EDITORIAL: THE CIRCUS IS IN TOWN.
At a meeting in Gosford this week, I noticed all the vans and cages of Lennon Bros Circus featuring performing Canines, lions, horses, monkeys, the Flying Trapeze, Clowns and much more. (Tickets Adult Ringside $40, Child $30 etc…) What brilliantly lit and brightly painted city of entertainment!
Near our place is a lovely sports oval and it is occupied with a dozen red and white tents and fifteen caravans. Another circus is in town. Webers Circus has a long history in classic and modern circus shows featuring the dangerous Wheel of Death, High Wire, Trapeze, Miniature Horses, Performing Dogs, Aerial and Acrobatic acts, Clowns, and heaps more.
The circus has always been part of Australian life since the 1850’s. From the 1850s until the introduction of television in the 1950s, travelling shows brought to Australian people an extraordinary diversity of popular culture including opera, variety acts, minstrels, moving pictures, magicians, magic lanterns, waxworks, bell ringers, Negro gospel singers, and bands of musicians, marionettes, boxers, merry-go-rounds, menageries and carnivals. However, the earliest example of an Australian travelling show was the circus specializing in displays of fine horses and horsemanship.
Sergeant-Major Philip Astley, in London began a long and eventful history as an open air riding school in the 1770s. When Australia was first settled by the British in 1788 it was not long before a colonial circus industry – performers, entrepreneurs, audiences and prosperity – fell into place. Initially, colonial circus troupes were presented in immovable “amphitheatres”.
An English-born publican, raconteur and expert horseman, Robert Avis Radford built and pioneered the first successful circus in Australia. Radford’s was a timber building adjoining his drinking house, the Horse & Jockey Inn, Launceston, and opened in 1847. Radford presented feats of horsemanship, dancing, vaulting, gymnastics, acrobatics, clowning, and pieces of equestrian burlesque.
Almost every Australian circus may trace its origins directly or indirectly to Radford’s pioneering enterprise. James Henry Ashton, who gave his first Australian appearances as ‘the renowned British horseman’ in Radford’s in 1848, founded his own touring circus a few years later. His circus is still going strong today, seven generations later, arguably making it the oldest circus company in the English speaking-world. A contemporary of Ashton, and a former employee of Radford, was the London-born acrobat and equestrian Matthew St Leon (c1826-1903), who established one of Australia’s’ famous circus companies in the 1850s.
Very soon, however, the Australian circus acquired the characteristics of mobility with which they are today identified – tents, touring circuits and transportability. The first great Australian gold rushes, beginning in 1851, provided an impetus for the spread and growing popularity of circus entertainments throughout the Australian colonies. Gold dust or a nugget was sufficient to admit the ‘diggers’ to a circus tent. As tributes to their charms and talents, female riders received showers of nuggets tossed in their direction by enraptured diggers.
The circuses of Australia became itinerant affairs that rolled from town to town in covered wagons and showed in large tents. Each circus carried its own brass band, comprised whenever possible of authentic German musicians. In the bush, the great Australian family circuses – Ashton’s, St Leon’s, Sole Bros, Perry Bros and others – plied their trade well into the twentieth century.
When the size of the population warranted a stay, everyone in the district would turn out to see the circus, some having a three-day journey in bullock teams and making a week’s picnic excursion for the show.
It was customary, particularly if a travelling circus had been well attended in a country town, to give the last night’s stay for a ‘benefit’ performance to assist in the building of a school, Masonic hall, school of arts, hospital, town hall or church. The generosity of the early circus proprietors, however, was usually of the unsolicited kind. ‘Free and open handed with his money’ was the old man St Leon, while Ashton rarely missed a chance to play a benefit in aid of a local charity, flood relief or building fund.
By the early 1900s, Wirth Bros Circus was the largest circus company in Australia. Their use of standardized routes, imported companies of artistes, lavish promotion and programming, large circus bands of professional musicians and electric lighting distinguished this great era of Australian circus. Touring by rail and steamship, Wirth Bros was firmly established as Australia’s largest and most prestigious circus company until challenged by Bullen Bros Circus in the 1950s. Wirth’s built their own Olympia amphitheatre in Melbourne on the site now occupied by the National Art Gallery. I visited there regularly as a kid and later it was used for large scale evangelistic rallies for churches. I was baptised in the circus ring before thousands of people.
The dominant features of the early circus were horses and horsemanship. Then came acts drawn from the music hall – jugglers, trapeze artists and specialties such as mind readers, high divers and talking horses. A third stage was animal-based acts. We then had international circuses, such as the Great Moscow Circus and Cirque Du Soleil – “Circus of the Sun” ,Cirque Du Soleil is one of the most unique and amazing spectacles you will ever witness.
Finally, there is a group of new Australian circuses such as Circus Oz, based in Melbourne, and the Flying Fruit Fly Circus with the ‘Fruit Flies’ some 100 children. The company has performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and at Italy’s Veneto Festival, while its aerialists have appeared with the Great Moscow Circus during its Australian tours. These new circuses have won acclaim in recent years, not only in Australia but internationally and will assure the continuity of Australian circus into the new millennium.
These days there is much public opposition to exotic animal acts with lions, tigers, seals, and elephants. I have described the activities of one of these circuses in Australian Short Stories: http://www.gordonmoyes.com/2006/02/10/the-greatest-show-on-earth
Animal cruelty is an important issue. In Parliament in a debate on proposed legislation relating to animal cruelty, I made reference to the fact that there is much truth in the saying in the biblical book of Proverbs 12:10 that “a righteous man cares for the needs of his animals but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel”. The Bible never fails to provide insight into the human psyche, and is as relevant today as it has been to past generations. Instances of animal cruelty are heart wrenching and offensive to civilised standards of conduct. It is a reality that many instances of animals subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment go unnoticed.
Twenty five years ago Tom Regan’s landmark book “The Case for Animal Rights” awakened many people. Yet little has been done since to reduce the suffering of farm animals in Regan’s native US, or in Australia, for that matter. While this book was regarded as a pioneer in animal welfare, the most eloquent and forceful argument on behalf of animals was expressed 200 years ago:
“The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? Isn’t a full-grown horse or dog a rational as well as conversable animal? But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?”
With those words, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) nailed why mistreating animals diminishes people. While animals can’t speak in ways we understand and their intellect is lacking, they are entitled to be treated with concern because that possesses the most important attribute that qualifies an entity for moral standing: the capacity to feel pain.
The focus on animal welfare issues has been greatly sharpened by a number of increasingly sophisticated, commercially savvy organisations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Voiceless, Animals Australia, RSPCA, NSW Animal Welfare League, and WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals) just to name a few.
Such groups have dropped the hyperbole and extremism that was symptomatic of earlier animal welfare movements. They are measured in their approach and intent on connecting with mainstream Australians. They are also becoming an entrenched feature of the top end of town. Indeed, some of them are led by corporate high-flyers, such as former BP Australia boss Greg Bourne, who now runs WWF Australia.
The maturity and increased effectiveness of the new breed of animal welfare groups is marked by a central tenet: public opinion and behaviour cannot be shaped by jarring people into action, even with factually sound information. People will follow only if you find common ground with them. In terms of animal welfare, ‘pain is bad’ is the common ground. Against this bedrock of concern, the movement is winning people over with facts about the enormity of animal suffering.
For instance, factory farm pigs are confined in concrete pens so small that the animals are unable to turn around. They are denied contact with other pigs and suffer painful ailments through standing on hard floors. Their confinement results in depression and a range of other dysfunctional behavioural traits.
In the wool industry lambs have their tails cut off and males are castrated, and anaesthetic is not an option. Also, most battery hens never have the chance to spread their wings and are painfully debeaked, causing much pain.
When I was in primary school. I had been to the circus and felt sorry for the tigers and the lions and the poor elephants. I remembered the poem:
“T’would ring the bells of heaven
The wildest peel for years,
If the parson lost his senses
And the people came to theirs,
And he and they together
Knelt down with angry prayers
For tamed and shabby tigers,
And dancing dogs and bears,
And wretched blind ponies,
And little hunted hares.”
I am not thrilled to see the circus tents and cages. Certainly we will not be taking our grandchildren.