About midway through the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, the ringmistress steps out to the front of the stage to taunt her audience. "You came here to see danger," she says. "You came because something might happen. You came to see blood." She's wearing a short, frilly skirt, high heels and a low-cut, sleeveless top; she has thick tattoos running up and down both arms. Earlier in the show she was a fire-breather, and near the end of the second act she'll precision-bullwhip a flower out of the mouth of an audience "volunteer."
The crowd at the Lincoln Theatre cheers—from the looks of things, most of them have been drunk since at least two hours before show time and they're pretty much ready to cheer anything—but they don't really mean it. They're not ghouls, and neither am I. As the stagehands slowly set up a 10-foot-high tightrope in front of the stage—where in about five minutes the acrobat will pretend to slip and for a second stop everybody's heart—it's simply not true that what we really, truly want is to see her fall. We don't want to see that poor audience member get hit in the eye with the bullwhip, either, or see the clown hanging upside-down off a lamp fall and break his neck, or see the sword-swallower accidentally sneeze and kill himself by mistake.
We just want to think, for a moment, that those things might happen. That they could happen. We only want to flirt with danger, that's all; we don't want to take it home.
What brings us to the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, or to any circus—or any place outside the smoothly produced, tightly controlled entertainment that mass culture provides us with, whether we want it or not—is a flirtation not with disaster but instead with transgression, with random chance, with the possibility of something finally happening that hasn't been carefully stage-managed and planned out. We're yearning, all of us, to see something really real: There are so few places in America where one can still find it, and they are always either huge and horrible catastrophes or else marginal, strange happenings—as marginal and strange as a vaudeville-burlesque-comedy-rodeo-circus on a Sunday night in downtown Raleigh, N.C.
The essential character of the circus has never been the lion tamer or the knife thrower or the trapeze swinger: It's the clown, who with his juggling and his pratfalls and his complete disregard for the basic tenets of decent, civilized society shows us (in case we've forgotten) the possibility of escape from the usual rules and the same played-out scripts—a much-needed taste of liberation, of freedom from ubiquitous control.
There's a reason all kids want to run away and join the circus. There's a reason some of us still do.