Circus News

Dea Birkett: Disability is No Laughing Matter When it Comes to Circus Artists

A man limps awkwardly on to the stage, mimicking a mouth twisted to one side, head bent towards his feet. The audience laughs at the sight of him. “Got the hump?” jokes the ringmaster and there’s a titter from the stalls. The ‘hunchback’, as he’s commonly called, is a figure of fun and the pitiful foil to the statuesque, elegantly dressed and un-twitching man in a riding jacket and top hat.

This scene is from Circus 1903, an “over-the-top fantastical celebration of mind-blowing performances” at the Southbank Centre in London. But part of this ‘celebration’ involves laughing at disability, without asking whether this is appropriate in 2018.

Circus and disability have a troubled past. Strictly speaking, the popular images of freaks in the 19th century, originating in America, do not depict circus people at all, but sideshows.

In the 1860s, Charlotte Teeple – the Fat Lady – was not in a circus but in a shop front in the arcades off Regent Street and Piccadilly in central London. The Greatest Showman’s portrayal of PT Barnum as a disability rights campaigner is far-fetched not because of his real attitude towards impairment, but because the skeleton boy and the bearded lady would never have appeared in any ring, including his own…

Read the full article at The Stage

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