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The Circus

Episode 2  |  The History Channel

Explore the colourful history of this popular, influential and distinctly American form of entertainment, from the first one-ring show at the end of the 18th century to 1956, when the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey big top was pulled down for the last time. A transformative place for reinvention, where young women could become lion tamers and young men travelled the world as roustabouts, the circus allowed people to be liberated from the roles assigned by society and find an accepting community that had eluded them elsewhere. Drawing upon a vast and richly visual archive, and featuring a host of performers, historians and aficionados, The Circus brings to life an era when Circus Day would shut down a town, its stars were among the most famous people in the country, and multitudes gathered to see the improbable and the impossible, the exotic and the spectacular. Through the intertwined stories of several of the most innovative and influential impresarios of the late 19th century, including PT Barnum, James Bailey and the five Ringling Brothers, the series reveals the circus as a phenomenon created by a rapidly expanding and increasingly industrialised nation. It explores how its 'dangerous' and 'exotic' attractions revealed the country's notions about race and Western dominance, and shows how the circus subverted prevailing standards of 'respectability' with its unconventional, titillating and 'freakish' entertainments.

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