The Ordinary Acrobat
A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present by Duncan Wall
by Drew Toal
March 06, 2013
Whenever I think of the circus (which, admittedly, is rarely), the first thing that comes to mind is Bruce Davidson's famous photograph of a forlorn clown smoking a cigarette and clutching a fistful of wilted flowers in the mud outside a ratty circus tent. Fittingly, I first saw this striking image on the cover of Heinrich Boll's 1963 novel, The Clown. The titular protagonist isn't the creepy backyard children's entertainer we've come to associate with the form. He's troubled and high-strung, and sees himself first and foremost as an artist — and something of a mystic, to boot. Judging by Duncan Wall's memoir/history, The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present, Boll's portrayal is far and away the more accurate one.
For Wall, and most Americans, the circus barely registers as a cultural entity. Of his limited childhood circus experience, Wall writes, "I can remember walking across the enormous asphalt parking lot with my father, hand in hand, past the rows of cars and the soot-stained trucks. ... I remember watching the show with a mixture of confusion and boredom. The overweight acrobats wore out-of-style sequins. The tigers looked sluggish and distracted." It sounds more like a High-Stalinist carnival where attendees were forced to mime joy, but fits well with Davidson's stark photographic representation.