The Man Behind the Curtain

Happy Birthday Barnum!

Colorado from the air looks like a state of enormous fields in which nothing much seems to happen. Mountains decorate the horizon, staring reproachfully at the well organised emptiness in front of them. We are finally on our way to Kansas City, only twenty-four hours later than planned and having travelled an extra 2,500 miles.

P.T Barnum 1810 - 1891‘Kansas she says is the name of the star.’ Evocations of The Wizard of Oz form in my mind as our small 100-seater plane moves up through the clouds. Below me the emptiness is dotted with three absurdly isolated farmsteads, like Dorothy Gale’s Aunty Em’s and Uncle Henry’s place, with their white picket fence. But we’re not in Kansas, yet.

It seems especially appropriate to be thinking about the famous film version of the story which concludes with the exposure of the Wizard as little more than a showman (‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’), because 5th July is Phineas T. Barnum’s birthday. He was one of the greatest showman of them all, who takes the credit for coining the phrase, ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’. And, it was rumoured that he had designs for Shakespeare’s Birthplace when it came up for auction in 1847.

Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, in 1810 (we’ll be visiting his birthplace later) and became famous by 1841 for having founded ‘Barnum’s American Museum’ in New York, on Broadway at Ann’s Street. There visitors could stroll around the specially created roof-top garden and enjoy views of Manhattan, visit the zoo, the wax work exhibits, and the (to our sensibilities) infamous ‘freak show’. Star attractions included the Feejee Mermaid and General Tom Thumb, a dwarf who Barnum started to exploit from the age of 4 years old (telling everyone he was 11) and who grew to be only 22 inches tall. Hot-air balloon rides were launched daily from the roof (you may recall that it was Professor Marvel’s balloon crash-landing into the Emerald City that helped to make him the people’s Wizard). By 1847, Barnum’s museum was attracting 400,000 people a year. P.T. Barnum as Professor Marvel?

From 1844 to 1847, Barnum and Tom Thumb toured Europe and appeared in front of Queen Victoria, and other ‘crowned heads’. He made the visit to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1844 with the writer Albert Smith and playfully suggested that a portrait of Tom Thumb might hang alongside that of Shakespeare in the Birthplace. Barnum even joked that Tom Thumb would put Shakespeare out of business, saying, ‘You talk a good deal about your Shakespeare being the pride of England, but I can see nobody knew or cared a cent about him while he was alive, or else you’d have known more of him now. If he’d been a living author, and I’d had my exhibition, I’d have backed the General to have shut him up in a week.’

Whether the rumours which began to circulate in 1847 around the sale of the Birthplace were true or not, they exemplify a real fear that the Birthplace itself might have been uprooted and taken around the States on wheels as another of Barnum’s exhibits. Certainly, corroborative evidence was provided by Barnum’s good friend Mark Twain. “British pride was touched, and several English gentlemen interfered and purchased the premises for a Shakespeare Association’, Barnum wrote in his 1855 autobiography. Around that same time, Barnum started the country’s first afternoon theatre performances in order to encourage families to attend. He began to stage shortened, family-friendly versions of Shakespeare plays and other classical works, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His circus career, which would increase his fame, took off in 1861.

But Barnum was also a serious, public-minded philanthropist who served two terms of office for the Connecticut legislature and spoke passionately about the 13th amendment to the United States constitution about slavery and suffrage: “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab, or an Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.’ He was elected Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1875 and helped to build their hospital. He died in Bridgeport in 1891.

Phineas T. Barnum’s ambiguous but significant association with Shakespeare’s Birthplace is part of the inspiration of ‘Shakespeare on the Road.’ It is in the spirit of Barnum that we’re taking Shakespeare’s Birthplace on tour around North America this summer. Whatever fears our ancestors may have had about the Birthplace going to States, we’re undertaking this reverse pilgrimage with a sense of deep gratitude to the North American people who not only have been among the most prevalent visitors to Shakespeare home on Henley Street, but are keeping him vibrantly alive across their innumerable festivals. Happy Birthday, Mr Phineas Barnum, especially in the 450th birthday year of Master William Shakespeare, who also certainly knew what it was to be a showman.

The Captain of our flight has just announced our descent into Kansas City. From my window seat close to the wing I’m surprised to see how emerald green it all looks – forests, farms, fields – and much more populated at this distant first impression than Colorado. Our plane and ‘Shakespeare’s Birthplace’ are about to land.

The road-trip feels like it’s all about to start and, in strange way, it’s as though Shakespeare’s coming home. Altogether now: ‘There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home….’

Written on the United Airline Flight 4912 from Denver to Kansas City, 4 July 2014.

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