Marxists Internet Archive: Subjects: Marxism and Art: Literature: Children's Literature

Maxim Gorky's Impressions of the Circus

A. Lebedeva

Written: 1958;
Source: The Soviet Circus: A Collection of Articles, 1967;
Translated: Fainna Glagoleva;
Compiled: Alexander Lipovsky;
Photographs: Y. Savalov and others;
HTML Markup: For in February, 2002.

"I like the circus and its performers, people who calmly risk their lives every day."

Maxim Gorky was drawn to the circus all his life, as is evident from his own words, his writing and the recollections of his contemporaries.

Gorky first went to the circus when he was eight or nine years old. He speaks of his passion for the circus in his childhood and youth in several of his autobiographical works. Gorky relates how Mishka, a boy from the icon-painters' shop is enchanted by a circus clown ("Shake-up", 1898). He tells us how Mishka, his face white from the strain, sat without a sound and from time to time shuddered from a desire to go tumbling across the ring in a bespangled costume. Nothing could dispell that impression. When the boy lay down to sleep on a pile of straw in the corner of the yard the stars shining in the sky reminded him of the gold spangles on the clown's costume. He began early next morning telling everybody in the workshop about the circus performance and gave them an imitation of the clown--and this saved him from the usual slaps and kicks. And in the evening, when Mishka, after a soul-destroying "shake-up," is lying in bed, the bright colours of the icons remind him of the previous evening at the circus.

"And he sees the circus ring and he is in it..:. The thunder of applause encourages him ... full of admiration at his own agility, proud and happy, he leaps high into the air and flies away amid a roar of approval from the audience, flies away with a fluttering heart... to be awakened on earth by a sharp kick."

The impressions he received from the circus, "as beautiful and wonderful as a dream," were very different from those which had "hurt him in childhood by their cruelty and filth." The circus was but one of the many sources which awakened the creative talents of the future writer.

In his autobiographical book My Apprenticeship he recalled his days in the icon shop: "Excited beyond all measure, I would begin to retell and act out the ideas that had suddenly come to me, for I wanted so greatly to make the people truly happy in a free, light-hearted way.

"'Maximich, you take yourself off to the circus or the theatre, you'll make a good clown,' the icon-painter Zhikharev said approvingly."

Gorky actually wanted to become a circus performer, but this venture ended in failure. He wrote of the episode in a story entitled "In the Theatre and at the Circus." The circus beckoned in many ways. "Everything I saw in the arena blended into something triumphant, where skill and strength confidently celebrated their victory over mortal danger."

The world of the circus opened up before Gorky in the books he read at the time. Most notable was The Brothers Zemganno by Edmond de concourt. This is what Gorky said of it: "...My hands shook with pleasure at reading this book. I wept aloud when I read of the unfortunate acrobat, his legs broken, crawling up to the attic, to where his brother was practising his favourite art."

The memoirs of Upilio Faimali, an Italian lion-tamer, was another book that left a lasting impression on Gorky. Faimali was a very strong and courageous man. Born a peasant, he came to the circus by himself at the age of eleven, there to remain and become a skilled and fearless bareback rider. Later, he became an animal-trainer and, finally, a lion-tamer, the crowning achievement of his career. Faimali had 120 animals, 32 of them lions, which was then considered very unusual. Faimali gave his show in the biggest cities of Britain, Austria, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, and Holland; he was also in Russia, in St. Petersburg.

This unusual choice of profession, the lion-tamer's courage in the face of grave and constant danger, and man's power over the king of the beasts, were certainly thrilling.

Gorky later wrote of the books he was devouring at the time: "There are people who know how to live so fascinatingly and grandly, as no one else knows how to live."

When Gorky acquired a first-hand knowledge of circus life, he came to appreciate its other qualities as well, mainly, the strong feeling of comradeship and mutual responsibility that existed among circus performers. He recalled the words of a circus acrobat: "Thank God, we circus people live happily together! Our work is so dangerous that we must take care of each other." In recalling His childhood impressions of the circus Gorky noted that circus performers were unlike ordinary people both in appearance and conduct.

In "The Shake-up" Gorky wrote of a boy named Misha who was very displeased at seeing the glittering clown dressed in an ordinary suit after the performance, for this had changed him into an ordinary person.

In "The Hero" (1915), he wrote: "When life is unattractive and as dirty as an old cluttered ruin, one has to cleanse and brighten it with the means provided by one's soul and one's will, by the power of one's imagination and adorn it with a shining sheath of youthful romanticism."

Thus the writer stressed his own romantic attitude towards the vagaries of life. This is also characteristic of his attitude towards the circus and its people during his childhood and youth.

Early in his literary career Maxim Gorky worked on the Samara Gazette, the Nizhegorodsky Leaflet and Odessa News. In his articles he often took up the question of popular amusements and the circus, side-shows and public fist-fights in particular.

In speaking of the circus as a necessary and true art form, Gorky condemned all that was crude and unaesthetic, censuring the difficult and dangerous acts which were intended to whet the jaded appetites of the bourgeois public.

Gorky protested against "the crudest nonsense" of the circus, which had performers breaking stones on each other's heads with mallets, swallowing umbrellas and swords or burning tar, eating galoshes and walking barefoot over nails. In another article he wrote with indignation of the heroes of the day, clowns and wrestlers such as Abs, Moore, Foss and others.

"All these 'world-renown', 'unconquerable' and unbelievably stupid wrestlers are also Lilliputs, all of them have tiny heads on massive bodies, their eyes are dull, their expressions wooden. It is the duty of the press to make the public realise that all these giants and Lilliputs, clowns, magicians and three-legged freaks are neither rarities nor the result of creative art. They are victims artificially nurtured and especially provided for the public."

Gorky retained this unbending attitude towards all forms of amusement which aroused man's basest instincts.

He returned to this topic in one of his travel articles, "In the Kingdom of Boredom?" one of a series entitled In America (1906). He wrote with wrath of the popular pastimes of Coney Island which also included a circus, a "match" between a lion-tamer and his animals, etc.

Taking into consideration the great popularity of the circus as an art form, Gorky wrote in his articles of the 90s of transforming the circus into a "sensible," "educational" form of amusement. At this time he was greatly taken up by the idea of setting up a people's theatre. It is common knowledge that in 1897 Gorky organised a rural theatre in the village of Manuilovka with a troupe recruited from among local peasants. The writer himself took part as both actor and producer. In 1903, a popular theatre was opened in Nizhny Novgorod, largely due to the active interest displayed by Gorky.

Gorky was an ardent propagandist among theatre people of the idea of creating a people's theatre, we are told by the actor N. I. Skobolshchikov-Samarin, the organiser of the theatre co-operative in Nizhny Novgorod. He suffered a number of failures, but after his talk with Gorky he organised a series of popular shows in Astrakhan.

Gorky's views concerning the people's theatre, his notes on the importance of mass cultural and educational measures, were closely bound up with the Communist Party's policy on questions of the cultural education of the masses even before the October Revolution.

The legal Party newspapers--Zvezda (1910-1912) and Pravda (1912-1914) carried regular articles on literary and art themes and raised the question of the educational value of popular entertainments.

Ivan Filatov, the famous animal-trainer who died in 1956, recalled that during the 1903-1904 season Gorky was a frequent visitor at his show in Moscow, where, in the course of twelve years, Gorky's close friend A. Orlov, a well-known Volga folk singer, worked with Filatov. "Once," Filatov recalled. "when we were talking, Gorky said: 'I love this popular form of amusement to distraction.' "

Gorky's play The Lower Depths was presented in Filatov's fair booth instead of the usual circus pantomime. Gorky cut the play especially for this presentation, leaving only the most important scenes, and edited it together with his friend Orlov. Filatov played the Baron.

The play was very successful, and the first rows were all bought up by the "clean" public. Filatov recalled that Gorky always enjoyed these performances.

One of the characteristic traits of the Russian circus was its satirical nature. Gorky greatly admired the political satirist Anatoly Durov, a wonderful representative of the Russian school of clowning and animal-training, he valued the social content and significance of Durov's performances and his personal friendship with the clown.

Gorky was also interested in comedians and circus clowns, and after a performance he liked to exchange opinions with his friends.

In Gorky's recollections we find the following observation: V. I. Lenin "laughed readily and contagiously as he watched the clowns and comedians" at the Music Hall in London; how interesting it was to hear him speak of this form of comedy as a specific type of circus art: "There is a kind of satirical or sceptical attitude to the generally accepted, there is a desire to turn it inside out, to change it a bit and show the illogical nature of the ordinary. It is very involved, but interesting !"

V. I. Lenin considered the essence of circus comedy to be its satire on everyday life, its sceptical attitude towards bourgeois reality.

The scenario of The Hard-Worker Wordflow (1920), written for the Theatre of Popular Comedy was the result of Gorky's desire to use the art and satire of the circus in dealing a body blow to the shortcomings that still stood in the way of establishing a new way of life in a socialist society. There were both circus performers and actors in the troupe of the theatre and clowning and acrobatics were usually a part of the productions. Often, the leading roles would be given to such well-known circus performers as G. Delvari, a clown and acrobat, or Alexandrov-Serge, a rider and trapeze artist.

Gorky met with many of the circus performers before the play went into production.

The Hard-Worker Wordflow is a one-act play named for the main character, a petty official and a lazy good-for-nothing who is armed with a complete arsenal of super-revolutionary words and phrases.

After one of the rehearsals according to a script provided by Gorky, the actors were invited to his house, and, in the discussion that followed, the writer stressed the theme again: "It is actions, not words, that count."

P. Pavlenko, a well-known writer, in his memoirs recalls Gorky's interest in the circus. "Visiting the Moscow Circus one day, he was displeased at some sort of 'aquatic pantomime' and immediately got together a group of writers to write a 'review.' Some tried to talk him out of it. After all, what a combination: Gorky and the circus! They found this to be both trivial and funny. But as far as he was concerned, there were no such things as great or small themes, as worthy and unworthy genres."

Gorky was aware of the many faces of circus art. He felt its major assets were the courage, skill and physical beauty of the performers. This he considered to be the result of intensive physical training, so necessary for the harmonious development of the individual, of a person who lived for his work, and the creation of great cultural treasures.