‘Circus Mania’, by Douglas McPherson

Switching between anecdotal encounters, show reviews and light investigative reporting, this is an engaging and enjoyable read, offering an evocative flavour of circus life.  Not, however, an ‘expert guide to the history and culture of the circus’, as promised on the back-cover blurb.

McPherson has clearly developed a passion for his subject and presents a warm, caring and – at times – slightly star-struck account of his experiences visiting a few specific circus companies.  He seamlessly integrates historical research amid the tales of personal encounters, although this sometimes skims a surface understanding, suggesting online research rather than academic sources.

It is refreshing to see some coverage of non-western circus tradition, and the places where the two began to fuse, and it’s also interesting to note McPherson’s references to televisual pop-culture and its influences on – and from – traditional circus.

Individual chapters of the book focus the spotlight on key elements of contemporary circus culture in the UK, each framed with reference to a particular show the author attended over the course of his research.   I have no doubt that this will be a fascinating resource to circus scholars of the future, looking back on our particular period of history; it is important to remember however, that in highlighting specific examples, the author has created a collection of snapshots, rather than a comprehensive overview.

Above all, it is an entertaining and accessible read, and certainly opens a much needed tent-flap into today’s circus world.

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McPherson, Douglas Circus Mania (London: Peter Owen Publishers, 2010) ISBN: 978-07206-1352-0

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  1. Many thanks for your review of Circus Mania… and also for creating a blog that addresses the lack of serious circus criticism. Unfortunately, the UK has hardly any professional critics or journalists with an interest in circus. When Circa teamed up with choral vocal group I Fagiolini for How Like An Angel last year, every broadsheet sent its opera critic, none of whom probably had any experience of circus. In the same year, Gerry Cottle could get no national reviews for his first big top show in a decade. But traditional circuses must take some blame for their lack of visibility in the media. While contemporary theatre-based circuses employ PR firms and get feature and review coverage in the national press (albeit by theatre critics who may have seen too little circus to make informed comparisons) traditional circuses seem to have circled the wagons against the media in the face of bad publicity whipped up by animal rights protestors. I’ve had three circus owners decline my request for tickets to review their shows in a national newspaper on the grounds that they’d rather have no review than risk a negative comment. This is something I’ve never experienced reviewing theatre or music where all reviews, good and bad, are accepted as a) good publicity and b) a positive contribution to raising standards within the arts. Interestingly, several newspapers and magazines have been happy to run wholly positive features on traditional circuses with animals which I have written as a freelance journalist. But circuses, which were once the masters of publicity – think Barnum – seem to have lost the ability or the will to engage directly with the media themselves.

    1. Thanks for your comment Douglas! It’s a strange phenomenon, isn’t it? Particularly in this era of digital promotion where word-of-mouth style publicity, which tenting circuses used to rely on in local communities, is now available on a global scale!
      I hope that appropriate critical recognition, centred on the quality of circus acts rather than their theatrical presentation alone, may help to redress the lack of trust in the media, and allow for a stronger profile within the uk arts scene; I would love to see the contemporary and traditional circus worlds embrace each other as family, rather than estranging themselves but, with the current weight of critical press firmly established on the side of dance and theatre, we have a long way to go!

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