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Sawdust in the Arena

It was in the old Roman arena of beautiful Verona that the circus events I wish to speak of took place; in fact, I had the honor and profit of seeing two circuses there. Or, strictly speaking, it was one entire circus that I saw, and the unique speciality of another, the dying glory of a circus on its last legs, the triumphal fall of a circus superb in adversity.


The entire circus was altogether Italian, with the exception of the clowns, who, to the credit of our nation, are always Americans, or advertised as such, in Italy. Its chief and almost absorbing event was a reproduction of the tournament which had then lately been held at Rome in celebration of Prince Tommaso's coming of age, and for a copy of a copy it was really fine. It had fitness in the arena, which must have witnessed many such mediaeval shows in their time, and I am sensible still of the pleasure its effects of color gave me. There was one beautiful woman, a red blonde in a green velvet gown, who might have ridden, as she was, out of a canvas of Titian's, if he had ever painted equestrian pictures, and who at any rate was an excellent Carpaccio. Then, the 'Clowns Americani' were very amusing, from a platform devoted solely to them, and it was a source of pride if not of joy with me to think that we were almost the only people present who understood their jokes. In the vast oval of the arena, however, the circus ring looked very little, not half so large, say, as the rim of a lady's hat in front of you at the play; and on the gradines of the ancient amphitheatre we were all such a great way off that a good field-glass would have been needed to distinguish the features of the actors. I could not make out, therefore, whether the 'Clowns Americani' had the national expression or not, but one of them, I am sorry to say, spoke the United States language with a cockney accent. I suspect that he was an Englishman who had passed himself off upon the Italian management as a true Yankee, and who had formed himself upon our school of clowning, just as some of the recent English humorists have patterned after certain famous wits of ours. I do not know that I would have exposed this impostor, even if occasion had offered, for, after all, his fraud was a tribute to our own primacy in clowning, and the Veronese were none the worse for his erring aspirates.

The audience was for me the best part of the spectacle, as the audience always is in Italy, and I indulged my fancy in some cheap excursions concerning the place and people. I reflected that it was the same race essentially as that which used to watch the gladiatorial shows in that arena when it was new, and that very possibly there were among these spectators persons of the same blood as those Veronese patricians who had left their names carved on the front of the gradines in places, to claim this or that seat for their own. In fact, there was so little difference, probably, in their qualities, from that time to this, that I felt the process of the generations to be a sort of impertinence; and if Nature had been present, I might very well have asked her why, when she had once arrived at a given expression of humanity, she must go on repeating it indefinitely? How were all those similar souls to know themselves apart in their common eternity? Merely to have been differently circumstanced in time did not seem enough; and I think Nature would have been puzzled to answer me. But perhaps not; she may have had her reasons, as that you cannot have too much of a good thing, and that when the type was so fine in most respects as the Italian you could not do better than go on repeating impressions from it.

Certainly I myself could have wished no variation from it in the young officer of 'bersaglieri', who had come down from antiquity to the topmost gradine of the arena over against me, and stood there defined against the clear evening sky, one hand on his hip, and the other at his side, while his thin cockerel plumes streamed in the light wind. I have since wondered if he knew how beautiful he was, and I am sure that, if he did not, all the women there did, and that was doubtless enough for the young officer of 'bersaglieri'.


I think that he was preliminary to the sole event of that partial circus I have mentioned. This event was one that I have often witnessed elsewhere, but never in such noble and worthy keeping. The top of the outer arena wall must itself be fifty feet high, and the pole in the centre of its oval seemed to rise fifty feet higher yet. At its base an immense net was stretched, and a man in a Prince Albert coat and a derby hat was figuring about, anxiously directing the workmen who were fixing the guy-ropes, and testing every particular of the preparation with his own hands. While this went on, a young girl ran out into the arena, and, after a bow to the spectators, quickly mounted to the top of the pole, where she presently stood in statuesque beauty that took all eyes even from the loveliness of the officer of 'bersaglieri'. There the man in the Prince Albert coat and the derby hat stepped back from the net and looked up at her.

She called down, in English that sounded like some delocalized, denaturalized speech, it was so strange then and there, "Is it all right?"

He shouted back in the same alienated tongue, "Yes; keep to the left," and she dived straight downward in the long plunge, till, just before she reached the net, she turned a quick somersault into its elastic mesh.

It was all so exquisitely graceful that one forgot how wickedly dangerous it was; but I think that the brief English colloquy was the great wonder of the event for me, and I doubt if I could ever have been perfectly happy again, if chance had not amiably suffered me to satisfy my curiosity concerning the speakers. A few evenings after that, I was at that copy of a copy of a tournament, and, a few gradines below me, I saw the man of the Prince Albert coat and the derby hat. I had already made up my mind that he was an American, for I supposed that an Englishman would rather perish than wear such a coat with such a hat, and as I had wished all my life to speak to a circus-man, I went down and boldly accosted him. "Are you a brother Yankee?" I asked, and he laughed, and confessed that he was an Englishman, but he said he was glad to meet any one who spoke English, and he made a place for me by his side. He was very willing to tell how he happened to be there, and he explained that he was the manager of a circus, which had been playing to very good business all winter in Spain. In an evil hour he decided to come to Italy, but he found the prices so ruinously low that he was forced to disband his company. This diving girl was all that remained to him of its many attractions, and he was trying to make a living for both in a country where the admission to a circus was six of our cents, with fifty for a reserved seat. But he was about to give it up and come to America, where he said Barnum had offered him an engagement. I hope he found it profitable, and is long since an American citizen, with as good right as any of us to wear a Prince Albert coat with a derby hat.


There used to be very good circuses in Venice, where many Venetians had the only opportunity of their lives to see a horse. The horses were the great attraction for them, and, perhaps in concession to their habitual destitution in this respect, the riding was providentially very good. It was so good that it did not bore me, as circus-riding mostly does, especially that of the silk-clad jockey who stands in his high boots, on his back-bared horse, and ends by waving an American flag in triumph at having been so tiresome.

I am at a loss to know why they make such an ado about the lady who jumps through paper hoops, which have first had holes poked in them to render her transit easy, or why it should be thought such a merit in her to hop over a succession of banners which are swept under her feet in a manner to minify her exertion almost to nothing, but I observe it is so at all circuses. At my first Venetian circus, which was on a broad expanse of the Riva degli Schiavoni, there was a girl who flung herself to the ground and back to her horse again, holding by his mane with one hand, quite like the goddess out of the bath-gown at my village circus the other day; and apparently there are more circuses in the world than circus events. It must be as hard to think up anything new in that kind as in romanticistic fiction, which circus-acting otherwise largely resembles.

At a circus which played all one winter in Florence I saw for the first time-outside of polite society--the clown in evening dress, who now seems essential to all circuses of metropolitan pretensions, and whom I missed so gladly at my village circus. He is nearly as futile as the lady clown, who is one of the saddest and strangest developments of New Womanhood.

Of the clowns who do not speak, I believe I like most the clown who catches a succession of peak-crowned soft hats on his head, when thrown across the ring by an accomplice. This is a very pretty sight always, and at the Hippodrome in Paris I once saw a gifted creature take his stand high up on the benches among the audience and catch these hats on his head from a flight of a hundred feet through the air. This made me proud of human nature, which is often so humiliating; and altogether I do not think that after a real country circus there are many better things in life than the Hippodrome. It had a state, a dignity, a smoothness, a polish, which I should not know where to match, and when the superb coach drove into the ring to convey the lady performers to the scene of their events, there was a majesty in the effect which I doubt if courts have the power to rival. Still, it should be remembered that I have never been at court, and speak from a knowledge of the Hippodrome only.

Champion of American literary realism, esteemed author, and 'Dean of American Letters,' celebrated for his ethical narratives.