Harlequin Fields, mixed media on paper, 2010
Meandering into town you might see new posters up on walls and corners, intensely colorful and often kitschy, announcing the arrival of the circus. Moira Orfei, bless her soul, has occupied acres of Italian wall space with her huge black beehive of a hair-do, and she is easily the most recognizable circus personality. But her grand show was not typical of the tiny traveling groups of performers who make up the itinerant circuses in Italy. These aren’t like the American circus, a huge tent and multi-ringed affair, clangorous and booby-trapped with wires, an indecipherable illuminated spider’s nest. These are comprised of one truck, maybe three, with a reticent and energy-deprived group of workers who wrestle up a dingy tent, put on a couple of shows in an afternoon, and then disappear into the night.
The European Union, in its ineffable wisdom, decided in the 1990’s that small circuses were destined for extinction and therefore worthy of subsidies for their protection as cultural treasures. Some are worthy of the term “treasure,” others occupy the other end of that spectrum. The availability of funding, as it always does, tends to generate proliferating definitions, and so now there are low-hanging resources for anyone who can scrape together a truck, a tent, and a couple of animals.
Of course to children even a couple of animals legitimizes the cost of a ticket, and parents will oblige. Highlights may include a clinically depressed camel, or a tiger trapped in a small pen and yearning for the only glimpse of freedom it will ever have: the weekly cage-cleaning. There may be an overfed boa constrictor who will suffer the indignity of being manhandled during each show, an effort which will inevitably interfere with its digestion. Bears will suffer with dignity, becoming autistic to protect their delicate souls. If water is the theme, there will be terrible sharks on display, usually nurse-sharks, toothless and docile, to be bothered at intervals by the wet-suited handler who risks his life in the tank. No amount of splashing water and lighting effects can conjure a life-threatening event out of these sad components.
But there are always clowns. Clowns are not always the stuff of nightmares, and they can be quite funny and charming when the audience is easily-pleased and mostly younger than ten. I fondly remember enjoying my children’s reactions to the clowning at these smallest and most humble of circuses. And the crowd is so small that individual spectator participation is assured: You won’t leave the show without being wet, spattered with foam, covered with confetti dandruff, or grasping the string of a new balloon.
Sometimes there is an elephant! Elephants are always grand, in any context, and nothing can beat the mental hiccup caused by coming around the corner and seeing an elephant grazing in the school courtyard. Traffic will stop and heads will snap sideways for the elephant out of context, while finding it a disappointment once inside the tent. Other living odds and ends, small ponies and irritated dogs with dermatitis, human and simian jugglers. How strange to see a raccoon proudly displayed as a rare and exotic mammal species, paraded around on its diamond leash. Camels and dromedaries are always interchangeable, and never are they happy. It isn’t the greatest show on earth, but it is a show. The crowd, such as it is, will wander off afterwards, a little perplexed but ready to have another go when the posters go up next time around.