I was fortunate to have grown up near and then right in the middle of New York City. When I was a young child, each spring I would be taken to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in its annual run at Madison Square Garden, which happened to coincide with my birthday. It was fitting, then, that when it was time to see my first Broadway show, for my 12th birthday my parents took me to a circus-influenced musical, Pippin (this was in its original 1970s incarnation, not the current revival). But I was already hooked before I set foot in the Imperial Theatre. Jules Fisher had me at the first light cue.
Years earlier, my tone deaf father appeared in a small speaking role in The Mikado produced by what must have been the men’s club of Temple Beth Shalom. He was so proud of himself for his two lines, he was beaming with joy. Unfortunately, the dinner at The Pearl Chinese restaurant was too much for my four-year-old constitution. I vomited in the hallway of the junior high school where they were performing, and never got to see him on stage. My annual trip to the circus and the joy I saw in my father’s face are what I today attribute (or blame for) my lifelong dedication to theatre, and to the arts more generally. I thought about these events as I read Barry Hessenius’s recent blog about entertainment and engagement as well as the comments that followed a week later. On the one hand, I agree with Barry that entertainment is a way of engaging an audience, of grabbing and keeping the audience’s attention. On the other hand, I also agree with Carter Gilles (a frequently commenter on this blog as well) when he writes that:
Entertainment is not always a good facilitator of commitment and longevity.
Engagement actually IS a form of commitment, and it inspires longevity. If art is only the means to entertainment then entertainment is the goal, and art is in service to that end and is judged strictly by how well it entertains. It could be achieved by other means and that would satisfy us equally. If, on the other hand, art is something of an end in itself, then being entertained by it is incidental to the value of the art. A nice side effect, perhaps, but not its reason for being.
The circus is “entertainment” at its best, but is it art? Ten years after seeing Pippin (and longer since my last Ringling Bros. show), Cirque du Soleil played its first US shows in a big top in Battery Park City. I was as mesmerized as an adult as I had been as a child. Serious critics were writing about Cirque as a new form of performance art. Everyone (or almost everyone) accepted it as art that entertains – its future as a Vegas spectacle not yet imagined. That it was entertaining did not make it “not art.”
I like Carter’s defining characteristics of longevity and commitment, and the notion that the entertainment value of art is a byproduct of art rather than its reason for being. BUT – and this is a big but – if it weren’t for the entertainment value of the circus and family participation in amateur community theatre, I wouldn’t be writing a blog about art now. I joined the arts circus as a child forty years ago because I was engaged by it.