Book Review – Beneath the Big Top by Steve Ward

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I’ve always been intrigued by the circus and have been dismayed to see that there aren’t actually many films or books relating to it. Beneath the Big Top: A Social History of the Circus in Britain by Steve Ward chronicles the evolving nature of the circus through the centuries, depicting its rise from a collection of street performers to lavish, spectacular performances in front of royalty, before interest dwindles as cinema and television take over the place of the circus in our culture.

This book does focus mostly on the how the circus has been perceived, and often talks about the logistics behind the various circuses over the years. He shows how our culture has shifted over the years and how its needs for entertainment has changed, and this historical bent is fascinating. He peppers this overarching narrative with stories and anecdotes about some of the individuals involved. These range from amusing to heartbreaking, and give a sense of the lives that reside within the big top.

In all honesty I would have preferred more focus on these stories rather than the logistical stuff, but given the title is a social history of the circus in Britain I must say the author accomplished what he set out to do. I enjoyed finding out how the first major circuses came about, and how they were affected by war. I also like the fact that the book ends on a rather positive note. I had believed that the circus had all but died out and had basically been taken over by Cirque du Soleil, but according to this book regular circuses are making a comeback while the Cirque may be stretching itself too thin.

Given the dearth of books about the history of the circus I recommend this highly to anyone who wants to know about this institution. The author writes with authority, having been involved with circuses and coming from an ancestry of circus life. I did notice a few grammatical errors and some sentences were worded strangely, but I feel like I know a lot more than I did and I’d love to now dip into other books that focus on particular personalities of the circus world. Does anyone have any recommendations along those lines?

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