Animals in the Circus

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.

Works Cited

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.

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Erwin, Tennessee: Establishing the Setting of Elephant’s Graveyard

Hello again! It’s me, Anna Martin, your friendly dramaturg. Last week, I wrote about our upcoming production of Elephant’s Graveyard by George Brant and promised more historical context for the play you’re about to attend. The next few blog posts by Sophie Hamm and me will divulge a piece of what grounds this story in United States’ history. The theme of today’s blog: the town of Erwin, Tennessee. At the turn of the century, Erwin was suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. In fact, the town was not meant to be named “Erwin” at all. It should have been called “Ervin” after David J. N. Ervin, a farmer who owned the majority of the land the city was built upon. After a typo by the postmaster led Ervin to become Erwin, a few years of confusion ensued until the town charter clearly stated the correct name in 1876.

But the name confusion was not the sole cause of Erwin’s woes. The internal conflict boiling within Erwin was sparked by the Industrial Revolution, which was responsible for upturning many rural areas of the United States with the introduction of factory work as an alternative to pastoral occupations. Tennessee as a whole is rich in natural resources and was therefore the perfect unfettered paradise to pollute with steal railways and coal-powered factories. The railroad dictated where factories could be located since they were dependent on each other for business, and Erwin just happened to have a train station for the Clinchfield & Ohio Line. In 1916, the Blue Ridge Pottery factory was opened in Erwin, Tennessee. The Blue Ridge Pottery factory is renowned for its artisanal flatware and was the number one employer in Erwin next to the railroad itself.

The New South Tennessee, 1887, Harper’s Weekly

Despite the booming flatware economy, Erwin was far from a major city. Unlike other, more metropolitan areas like Nashville or Memphis, Erwin’s population at 1900 was only 1,149 citizens. In fact, the majority of the Tennessee population tended to live outside the larger cities. Even with the introduction of more industrial means of production, Tennesseans were reluctant to abandon traditional occupations such as farming. At the beginning of the 20th century, farmers outnumbered industrial workers six to one. On the one hand, farming is practical; a farmer could provide everything their family needed while still producing extra to sell. But on the other, those who refuse to adapt to changing times often fall by the wayside. After the Civil War, a population boom decreased the average acreage owned by one farmer. Sharecropping, or working on another farmer’s land, became commonplace, as did spending part of the year employed at a mill.

So what can be expected from Erwin, Tennessee? In a town of divided ideals, torn asunder by the prospect of advancement colliding with the fear of change, will residents favor progress or be stuck in their ways? The play asks what Erwin values, considering an historical event and a range of citizen responses.

Be sure to see Loyola’s production of Elephant’s Graveyard later this month, and stay tuned for more blog posts leading up to the opening October 28.

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Come one, come all!

Come one, come all to the greatest show on earth! The first faculty-directed production of the Fall 2016 season is gearing up to be a ballyhoo jam-packed with circus spectacle. George Brant’s play Elephant’s Graveyard sifts through the fog of memory to tell the true story of Mary the Elephant and the small town of Erwin, Tennessee. Through interpretive eye-witness accounts, viewers will see the result of what happens when magic, technology, and superstition collide after the Sparks Circus steps off the train one fateful day in 1916.

My name is Anna Martin, and I am thrilled to be one of two dramaturgs working on this production. As we count down to opening in October, my associate Sophie Hamm and I will be bringing you stories of what the US looked like at the turn of the century and how this play fits into the grand scheme of the rapidly-evolving world. We’ll also bring you snapshots of the rehearsal process and detail just how this production is unique among Loyola performances. Since the play centers around the circus, director Mark Lococo is working in tandem with assistant director Max Gustafson and movement consultant Audrey Anderson to establish a movement-based narrative that translates from page to stage.

We are so excited to take you along on this journey with us. Now, on with the show!

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