Little thought on the occasion of Crack a Fat Circus show at The Spiegeltent. I’m sure this is not particularly original – in effect, it would be strange if no one has written a book on this already – but I wanted to jot my thoughts down anyway.
Circus may be the most humanist of all artforms – certainly of all the performing arts; and by humanist I mean something like atheist.
Circus is crafty tricks and a huge amount of skill, a spectacle of the human body, infinitely capable human body trained as close to perfection as one is ever likely to see. To watch circus is to feel awe in front of the animal that is homo sapiens sapiens: how agile, how strong, how dextrous..! To watch circus is to feel the sort of silent admiration of someone who isn’t me, but who is of my kind, therefore a version of me, someone who represents me – in their anonymity (circus performers are never stars), in their muteness and any-man-ness (there is rarely character in circus), even in the generic nature of the tricks (there is a repertory). To watch circus is to watch a hymn to the capabilities of the human species – no different from watching a well-oiled factory full of workers, or an IKEA warehouse in full productive swing. No wonder that Trick Circus, in their most philosophical show a few years ago, quoted largely Nietzsche. What other philosopher could suit the art of circus better than the one who refuted God and talked about the ubermensch, the superhuman, the one who has overcome the any-human?
Even clowning; if the physical tricks are circus celebrating the human as a body, as non-divine, as pure matter, as not standing for anything but itself, as non-metaphor, then clowning, with its inherent absurdity and sadness, is the Camusian, existentialist, melancholy side of the coin. The humour of the circus, when it’s not about piss, shit and sex, is the terrible humour of death and meaninglessness, its bleakness, its fleshy finiteness, completely un-alleviated by a transcendent or immanent divine.
I feel very 19th-century in the circus – not because of costumes and mood, but because circus is a 19th-century form, and the 19th century was one long panegyric to human ingenuity and effort. The circus trick is the precursor to the Nazi gymnastics and the Soviet slet (rally), to Tito’s Relay of Youth, and the entire boom of athletics and sport that came at the turn of the century, together with garden cities and seaside holidays. I don’t know if circus contains within that original seed of fascism (it possibly does – what a thought!), but it seems, to me, to be the only artform viable without God; in fact, one that has never had to consider it this way or the other.
I like circus. I like it very much, and I particularly like it in Australia. I like its relationship with the audience: the element of execution, the possibility of it going wrong, the gasps, the successes and failures, the rapturous applause. I like the predictability, the lack of narrative, the lack of uncertainty about where it is all going, what it is trying to say. In that sense, circus is like Olympic ice-skating, baseball, Dancing with the Stars, David Hare’s plays or Damien Hirst’s art. But unlike any of them, there is pure tangible poetry in the material of circus: the naked human body, young or old, awe-inspiring or laughable. Circus is never cliche, even when it sort of is, because that human body is always there, hanging precariously a metre or two off the ground, always able to fall and break into pieces.