Whatever your opinions are of American circuses, whether or not you wince at the spectacle or get angry at the use of animals for entertainment, chances are you have a treasured childhood memory of being there in the stands. Whether it was a kind and jovial clown, a dazzling trapeze act or the courage of a lion tamer, you were probably amazed by the magic and mystery of the big top.
Bruce Feiler, acclaimed author of ABRAHAM and WALKING THE BIBLE, was also fascinated. And, like the old saying goes, "he ran away with the circus." For one season Feiler traveled with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, recording both his experience as a writer and performing as a clown. The result is UNDER THE BIG TOP, an informative and very readable look at circus life, culture and history.
Feiler's status in the circus was unique. All the circus employees knew he was writing a book about them, but he was also allowed to travel as a performer. Thus the perspective of this book is unique, both insider and outsider. As an outsider (which on most levels, he always remains), Feiler explains the historical development of the circus and its acts, divulges the reality behind the seemingly miraculous feats of daring and discusses the circus as a business --- its marketing strategies and day-to- day operations. Here the narrative is interesting and enlightening: who knew how many phrases in American English such as "hold your horses" and "get this show on the road" originated with the circus? This view of the circus reveals the lives and talents of hard-working professionals, generations of performers and those misfits and adventurers who join the circus for various reasons, all working together to put on a grueling and dangerous show several times a day, day after day, for months on end.
As an insider, a performing clown called "Ruff Draft," Feiler came to understand the hierarchy of the circus, its code of conduct and the nature of its tiring work and demanding schedule. He also learned what happens after the show, when the big top is dark and gained insight into the personal lives of those people who make the circus possible. Those Feiler met and came to know during his season traveling with them are real people behind the spangles and stereotypes. Feiler contends the circus is a microcosm of America, a diverse group of 200 people representing several ethnicities, religions and nationalities. This, he suggests, is helpful to keep in mind when trying to understand how a group often seen as marginal to the American mainstream is so important to American culture. The circus workers and performers are not so marginal after all because, despite all the glitter and spectacle, they reflect the diversity of American culture --- they understand the audience much better than the audience understands them. Furthermore, the circus itself is often a defining childhood moment and those who create it, despite their career and mobile lifestyle, share much with Americans who work traditional jobs and don't live in trailers and fifth wheels.
At all times, Feiler is respectful of his subject and is careful to present their normality in the midst of the fantastic work they do. Feiler doesn't neglect to mention the issue of animal rights, but he refrains from taking sides on the issue. Instead, he presents the treatment of animals in the circus he traveled with as well as the opposition they faced in several towns and cities, leaving readers free to draw their own conclusions.
The big top, as experienced by Feiler seems to be a wonderful and dramatic place of old world values and close-knit ranks. In turn, UNDER THE BIG TOP is an exciting, often dramatic, read. It is a special glimpse into a subculture few understand but many derive pleasure from. This book is a well-written and very honest portrayal of the circus and those who compose and orchestrate it, yet it is still a fun read. The author's season with the circus was a whirlwind of excitement and devastation. With UNDER THE BIG TOP, Feiler brings the reader one step closer to life under the tent, in the spotlight and behind the scenes.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 25, 2003
Under the Big Top: A Season With the Circus