The true history of the Circus

IF I AM to write the true history of the Circus, I must start by telling you how my girlfriend ran off with the silent clown. 'Harpo!' we called out to him across the border from South Australia, my loyal friends nursing my ego.

The drama had unfolded in Sydney, city of adventure, romance and tragedy, where the summer rain pelts down on the Moreton Bay figs and the sultry air breeds emotion. We lay in a bedroom in Newtown – not the three of us, but it may as well have been. I had come over from Adelaide to visit her, my newly touring circus girl, but on our first night as we lay there in the darkness it was clear that something, as they say in the movies, had changed forever.

As always with huge and obvious personal events, it took me completely by surprise. My youthful feeling that she was the love of my life became crystalline in the air above us, porcelain-delicate, and I could only watch clear-eyed as it shattered. 'I don't want to make a choice,' she said. 'Can't I have both of you? Can't we make it work?' My eyes traced the watermarks on the ceiling. The next day she gave me a present, a small wooden horse she found on High Street. I snapped its head off.

She didn't last long in the Circus, by circus standards. She was a blow-in from theatre, an actor romancing the carnies. She was funny and talented, could run from a comedy routine to playing an instrument in the band to augmenting the numbers in an acrobatic group act. But she found the lack of structured rehearsals frustrating, the strange creative process opaque and chaotic. The silent clown, by contrast, stayed for years, a major figure onstage and off. But their lives, even after they had left each other and the circus, remained entwined with it. He married and divorced the girl from Albury who started off working backstage and ended up widely regarded as one of the funniest performers in the history of the troupe. The Actor moved in with one of the longest-serving founders.

Why am I gossiping, when I promised history?


THE TRUE HISTORY of this circus, which at its inception was given the suitably ambitious name Circus Australia – or, more famously, Circus Oz for short – should also contain a scene from South America. In fact, there should be many. One that the Circus itself loves to remember, for its magical realist connotations as much as any other reason, involves performing at the legendary glass opera house in the Brazilian jungle at Curitiba. Another is a scene at a Colombian airport, in which a certain Circus Oz performer managed to persuade the airline clerk to let him check in upwards of fifty bags of luggage – the total belongings of his new Colombian fiancée – without paying an excess baggage fee. This latter tale may, I suspect, have become exaggerated in the telling, but in a circus you can never tell, after all, which tricks are feats of skill that take years to master and which are bluff and lies.

The South American episode I am thinking of took place in Bogota, at the opening performance of the Circus Oz season there, one day in the early 1990s. It was on this day that I was first employed by the circus, by accident. When I say employed, I mean roped in. They turned to me in desperation. I happened, by very strange coincidence, to be sharing an airplane with the Circus, from Australia to South America, or rather a series of airplanes, dipping and hopping as they do to piece together an uncommon long-haul route. (I was lucky enough to be on my way to Caracas to watch one of my plays being rehearsed and performed there under the wing of an illustrious theatre company, directed by an Australian colleague, having somehow convinced a funding body that my presence would contribute to the future wealth of our national culture.) Circus Oz, as it happened, was performing at a festival in Caracas and at another in Bogota two weeks beforehand, and with only a minor change to my itinerary I could add on this side trip at the start.

A second circus girl had invited me, the one I later married. She worked behind the scenes, her feats involving money, planning, organisation and negotiation and, since it was Circus Oz, cooking the barbecue for twenty-five people every Sunday afternoon between shows. 'I don't want to have a relationship,' I had told her at a pavement table at Rhumbarellas in Brunswick Street. I had to be clear. Despite the fun we were having, I was still smarting from the loss of the Actor. I couldn't cope with anything serious. I had to break it to her. But, she replied, as the trams rattled off into the summer evening, and the footpath filled with the processions of the night, 'what makes you think I want to have a relationship?'

I was smitten.

She said: 'I'll drive you home. Where do you want me to take you?'

I said: 'My brother's.'

But the directions I gave became more and more obscure, as we wound back and forth down Brunswick side streets, until I said, 'You can just pull over here.' It was in my brother's street but further down, where there are no houses on one side, instead a wide verge under some big old trees. It was a bit like going to a drive-in without a screen. We stayed there in the car awhile, until we felt like moving, only by now it wasn't to my brother's anymore.

So we caught the plane to Bogota together, lightly, although in the end I arrived on my own, because she had to wait behind in Miami to help one of the technicians whose sound gear had missed a connecting flight. The cabin of the flight from Miami south I remember as being full of whitegoods, wealthy shoppers returning home with their booty.

Our hotel in Bogota, the Hilton, was a five-star high-rise tower. Several years afterwards we heard it had been bombed. This may or may not have been directly linked to the military police, who sublet several floors. One day, when, because of a blackout, we descended the stairs instead of riding in the lift, we came upon armed guards stationed in the stairwell on floors five to ten. Feigning nonchalance, we continued on our way down to the foyer, where we liked to sit and drink by the marbled fountain. Apricot-beige, the Bogota Hilton foyer, like all other international five-star hotel foyers of a certain vintage, the colour mandated by some invisible authority, determined to fend off the local hues of whatever lay beyond the sliding glass.

'In front here is the main street. If you walk up that way, you will come to the centre of the city,' Romero, our young local minder from the festival, briefed us. 'But behind the hotel, in that direction – you cannot go. It is not safe to walk there.' We looked out the high windows of our room towards those streets, darkly lit and unmade, and tried to spot the dangers. None was evident. Nevertheless, we believed Romero. Even in the main street we were wary, and some were robbed.

Bogota made sense of García Márquez. A horseman with a python wrapped around his neck rode past one day in the central business district. Barbecued sweet corn sizzled in the street below the bullring. Nightclubs were free to enter, but to leave you had to buy a bottle of spirits or equivalent – which you were allowed to drink but not take with you. To clear stragglers late at night they let off tear gas.

The nightlife area was called La Zona Rossa – the red zone. In a side street here the circus tent was pitched, on a bare patch of land behind high walls.

The Circus arrived in town, as usual, several days before the first performance, to fit the show into the new venue and complete the necessary technical and safety checks. They could never be sure afterwards whether, in this case, arriving earlier would have made any difference to how things turned out, or whether, as with Sydney for me, Bogota simply required each visitor to expect a certain amount of drama to unfold – a tax levied by the rarefied mountain air.

In Bogota at this time, the electricity tended to go off each afternoon for several hours. It might or it might not; the locals shrugged as if it were useless to make predictions. Needless to say this made it difficult for the lights to be reliably focused on the aerial artists in precisely the way they needed to be, reassured that they wouldn't fall blinded to their deaths, or suffer catastrophic injury. You could accuse them of hysteria, but hadn't their friend, the strong woman, broken her neck in Edinburgh, if not through accidental blinding then by some other freak technical malfunction? Didn't this fear explain the clouds of grumpiness they carried with them, that threatened at any point to precipitate a storm?

Certain important locally sourced items, such as staging materials (the circus ring itself!) were conspicuous by their absence, and Harpo the clown, now these years later directing the show – not without speaking, in case you are wondering, as would have been delightful but absurd – had dispatched himself heroically with Romero in a taxi to a distant part of the city where, it was rumoured, suitable hardware might be found.

These delays and other factors, now lost in time, conspired to bring us to the scene in question, on the afternoon and evening of the opening night.


OUTSIDE THE HIGH brick walls of the enclosure, an expectant crowd could be heard gathering an hour or so before the show was due to start. A sudden gloomy silence inside the tent heralded the latest city blackout. I should explain: one of the many tasks of the girl with whom I wasn't having a relationship was to call the lighting cues for the follow-spot operators. Follow-spots are the large cannon-like lights positioned around the circus tent to follow particular elements of the action onstage. Their operators turn them on and off, focus their beams of light and change the colours of their gels, following relayed instructions. Circus Oz, wherever they are playing, usually employs locals for the job, since it is too expensive to justify adding extra members to the touring party. This is despite the fact that, as we noticed earlier, lighting in the circus is as much a safety issue as an aesthetic. In Bogota, the instructions needed to be transmitted by my friend in Spanish. Since she spoke no Spanish, she had to read from a prepared script of notes. This in itself would not have been an insurmountable problem – it had worked before, in other foreign places. However all of the delays meant there had been no time to rehearse with the follow-spot crew; no time for them to familiarise themselves with the show that they were hoping to illuminate; no time for my friend to familiarise herself with the words she was hoping to pronounce. Now, at the last moment, a first and final rehearsal had been scheduled in desperation immediately before the first show, the power was out and nothing could be done.

Romero said that the festival director would put in a call to the President about the blackout. In the meantime, as the advertised show time slipped further and further behind us, as the shadows of the mountains lengthened and the thousands massed outside the wall grew more vocal and impatient, the nervous tension that accompanies any opening night began to rise and pop and blister like a yeast dough.

I happened to be sitting uselessly in the empty bleachers. It was at this moment that my friend turned to me. I was about to perform my circus debut, on follow-spot, in English. Another circus hanger-on and I were quickly assigned towers of rickety scaffolding; we ascended to our positions and were shown in dim theory how the lights would operate, if and when the power came back on.

The blackout ended without fanfare, as blackouts do, galvanising a flurry of activity inside the big top, as all concerned hastened to be ready for the breaking of the siege. It was somewhere between two and four hours – to adopt a Latin American perspective on the clock – after the advertised commencement time that the external gates were finally opened and the crowd, pent up against them, flooded inside in waves of indignation and impromptu speech-making. We unaccustomed tower dwellers – not long ago tourists whose only duty had been to remain unstabbed in any back street, but now, fleetingly, integral to this circus of life and death, far from the oversight of an Australian WorkSafe inspector – clung to our cannons with their gels of mandarin and mauve, expecting at any moment to be toppled over as the fitting consummation of a gesture of frustration in the audience eddying below, an elbow, a shoulder wrongly placed.

The show began against a crackle of hostility. The audience was siding with the bulls. I don't remember all the acts the Circus played that day, the show they had assembled that year. Even those I can remember, if I was to attempt to describe them to you here I fear I would fail to convey anything precise or substantial about their quality, or the effect they had upon the audience that night. Suffice to say that the audience, full-blooded in their uproar, was nevertheless open to the swill of seduction, to the ridiculous beauty of the spectacle that unfolded, lit in clunking amber whenever my headphones alerted me. My friend that I wasn't going out with whispered, from her own distant tower, 'I think they like it.' I had to admit she had a good voice for headphones.

At the end they stood up and shouted Australia! Australia! They were ready to join us on the beaches of Gallipoli, attacking the Turks with feather dusters. Romero grinned, the performers bowed, Harpo grinned and bowed. After that, Bogota opened itself for dancing.

What is a true history of the Circus? Could such a thing ever be agreed upon? Who would be the one to write it? Or would it not be one but many, for shouldn't the true history of this obstinately democratic circus be a carnival of impressions, a phantasmagoria of cheap details and enticing lies? If so, how to do it?

I confess, all of this I come to mention only because of the boxes, really. Boxes in the back room of the Circus's home in Port Melbourne, which used to be a post office next door to the Navy Drill Hall. The boxes –or, where a semblance of order has been achieved, the shelves – contain the true history of this circus in video form. A long line of chunkily familiar VHS tapes, which not so long ago filled the local video store but now seem black and heavy, and rattle unconvincingly, lead back like dominoes to their evolutionary forebears from the 1970s and '80s. These huddle on the far shelves in small groups, nervously, embarrassed at being so gawky, fat or oblong, humiliated by their obsolescence. They are at our mercy, just a hand's reach from the dumpster. I cannot even visualise the machines necessary to bring them to life, to reveal what remains, if anything, of their secrets. Time is moving so fast that already we need some kind of technological archaeologist to interpret these objects, only invented when our grandparents were old. Circus Oz, Paris Theatre, Sydney, 1980 says the spine of one such ancestor. The first time I ever saw the circus was at the Paris Theatre, my friend told me once. I was nineteen years old and in that very audience on that very night I made up my mind I wanted to join them.

What was it exactly she felt and saw that night in Sydney? And if I could find the rare and precious video player, lovingly maintained, that once upon a time would have been a bog-standard piece of futuristic wonder, like an iPad is today, the video player invented for the fleeting vogue of this particular tape format, the name of which all but a very few fanatics have now forgotten, and if I could press the necessary buttons, engage the mysterious motors and thereby display the visions from this tape upon a screen, and look at them with her? Could she find it there, the true history of that night, at least?

What would we see? Would the years of waiting, clenched in that reel, have so upset the magneto-chemical connections that, Alzheimered, they remember nothing more than how it seemed to snow that evening, the performance for all intents and purposes having taken place inside a blizzard? (I am going out for a short walk, said the tightrope walker. I may be some time.) Even if, by some miracle, the outline of the performance could be inked in sound and movement, through and beyond the stupidity of the pixels, and acts, performers, gags, feats recognised – what would be recovered? A cabinet of curiosities – strange haircuts, costumes, political references, the longueurs of a slower age – glimpsed as if from prone on a deathbed, Charles Foster Kane-style, the fixed camera steadfastly refusing intimacy? But is there a Rosebud here too? An off-the-cuff quip to the audience, an idiosyncratic gesture, a choreographed movement of sheer blissful energy, a quintessential piece of sublime dagginess (arguably Australia's truest cultural note)?

I, the curious onlooker, might find something to amuse or delight me, and I might begin to connect the pictures before me with other memories: the first time I saw Circus Oz, earlier that same year of 1980, in a small tent pitched on an island in the Swan River estuary of Perth, alive with the wit and fire of Robyn Laurie's rude clowning, the driving pulse of the music, the thrill of shared endeavour, and the moment, which catches in the throat and in the blood (there is, or should be, always such a moment at the circus), when the sweetly impossible occurs: a man dressed in a white lab coat giving a farcical lecture on the history of science ascends a ladder as if it is an illustrative timeline, all the way to the ceiling, where he reaches the present day and his apparent finale, pauses, and – here crossing over to the sublime – continues on into the future, upside down, walking right across the ceiling to the other side, where he sits down at an upside-down drum kit and plays, just because he can, a drum solo. Later, I will see other versions of the act and discover its techniques, but in this first dazzling encounter with it I am, like a child, enchanted, tearful at the pleasures of short life.

But what would my friend, witness to the Circus Oz performance at the Paris Theatre, make of what she sees and hears unrolled from that old spool? Would the watching of it conjure or erase the memories she carries in her body? Would the video pictures and sounds, like a sparkly lure, attract all manner of forgotten impressions from the depths of her unconscious? Or would they, by contrast, be strangely unrecognisable, pushing the event away from her, as if into the kind of musty display cabinet you might come across on a grey afternoon in the back room of a grand European museum?

Since I am a researcher, I will conduct experiments into this question, and report back to you my findings. I shall sit my friend down and listen to her stories of the Paris Theatre, afterwards show her the video and record her responses. I concede that there are hundreds of these tapes, and thousands of eyewitnesses –performers, audience, those in-between such as myself on the lighting tower in Bogota. But if I could repeat the proposed experiment with all of these people, would I not be edging closer to the true history of this circus?

I can't help but imagine such a process as if in a scene from the film Brazil, a factory of memory-making. Countless rows of people plugged each into their own screen, data feeding in and out of every one of them. Each person speaking out loud in a stream-of-consciousness narration, adding, drop by drop, to a rain of noise which a giant ear-shaped machine above miraculously makes sense of.

Or else, the internet. The magic of the geeks! If we can put these circus videos online, as a number of us have a scheme to do (see, can we not float them there in that virtual ocean, each one, or each fraction of one (each act in any given show?), like a solid post in a web of jetties, and each post attracting to it over time the barnacles and seaweed, the clinging mass of objects washed up there by the passing seas of memory and association: photos, stories, debates, jokes, useful links to other things that someone somewhere thinks connects? There will be crap washed up too, just as the real ocean chokes with plastic bags and lost containers. There will be problems enough to fill a book: philosophical, technical, ethical, administrative and aesthetic. If we are to do this thing we must start now, work feverishly, use guile and wit. The true history of the circus, even this one circus, is infinite. We can't, like Borges's Funes, remember everything, for didn't the poor man find in doing so he could make sense of nothing? But perhaps, after all, something of this trick is possible.

I will report back.

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