Friday Lore Post: Circuses and Carnivals

Entertainment is not hard to come by, and neither are entertainers. Most major cities in Menechit have theatres where actors put on plays and minstrels sing, and even where acrobatics might be put on occasionally. Sport is also easy to come by in most places for those who are interested in it, with most places having at least one organized sport for people to come watch, be it portal ball, tail runner, flyball, wrestling or any number of others. But all of those tend to be rather static and localized, requiring people to come to them, and tend to be localized in large cities. For people who live in more rural areas or who may be bored with the same entertainments offered in their local city, travelling circuses and carnivals are the answer.

Though some troupes call themselves carnivals and some call themselves circuses, there is no real distinction between them most of the time, though occasionally a particularly uptight carnival owner will insist that it is a circus if there aren’t games of chance or basic motor skill testing for visitors to play. Very few bother with this distinction, however, and the two terms are interchangeable across Menechit in both Daolo and Kyn.

The primary attraction of most circuses and carnivals are the acrobats and other performers. They walk on tightropes or swing through the air, throw knives and swallow swords and light themselves in fire and all manner of other feats. If a troupe has a magic practitioner in it, which many do, the tricks become even more elaborate, though most troupes try not to rely too much on magic, as the appeal of them is that these are feats done by otherwise ordinary people.

Animal shows are common in many circuses and carnivals, either people having tamed dangerous animals like wolves or bears and ordering them to do tricks, or simply menageries that show off exotic animals unusual to the region. Many carnivals spend a lot of money to import strange animals from far away, as such exotic sights can draw in huge audiences. The most successful of these shows are the ones where the animals can be trained to do something other than stand in a cage, and of course any shows that allow the audience to interact with the animals are always a hit, though a dangerous one, as a show where an animal chooses to maul an audience member can be shut down.

In addition to acrobatics and animals, many troupes will also feature a cadre of actors who will put on shows. Unlike the more formal plays put on by professional, fixed acting troupes in major cities, these shows will be shorter, often no longer than twenty minutes, and feature around a simple premise, with over the top characters who fit into a series of archetypes, and a lot of jokes. These shows are often written by the troupe and just as often are mostly improvised, and very frequently feature caricatures of local nobility or other well known figures.

These are also almost always extremely ribald stories and shows, and in many cases will feature at least some audience participation, with one of the most popular stock characters that most carnival shows use a version of being the Cursed Whore archetype. This is generally a very prim or proper character who, through magical interference or bad luck or some other contrived reason, becomes sexually insatiable and becomes too much for the other characters to handle and must finally be satisfied by several members of the audience before the show can end. If there is a local tax collector or lord who is particularly ill liked, an actor will nearly always portray them using this archetype. Even shows that don’t feature a character like this have a wide variety of other archetypes to pick and choose from, and it’s a reasonable bet that a carnival show will have a strong sexual component to it.

Acrobatics shows will also usually have a sexual or at least highly sexualized component to them, and it’s not unusual to see acrobats performing sex acts while hanging from a ceiling, or swallowing a sword while someone swallows their sword and other similar acts. Acrobats typically perform in very tight and revealing clothing when they perform in clothing at all, and a fully clothed acrobat is almost always a sign that something dramatic is going to happen to their clothing at some point in the show.

In the majority of cases, acrobats and other performers will also double as prostitutes who can be visited after the show for a fee. This is never an advertised part of the carnival, but is a pretty open secret in most places and is how a lot of performers make a little extra money on the side. Certainly not all actors or acrobats will sell sex in addition to their other skills, but it is not at all uncommon to find one who does.

Many shows will also feature curiosities like animals with two heads or mysterious magical objects that visitors can view, fortune telling which may or may not be done by someone who can actually tell the future, and simple games that visitors can play in exchange for prizes. Again, many of these activities encourage audience participation, over and against more formal shows in cities, which tend to draw a firm distinction between the show and the audience.

Travelling carnivals and circuses rarely stay in one place for longer than a few days to a week. They stay longer if they’re near a large city centre, as there are more people, but because they also tend to service a lot of rural areas, they’re only going to get so much audience from staying near the same small towns for several days, and so they will tend to leave quite quickly. This is part of their business strategy, of course, as it is known that they are only present for a limited time, which therefore encourages people to come when they can.

Officials and law enforcement tend to view carnivals and circuses with suspicion, and there are always rumours that circuses and carnivals are full of thieves and other criminals and are only travelling around to rob people and get away with it. Some carnivals do engage in this kind of activity, though they tend to be shut down after word spreads of their unscrupulous behaviour. Most of them operate mostly above board, except for perhaps occasionally ripping people off, but the suspicion is often there. It is true that many criminals take refuge in circuses and carnivals, people who have been convicted of minor crimes or been recently released from captivity, as it is a job where few questions are asked about one’s background and anyone with the relevant skills is hired. Though most people can’t be performers, troupes always need people to set up and take down sets and stages and tents, to tend the animals and pull the carts, to cook the food and maintain the costumes, and so on. Such places tend to be refuges for people with nowhere else to go, and though occasionally this means someone genuinely dangerous or with ill intentions gets in, most of the time they provide help to people who need it. Orphans and homeless people tend to be taken in by carnivals (leading to unfortunate rumours of them kidnapping people, especially children), and find meaningful work and care in those spaces, which help set them up for future careers even if they choose to leave the carnival.

Most carnivals troupes consider themselves as families, and though many of their members are transient, being a member of a troupe means a lifelong attachment to that family, and one to which one can return at any time—presuming they didn’t leave under negative circumstances. The majority of people who grew up in carnivals or circuses have fond memories of them, even if they don’t currently work in one, and credit their upbringings with making them the people they are today. Carnivals exist to spread fun and make people happy, and they have a tendency to do that not only in the short term with ephemeral pleasures, but in the long term as well for the people who become involved with them.

Excerpts from “The Social Institutions of Our Time, Modern Edition,” by Moira Marksadder, published at the Academy for Magecraft in Three Hills, DN 1954.

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