that came to this country as ivory orphans rather than be “culled”, but that is definitely the harder route to take.

          • Pointpanic

            well, okay, I’d rather see them (elephants)taken to the US than “culled” but are those their only options? And I ,so far, have no reason to believe that they’re treated humanely once they’re here. besides shouldn’t we be stopping the “culling” to begin with?and how are the cats treated?

          • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.wentzelfisher Barbara Wentzel-Fisher

             They cull whole herds of elephants in Africa to protect the environment from the devastating effects of too many elephants locked in a single area by borders and fences and such.  There are people (like the animal training company that I used to work for) who have been working at opening up paths for elephants and other migratory grazers so they don’t devastate an area, necessitating the culling.  You may not have any reason to believe that they are treated humanely once they get here, but what is that based on?  At best it is second hand, and much of that second hand “info” is only the assumptions of people who have no idea how it is actually done, but somehow manage to write it down on a website as a fact.

          • Pointpanic

            from activists in the field ,long before the internet . Also I’ve seen it firsthand.Maybe, there are too many people rather than too many elephants But keep up your good work opening up paths for migratory grazers

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=661429834 Thom Wolke

           What a hypocrite, in addition to being factual incorrect.

          While I’m no historian, I’d be willing to bet that elephants have been used by man for as long as dogs, maybe longer.  Ever hear of Hannibal ?

          Broaden your horizons.  Stop reading from the same tired script.

          • Pointpanic

            Um…Thom ,in evoloutionary terms , Hannibal’s use of elephants is not that old nor would I say humane. instead of throweing the word “hypocrite around so carelessly ,maybe you should broaden YOUR horizons.

          • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.wentzelfisher Barbara Wentzel-Fisher

             True.  I’ve seen how the mahouts in in Thailand work with their elephants.  They live in extended families of people and elephants together.  When a baby elephant is born it is paired with a young child and they grow up together.  The mahout will live and work with that elephant alone for the rest of their lives.  It’s been that way for centuries in that particular part of the world.

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