Acrobats and Mountebanks
May 9, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
This week, Project Gutenberg made available Acrobats and Mountebanks, an 1890 book that explores the circuses, fairs, carnivals, and hippodromes of nineteenth-century France. Written by Hugues Le Roux and Jules Garnier, and translated from the French by A. P. Morton, the book features 233 illustrations of clowns, trainers, tamers, equestrians, equilibrists, acrobats, gymnasts, contortionists, fortune-tellers, dwarves, elephants, carousels, Ferris wheels, and all the trappings of classic mountebankery. It’s worth perusing for the drawings, a selection of which are presented above—but it’s also, after more than a century, still an astonishingly funny read, full of sharp observations and acerbic asides. Here, for instance, is a passage on dwarves:
No one should wonder at the fact that many people are more interested in the abnormal than in the beautiful. But this trait being once recognised, the dwarf is more wonderful than the giant; man is such a complicated machine, that in watching these microscopic creatures who gesticulate and speak like ourselves, we feel something of the same astonishment that would strike us if we found the seconds marked by a miniature watch which we could only see through a magnifying glass. For this reason the dwarf show is one of the most popular booths in the fair.
Every one knows that there are two kinds of dwarfs—those who are naturally dwarfs, and those who, as children, were at first of average size and growth, but whose development was abruptly checked. In their case the limbs which no longer grew, were yet capable of enlargement. As a rule the head is enormous. Monsieur François, from the Cirque Franconi—the partner of Billy Hayden the clown, the tiny circus rider—is a typical specimen of this class of dwarfs, who are called noués to distinguish them from the perfect miniature of humanity. They are physically deformed, but in all other respects they resemble other men. François, for instance, is very intelligent. I shall always remember our first interview two years ago in Erminia Chelli’s box at the Cirque d’Eté.
“How old are you, Monsieur François?”
“I am older than you are, M. François; yet, as you know, I am not celebrated.”
M. François shook his head … “You see not every one can be a dwarf.”
And on entering a lion’s cage:
I, who now address you, have entered a black-maned lion’s cage quite recently. Oh! do not exclaim at my heroism …When the beast, who at first grumbled a little, was sitting up and seemed composed again, my companion called to me:
“Come in, now!”
I went in cautiously at the back, taking two steps forward, so that I might still be nearer to the door than to the lion. I must own that the desert king did not honour me by even turning his head. He was talking to his tamer. The two gentlemen left me standing, and I looked rather like a bootmaker waiting for orders from a nobleman.
Man is a coward. The lion’s contempt gave me courage. I advanced a step so that I could touch the leg of the beast.
“Oh!” I said, “how silky it is!”
It was not silky at all, it was abominably harsh.
Since then I have reflected upon the feeling which could have induced me to utter this falsehood, and the result of this self-examination is so humiliating that I will confide it to you as a penance. In fact “how silky it is” was prompted by an instinct of base flattery—a courtier’s compliment—the toadyism of a coward who felt himself nearer to the lion than to the door.
The boldest individuals, who put their heads two or three times a day into the lion’s mouth, have told me that the best way to withdraw it from the gulf is, first of all, not to open the acquaintanceship with this experiment; and, secondly, to perform it with great nerve.
Nerve, that is the great secret of the lion-tamer, the sole cause of his authority over his beasts. When he has studied a subject for some time, endeavouring to master its character—and amongst the higher animals the character is very individual, very accentuated—one morning the man quietly walks into the cage. He must astonish the beast and over-awe him at once. As to the training, it consists—and here I quote the words of an expert in such matters—in commanding the lion to perform the exercises which please him; that is to say, to make him execute from fear of the whip those leaps which he would naturally take in his wild state.
There is one fact which no one would suspect—that it is easier to train an adult lion taken in a snare than an animal born in a menagerie. The lion of the booth is in the same position as sporting dogs which play much with children; they are soon spoilt for work. Pezon possesses five or six lions which he has brought up by hand. As a rule they live with the staff of the menagerie on terms of perfect familiarity, but this frequently leads to tragic accidents.
Lions, even lions in a fair, will devour a man in fine style.
Can I say that the fear of such an accident is ever sufficiently strong to make me pause on the threshold of a menagerie? No. I cherish, and, like me, you also cherish, the hope that some day perhaps we may see a lion-tamer eaten.
And, maybe most fetchingly, on the appeal of carnival food:
Do you remember, my dear friend, the drive we took outside the shows and bands, one fine Easter-Tuesday, brilliant with sunshine? You dared not leave your brougham, you were so alarmed at the hoarse roar of the crowd, the explosion of crackers, the shrieks of the women in the swings. Still you had one great desire that you would not own to me, half dreading a reproof, a wish evoked by a most appetizing odour which made your nostrils dilate.
“I am sure you are longing for some fried potatoes,” I cried triumphantly at last.
Ah! who would ever forget the glance with which your eyes rewarded me for guessing your fancy!