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Amusement At The Abnormal

Creator: n/a
Date: March 19, 1908
Publication: The Nation
Source: Available at selected libraries

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The proposed banishment of "freaks" from one of the circuses has been the occasion of much genial comment. Regret has been expressed for their departure, as if they had really been old friends. To some it may have seemed that having no immemorial pantomime, this nation had made the circus "annex" provide a substitute, so that the human skeleton was our Pierrot, the fat lady our Columbine, and the tattooed man our Harlequin. If such were the case, then the freaks would be entitled to sympathy as victims of a prosaic and commercial age.


Yet, in fact, it is neither lack of imagination nor commercialism that is driving the freaks from their comfortable position. They were doomed from the day when the public began to realize what they really were. The passing of the freaks is not a casual incident in the history of the circus, but a striking illustration of the tendency which has been in progress for centuries toward the humanizing of our amusements. Even in the case of the freaks the change has really not been sudden. The odd and uncanny men and women who will one day be forced to depend for livelihood on the few remaining dime museums are natural prodigies. A few generations ago such human curiosities were manufactured by abominably cruel processes. In recent years, however, the armless and legless man, to obtain an engagement, must have been born that way, not maimed in infancy. Incidentally, he was all the more of a rarity, since demand was not allowed to create supply. But even a manager who had no hand in the man's mutilation would find it unprofitable to exhibit one who was simply the victim of barbarity. Managers, also, found out long ago that their attractions must be sane. An idiot might be ever so fantastically framed; it would not do to exhibit him on the platform. The freaks might be, and usually were, of a low grade of intelligence, like the giant who nearly turned a press-agent's farce into a tragedy by refusing to sign his own bail-bond when arrested, for fear that he was giving away his children, but they were not actual "defectives."


To that extent there was a reaction long ago against making public sport of what was merely pathological. The perception that, apart from mentality, freakishness itself was generally a disease, has finished the work. The giant for example, when considered as a physical superman, or even as the villain of the nursery tales, was worth going to see. But we are taught now that he is not a superman, but the victim of a disease which in other forms kills after horrible disfigurement, that something at the base of his brain is responsible for the extraordinary and disproportionate growth, that the giant is usually sickly, dies young, and is inferior to an able-bodied man of ordinary size in any test that involves sustained effort. Just so when the patrons of the circus realize that the human pincushion, the elastic-skinned man, the blue man, the dog-faced boy, and their ilk are all victims of rare diseases with ten-syllabled names of Greek origin, and that, in all probability, other sufferers, who are unwilling to exhibit their afflictions, are under treatment by physicians, these, too, lose most of their fascination.


The most obvious parallel, of course, is the changed sentiment toward insanity. To spend a merry afternoon at the madhouse watching the antics of the maniacs in their chains seemed natural and reasonable to civilized Englishmen not so many generations ago. It has become absolutely unthinkable. In spite of certain ingenious critics, we cannot even conceive of Ophelia and Lear as comic characters. Nor do we go joyously to public executions. No town is likely again to receive such a title as "merry Carlisle" because of the exceptional activity of its gibbets. Sensation-seekers are excluded, so far as possible, from such places as morgues and prisons. So, sometimes by a gradual change of the attitude of substantially the whole public, sometimes by regulations which are supported by the sound sense of the community, though large numbers of the more or less morbidly-minded would disregard them if they could, the humane evolution goes on.


Not the least interesting phase of it is to be traced in the history of sport. The gaudium certaminis, perhaps, could not be eradicated from the human breast. Certainly, it has not been. Interest in contests as contests is as high as it ever was, yet many forms of competition which were once popular, from gladiatorial shows to cock-fighting, have been put under the ban of the law. Some persons, to be sure, consider such restrictions merely puritanical, and quote approvingly Macaulay's comment that the original objection to bear-baiting was that it gave pleasure to the spectators. The line, however, has consistently been drawn, not with reference to the degree, but to the kind of pleasure. The sports which have been interdicted are those in which the element of cruelty is paramount over the contest itself. As there is no intoxication more destructive than that of cruelty, other entertainments lose their zest to the spectator who has seen swordsmen carve each other to the vitals, heretics burned at the stake, or even game-cocks stab each other to death with steel gaffs. When the "punishment" arouses more interest than the rivalry of the contestants, the spectator of wholesome instincts, even though he himself be carried along in the excitement, knows that the danger line has been passed. So the more cruel sports have one after another been outlawed.

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