17 May 2007
Under The Big Top
As has been mentioned here before, my favorite musical is "Barnum". There have been better musicals, with better songs, but there has never been another one for me where virtually every song relates to something in my life past or present.
My other major obsession is politics, and it occurs to me that both of these ideas have something in common: In both locations, there are high wire acts, jugglers, and clowns. They are both played out under a big top and there is a sucker born every minute (even though Barnum never said the line attributed to him).
While the real P. T. Barnum is famous for his museum and his circus, he was also a politician. Even more unknown is his deep religious faith that complimented his civic activities even though he totally believed in the separation of church and state. In this age of mixing theology with legislation, seeing how Barnum did it, puts our current crop of pharisees to shame and makes our politicians look like crooks and flim flam artists.
Between 1831 and 1834 Barnum edited his own newspaper in Danbury, the Herald of Freedom. He started the paper to combat what he perceived to be sectarian attempts to bring about a union of church and state.
In 1835 Barnum was once again in New York City. There he first got into show business with his exhibit of Joice Heth, who claimed to be the 161-year-old nurse to George Washington. Next, during 1836-37, he took a small circus on a tour throughout the South. These ventures prepared him in 1842 to open the American Museum in New York City, through which he made his first fortune. Its lecture hall and 3,000-seat theater, provided entertainment and learning over the years to 37 million people.
In 1864 in an interview with a New York Sun reporter Barnum said this of his religious faith: "I believe there is a great Creator, infinite in his attributes of wisdom, power, and mercy: that His name is Love. I believe He is a God of all justice, and that He will chasten every person whom He ever created sufficiently to reform him, in this world, or some other."
At his death Barnum left the Bridgeport Universalist society a legacy of $15,000. He gave the national movements newly founded institution of higher education, Tufts College, $150,000 to establish a Museum of Natural History. In addition he sent the museum mounted skins, skeletons and other animal remains, and the great elephant Jumbo's hide. When he died his will stipulated $7,000 for the Universalist Publishing House, $5,000 for the Connecticut Universalist Convention, $1,000 for the Chapin Home, and $500 for the Woman's Centenary Association.
In his business ethics Barnum was more honest then most people have been in the entertainment and public relations fields. Most Americans, he thought, worked too much and as a consequence did not know how to spend their leisure time. While he frankly admitted that "my prime object has been to put money in my purse," he also proudly asserted that "No one . . . can say that he ever paid for admission to one of my exhibitions more than his admission was worth to him."
In 1889 Barnum summarized in a notebook his principles of life: "The noblest art is that of making others happy, honesty, sobriety, industry, economy, education, good habits, perseverance, cheerfulness, love to God and good will toward men. These are the preeminent requisites for securing Health, Independence, or a Happy Life, the respect of Mankind and the special favor of our Father in Heaven." By the time of his death in 1891, Barnum's name and legacy began to take on a life of their own.
On April 30, 1980 the musical, Barnum opened at Broadway's St. James Theatre. It seems only fitting that the world's ultimate showman should have a flamboyant and joyful musical in his honor.