19th Century Circus: Sex, Violence and Politics
Friday, October 18, 2013 • 1:45-2:45 pm in the Fenimore Art Museum Auditorium
A lecture by David Carlyon. Registration is not required.
In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain described a circus as "the splendidest sight that ever was." But despite this sweetly innocent image from 1883, Twain knew that circus before the Civil War had been raw stuff for rowdy audiences. Touring circus presented performers in skimpy clothes, and performances with a strong hint of sex.
Reflecting a participatory age, talking clowns told dirty jokes and political jokes, bantering with raucous audiences. (One clown, Dan Rice, was nationally famous for his political wit, then ran for president—legitimately—from the ring.) Circus had to fight locals daily, with Hudson River towns especially notorious.
By the 1880s rowdiness became considered vulgar. Circus turned into innocent family amusement and a sentimental symbol. Why did circus change? How did politics change? How did America change?
David Carlyon is a writer and independent scholar. He has a Ph.D. in theater history from Northwestern University and was a clown with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. His award-winning Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of, is a biography and cultural history of 19th-century America.
This lecture is open to the public. No advance registration is required. The lecture is part of the October Conference for Teachers.
Admission to the lecture is included with Fenimore Art Museum admission, which is free to members of the New York State Historical Association. Join NYSHA today!