It is a Sunday night in late May. I am in Long Island, New York, sitting just below the roof of the Nassau Coliseum, a 410-thousand square foot arena-for-hire, a concrete cavern off an interstate that exists so men like Billy Joel and Barry Manilow can earn a living selling baby boomers' memories back to them. And for events like this one, a time machine of another kind, the final performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, cheap nostalgia hawked like roadside trinkets for the last time.
So far tonight, I have witnessed a tepid collection of clown-perpetrated groin hijinks; fathers wandering the corridors, sucking sausage grease off their fingers while their daughters get their faces painted; ice routines with all the grace of an evacuation; an acrobatics display during which a girl, a few seats over, Googles "Papa Johns hours"; and a dozen lions and tigers whipped by a man with a square head until they roll onto their sides like drunk uncles with their pants undone.
The circus existed as an American constellation because it represented some of the country's ideological building blocks and the pieces of its mythology: outlaws and outcasts; men, women, and beast scraped from the fringes of society, nomads and pioneers, packed on a train, chugging through an unfamiliar land to spread the good word. It was sold in its 146 years as a kaleidoscope of Americana and pre-broadband amusements, but the circus was nothing but faded memory dangled in your face while sideshow bamboozlers turned your pockets inside out.
To criticize the circus is to object to our reflection, our identity, to ingenuity and bizarro entrepreneurship, and the sham idealism and slow-motion grandeur we glop on all our home movies. It is like holding a UV light up to all your precious traditions and icons, and finding each of them glowing white like cum stains. Marriage is a myth, bunting is the baseball strategy of cavemen, Joe Paterno was a drooling buffoon, John Wayne evaded military service at all turns. The circus, like all wheezing, stretch-marked American institutions, will be peddled as prettier in its obituary than it ever was alive.
A row beneath me, a man named Andrew from Westchester, almost 60 years old, turns around: "See," Andrew says, his face illuminated intermittently by swirling spotlights, revving up a sermon he has no doubt rehearsed for sons and daughters and wives, for anyone who will listen, for his entire life. "You used to be able to go down beforehand and see the animals, kids could pet the elephants. They'd grow up and want to be a vet or something. Now you don't have that, that's gone. There's PETA. There are so many causes out there we could worry about, there's sex trafficking and that stuff, and what about diseases? We can't even test medicines anymore, because, oh god, we gotta worry about the rabbits."
He is talking about the circus, but the tone is recognizable and broken-in; he is a man who has had something taken from him, a man under siege, a man who wants, a man who says "PETA" with a spit-flecked contempt of something he simultaneously doesn't believe in and hates intimately, the way some people talk about climate change or taxes or low-sodium.
The circus, like all wheezing, stretch-marked American institutions, will be peddled as prettier in its obituary than it ever was alive.
Andrew spins his head back down toward where the performers are assembling for the next act, looking at them but not really, his lips bobbing around in the dark for a straw.
The loss of the circus is nothing to mourn. It was a traveling animal gulag, founded by bigoted frauds, run by sociopaths and goons and crooks. Men like Ken Feld, the runty thug CEO of the group that operated Ringling Bros., who once said he did not consider whipping, electrocuting, and hooking elephants with ankuses, or bullhooks, during training to be abuse.
At its tamest, clowns wobbled into each other in tedious pranks; at its most inhumane, elephants were beaten into submission at the command of men whose grand designs for entertainment consist of coercing biological miracles to parade around like epileptic ballerinas. Down in Florida at Ringling Bros.' glorified breeding farm, baby elephants were taken from their mothers shortly after birth and broken with ropes, clubs, and solitude. These are wretched indignities. But then, in a video eulogy to their business, ringmaster Jonathan Iverson declared in a voiceover, "Ringing Brothers and Barnum and Bailey is a template for world peace."
Ringling Bros. officials said the circus's closing was necessitated by decreasing ticket sales, which fell more drastically than they had anticipated following the retirement of the elephants last May. But this felt like a distraction, an attempt to covertly blame activists on the elephants' way out the door. Besides its animal obscenities, the circus was an antiquated bore from its inception, and its architects—eternally fascinated with archetypal characters that haven't amused anyone in decades—displayed utter incompetence in adapting it. No one today cares about the prince, daredevils in stretchy fabrics, clowns, fairies, or astronauts. If we want phony heroism, we have Captain America: Armageddon Phallus and its universe of sequels.
The circus of 2017 was a murky collection of hashtag jokes tethered to dopey musical numbers with zero melody and an undercooked space opera subplot, where the ringmaster rides a hunk of fiberglass through a light show in an attempt to rescue the performers, who have been kidnapped by a space witch. The aesthetic had morphed from something that years ago combined the grimy, eccentric charms of a carnival with the spectacle of exotic animals to something more exciting—not actually exciting but Now With 35% More Excitement ™-exciting, May Contain Scenes of Belabored Melodrama-exciting. They bulldozed the house you grew up in and built an IMAX that only shows celebrities dabbing.
They'd attempted to imitate the shiny, captivating set-pieces of Cirque Du Solei but instead it had more in common with a mascot race at a minor league baseball game, or maybe a guy on the subway eating a gyro with one hand while he reads his Kindle. It was the manufactured hysteria of Times Square on New Year's Eve crossed with the on-hold music while waiting to activate a cell phone. It was a quicksand of "theatrics" conceived of by people whose consumption of pop culture seems to include only Super Bowl commercials and a blooper reel from a Kevin James film.
Roaming the aisles in Long Island during the second act, a concession worker sells drink mugs made of cheap plastic that twinkles with the switch of a button in dizzying, colorful flashes. No one bites. On the ground, glittering trainers walk a gigantic pig up and down playground equipment. Later, a battle concludes between the ringmaster and the space witch. All around me, people on their phones, looking around, nothing landing.
"Everyone is so jaded now," Andrew says as the second act of the show begins. "'I don't like this, I don't like that,' everyone's in their phones. Nothing is good enough."
But the circus was not brought to ruin by the cynicism of millenials or their ravenous appetite for new things or the allure of tiny screens or the FUCKING KARDASHIANS. It was playing the same games all along, fake thrills and bright lights. They weren't invested in romance because it is grafted to their DNA; it meant something to them only as long as you could be convinced that it meant something to you; that there is a bomb shelter from the blasts of adulthood, and it was in reliving the minor atrocities of your childhood you were too naïve to recognize at the time. They tried selling shiny toys, too, they just never figured out how to make new ones anyone wanted.
At the media day two days before the final performance, the lion tamer, Alexander Lacy, stood grinning like he just swung in on a chandelier, his wife next to him, batting big eyelashes caked with black mascara that looked like it was applied with charcoal briquettes. "We never make (a big cat) do what it doesn't want to do," he said, his face with a faint, cellophane shine of mocha-tinted makeup that didn't match his neck skin. "We take each of their personalities into account when we develop the routine."
It was all fraud and a last act sleight of hand, wholesale burglary of distant culture, rescued by lobbyist sleaze, public relations sorcery, and weak apology. Days after the final Ringling performance, Feld Entertainment applied for a permit to ship its tigers to Germany to perform, rather than retiring them. This is the circus's legacy: an empire built on injustice, men in leotards telling you everything is going to be just fine, you'll love it, I promise. And now it's over, a musty closet packed with things you can't bear to throw out but you're not sure why.
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