At the beginning of Elephant’s Graveyard, the entire community of Erwin, Tennessee is buzzing with excitement because the much anticipated Spark’s Circus is coming to town. Flyers will have been posted all over, each one headlining the most important performer in the act: Mary the Elephant. Throughout the play we not only learn of the beauty of this magnificent creature, but we also learn of the danger and cruelty that occurs when animals are placed in this hectic environment. The idea of animals performing human-like tricks and behaviors has appealed to audiences for ages. In recent years, however, this attitude toward animals in the circus has changed with organizations like PETA and other animal rights activists speaking out against the poor treatment and abuse that animals experience.
Animal performances began in the circus as we know it in 1768, in Philip Astley’s trick-riding displays on horseback. These events had to take place on a circular track, which is how the circus ring that has become such a staple to the classic circus format originated. One insight into why this event appealed to the audience is that the “circus made entertainment out of those who might otherwise turn their muscular frames against their masters….” (Kwint 223).
This display and control of strong creatures would only grow as circuses began to incorporate more exotic animals into their performances. Trainers taught their bears to dance, their monkeys to do arithmetic, and displayed animals that had extra limbs or features thought of as “exaggerated” or “deformed.” In a time when less people had easy access to zoos, audiences looked forward to the menageries that traveled with the circus as their one opportunity to see the exotic animals they had only read about in books. Elephants were introduced into the circus in the 19th century. The most famous of the bunch was Barnum’s Jumbo, the largest elephant in circus history. Even after Jumbo’s death, Barnum continued to display the elephant’s remains and skeleton as part of the traveling display (Velten).
Nowadays, however, animals have been removed from the circus due to complaints of animal cruelty and potential danger to the audience. While the animals appear happy as they perform their routines, it’s what happens before and after the circus that concerns many people. In 1908 the circus groups traveled from town to town on rail cars. For example, one stock car “held 27 fully harnessed horses standing side-by-side (tail to nose) . . . The horses were packed tightly… so they could not fall during transport . . . ” (Mabert 84). While this formation managed to keep the animals from falling during the ride, it also meant that they had little to no room to move or adjust their stance, making for an uncomfortable ride. Another complaint regards the disciplinary nature of the trainers, who were known for beating the animals if a trick wasn’t performed to their satisfaction. Furthermore, the animals in the circus helped to set up the circus tents and equipment, which means their work didn’t just start in the ring. These conditions led many to believe that these animals were often overworked.
Many were also concerned with the danger of the animals themselves. As a result of harsh treatment by humans, animals have been known to break away from their trainers and run loose, where they become a great threat to the audience. In 2014, three elephants escaped from a circus show in Missouri. Years before that, an elephant named Viola scared circusgoers when she fled from her trainer in Virginia. The documentary Tyke: Elephant Outlaw tells the story of Tyke, a circus elephant in Hawaii in 1994. During a performance, Tyke went on a rampage in which he killed his trainer and became a threat to members of the community walking the streets. These recent incidents served as more motivation to get elephants out of the circus. In the US American Circus today, you can rarely find a large touring group that still includes elephants in their act.
The story of Mary the Elephant in Elephant’s Graveyard shares the beauty and excitement as well as the tragic truths behind the elephants’ historical presence in the ring.
Mabert, Vincent A. and Michael J. Showalter (2010), “Logistics of the American Circus:
The Golden Age,” Production & Inventory Management Journal, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 74-90.
@peta. “Circuses.” PETA. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
Coxe, Antony Hippisley. A Seat at the Circus. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1980. Print.
Culhane, John. The American Circus: An Illustrated History. New York: Holt, 1990. Print.
Velten, Hannah. Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City. N.p.: Reaktion, 2013. Print.