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Same old same old

It is possible to love a thing, yet admit and call attention to its flaws and abuses. The film industry is built on a foundation of prejudices and abuses, but individual movies are still magical. Oscar Wilde is a much beloved wit, author, and critic with a loathsome attitude towards women. Institutions, such as circuses, are complicated, and their histories are often dark. But it’s possible to tell the whole story, lauding successes and holding people accountable for their faults. Standiford has no interest in doing so, recycling the suffocating platitudes of “times were different” instead of doing the difficult work of admitting his heroes are flawed. Instead of a thoughtful history he writes and apologist narrative that longs for a return.

Les Standiford leaves much to be desired in a modern historian. In his unrepressed desire to preserve the romanticisation of the circus he excuses and endorses the blatant abuses in its history. He calls Joice Heth, an enslaved woman exhibited by Barnum, an “amazing creature,” speaks of “the body” instead of “her body” when her captor elects to have her remains autopsied, and admits only that Barnum was participating in the American slave trade “in essence” as opposed to quite literally. He does at times approach the fallibility of Barnum and his views on enslaved people of African descent (such as in chapter 16), but then continues to describe some performers (ie those presented as human oddities) as objects and attractions rather than people (as he does acrobats, for example).

When authors such as Standiford use the excuse of “different times” they’re not honoring the historical context of their subject, but refusing to do the critical work of the present. Times and values and expectations change and evolve, and in retelling history it is the authors job to EXAMINE those changes, to critically engage with their subjects, and to consider whether it was really “different times” or just “different power.” It’s a lazy and illogical argument used to excuse the continued romanticisation of polarizing figures and subjects. But there’s a reason “those” times were different - and it’s not organic. It’s because even then people had conflicting feelings, and agitated for change.

That aside, the book is poorly organized and bland. Standiford’s tendency towards asides comes to dominate much of the books, with little focus or interest. It seems that he is incredibly interested in all the details, but they do little to support or forward the purported purpose of the book (I want to hear stories of the Ringling circus, not their dueling mansions in FL).

I will say this to his credit: I greatly appreciated Standiford citing sources, even though this is not popularly done in popular history books (I’m looking at you, Dr. Worsley).

Though he acknowledges the myriad circus endeavors that successfully persist, Standiford’s book is dominated by a tone of mourning and loss. In the final chapter he names several circus performance groups, but categorizes the continued evolution of the circus to its present standard as a loss rather than a change. He cites Albrecht’s alarmist assertion that technology has killed live theatre, but this lament rings of the Luddite condemning newspapers and telephones rather than truth. My own perspective is admittedly skewed as a person living in a theatrically-rich community, but if the packed houses of plays, musicals, comedies, variety and burlesque shows is anything to judge by … live entertainment isn’t going anywhere. And there are other circus histories to read.

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