I invited my friend David Carlyon
to share his thoughts on the finer points of historical truth vs fiction in the film. I thought he would be the perfect person to give his insight since he is a former circus clown, teacher, author, historian, director, and theater enthusiast. Check out more about him at www.davidcarlyon.net
On The Greatest Showman
by guest contributor, David Carlyon
I enjoyed the The Greatest Showman, and that includes the exaggerations that all movies use to make a good story. However, this one sometimes went WAY overboard. If we’re talking about enjoyment, I hope everyone loves it, and that the reports about basing a stage musical on it come true. But for circus fans, even if the accuracies, small inaccuracies, and whoppers don’t matter to us, respect for circus and its history means we should at least be aware of them.
• The movie gave a very good idea of how exciting circuses were for everyone in the 1800s, and not just circus fans. To put it another way, everyone was a circus fan then.
• The movie also gives a good sense that people who would later be called “freaks” found a home with circus because 1) it was one of the few places they could earn a living, by displaying themselves and also by performing in some way, like singing, dancing, or telling stories; and 2) other circus people treated them with respect. Unfortunately in their neighborhoods and towns, sometimes even in their families, they were mocked but circus enabled them to make their own way in the world with dignity and self-respect.
• Though the mix of blacks and whites in the movie was a little wrong, because high society wouldn’t allow them to socialize together, circus was the amusement through most of the 1800s that regularly welcomed white people and black people in the same audience.
• Though Barnum was not a circus man till late in life (see Whoppers, below), he WAS America’s first great showman, highly skilled at promoting himself and his various ventures.
• Barnum was also America’s first great brander. He put his name on everything he did and on every building he put up, while taking credit for all successes, and denying his mistakes and lies. (See Whoppers, below.) Even when people knew he was lying, they enjoyed watching how brazenly he did it.
Small inaccuracies (wrong but they make the movie fun):
• Barnum didn’t perform. The closest he came to performance were his lectures on getting rich.
• He never called his museum a “circus.”
• Remember the crucial scene where they drank to agree to work together? Barnum didn’t drink.
• He didn’t invent the phrase “show business.” It was already a common phrase, thought then it was “the show business,” the way we refer to “the grocery business” or “the car business.”
Whoppers (Big inaccuracies that give the opposite impression of what happened):
• Barnum had almost nothing to do with circus till much later than this movie depicts, when he came out of retirement, so all the circus stuff in the movie is made up.
• Though he didn’t grow up rich, he wasn’t poor. He came from the most prominent family in town, and always had access to money for his ventures.
• The movie omits his first success because it was a fraud. Barnum lied when he exhibited an old African-American women, Joice Heth, as George Washington’s nurse, which would have meant she’d have been about 160 years old. He regularly lied early in his career, though biographies and histories often excuse the lies, as if everyone did it. Not everyone did.
• The movie also doesn’t include the Joice Heth episode because she was a slave. Though Barnum may have only bought her contract rather than buying her, as some biographies claim, he still controlled her life if she were a slave, making the distinction legalistic. The movie wouldn’t want to show its hero displaying and controlling a slave, much less selling tickets to her autopsy after she died.
• Here’s a Smithsonian article about the movie:
For more on Barnum,
And here are some good books, among the many available:
• A. H. Saxon, P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man [still probably the best source]
• Neil Harris, Humbug
• Kunhardt and Kunhardt, P. T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman [good on pictures]
• Benjamin Reiss, The Showman and the Slave [exploration of the Joice Heth start to his career]
• The Education of A Circus Clown: Mentors, Audiences, Mistakes (Palgrave MacMillan)
George Freedley Award finalist, Theatre Library Association, “exemplary work [about] live performance,” 2017
Stuart Thayer Prize, Circus Historical Society, Best Circus Book, 2016
American Theater and Drama Society, “Brilliance of the American Theatre,” Drama Book Shop, New York, 2016
• “David Stone: Defying the Gravity of Expectations,” The Palgrave Handbook of Musical Theatre Producers (Palgrave Macmillan), 2017
• Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of (Public Affairs)
Washington Irving Award, Westchester Library Association, 2001
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