Largely, the story of The Circus is, much like the circus itself, the tale of performative wonder forever mired by dogged claims of benighted emptiness. Much like a circus, The Circus is whispered about with the hushed tones of an empty-calorie exercise in endlessly travelling around, living a harried, itinerant life as a collection of sketches rather than the presumably more “developed” and forward-thinking narratives of Chaplin’s silent films on either side of this feature (the monumental The Gold Rush and City Lights). You could call it a trivializing escapade into fluff rather than an expedition into psychology or social realism, but you’d be denying the film, and yourself, in doing so. Singularly among Chaplin’s feature-length films, The Circus is a regression to his earlier days alighting one and two-reeler pantomimes, and it is not in spite of this fact but because of it that the film flies as highly as it does.
Threatened by advances circling overhead like vultures, The Circus more or less confronts the advents of sound and the increasing complication of and narrativization of feature-length cinema not with a war of attrition or a full-frontal charge but something of a retreat or an escape to Chaplin’s more comfortable, earlier territory when he was on top of the world. Much like those short films Chaplin’s career was erected underneath, The Circus is a situation more than a story. The narrative, as it were, is a premise and nothing more, but it is also much more within the texture of this film. Chaplin’s familiar Tramp is dislodged from his current occupation wandering the globe and searching for survival when he is mistaken for a pickpocket and chased into the circus. Therein, he escapes his assailants but not the world itself; his endless trouble to stand up straight in space, his inability to coexist in harmony with the world, is mutated into fertile ground for audience laughter. A star attraction, the trouble, essentially, is that he cannot be funny on command; his very being is humorous, but only when his intentions are distinctly mirthless.
The essence is a state of jagged tension between desire and happenstance that girders a study in the impotency and anxiety of performance as well as the strain on the self when one’s habitual nature, and the world’s reaction to it, is tangent to the heart’s desire. Not only an embodiment of the Tramp character, The Circus is also an interrogation of it, even a melancholy exhumation of the character’s corpse from the days of the increasingly out-of-date shorts of Chaplin’s earlier days. The Tramp lacks the intentionality, the consciousness, the agency of the classical Hollywood protagonist; the world gets to him, he does not control the world, let alone his own being.
He is also, notably, not a character with an existence outside the diegesis; The Circus does not arrive accompanied by the ancillary assumption that this character’s flesh and blood can exist at all without the nature of performance in the air, without the lens of an audience to view him, to confound him, and to breathe life into him. Fittingly, the Tramp is a man of the moment, an apex of the improvisational ideal where one’s survival is dictated by one’s ability to adapt to the world (after all, what else could a tramp do?). But his life, the necessity of his existence in the present to survive, also encapsulates his inability to exist as a storied protagonist whose past is consciously projected into the film. He is a character who fills roles, who adopts temporary lives in various performative edifices, rather than a character with a life of his own, on his own terms. In stark disagreement with the affluence of the Classical Hollywood primary agent narrative, where a singular character fixes the world and links the world together by controlling the frame, walking from shot to shot, warping the edits around his physique, Chaplin’s film is a film of passivity, or inability, of a world that acts on you and that you can only ever react to. A celebration of improvisation as an ideal, The Circus is also a startling exploration of the tensions in improvisation both constructed by the world and forever bounded by it.
You could refer to this life as an accident waiting to happen, or you could append that phrase to the film itself. Famously, a lab accident rendered the first month of filming useless, a fire destroyed the primary set, and the film’s piece de resistance sequence required (quite literally) over 500 takes to complete, all to the end of middling praise and competent but hardly revolutionary box office success. If one is bold enough to append the adjective to Chaplin’s career at the time, The Circus mutably morphs into startlingly post-modernist clay (although, to be fair, the earliest days of cinema before realist Hollywood narrative blockaded the artifice impulse are littered with inspired, wicked instances of surrealistic reality-breaking and awareness of the audience). Chaplin’s life was by all accounts a mess around the time of production, beset by personal scandal (his wife was 18) and the long arm of the government (tax troubles). And The Circus stretches and squashes his comfort zone – the old burlesque comic impulse of performing for an audience and reimagining the self as someone else for a little while – into a study in the provisional and tenuous nature of existence. The Tramp is always subject to his audience, to the gaze of the world, to the need to adopt a persona to survive; his film is not a private theater for himself but a subject of public amusement that one cannot fully exercise authority over.
Fittingly, the bravura setpieces of the film are dialectic and existential in nature. The hall of mirrors sequence fragments the character into shards of separate but identical personas who exist as copies or splinters of the whole. Mirrors inscribe themes of self-reflection and distance between us and the character by showing us a representation of him rather than him (and, of course, the subtle awareness that any film character is itself a representation, a construct or an image). But their formal effect isn’t as symbol but as embodiment of our inability to visually settle in on the Tramp and the Tramp’s inability to exist in unison with himself. An early routine finds the Tramp pantomiming the role of a mechanical man so he isn’t discovered, pretending to exist as part of the nuts, bolts, and gears of a system of machines designed purely for entertainment and forever resolved to a life on an unending, ever-repeating track. Again, the essence is dialectic: the Tramp improvises here, asserting an aspect of his core being and potentially discovering himself, but the improvisation, the need to continually reinvent himself, also circumscribes him to exist as a cog in a machine on an endlessly circular path of reinvention until he has no anima of his own. He, like Chaplin, becomes inseparable from his act.
The circularity itself is the obvious semiotic clue of the film, obsessed as the mise-en-scene is with orbs and open-holed spheroids and circles in a statement on the centrifugality of a life one must circle endlessly, doomed to impermanence that is itself forever bounded by a set path, never unearthing a center for the self. This is the transience of a rambler with no home, nor even the hypothetical freedom from domesticated American Dream modernity sometimes romantically afforded to the unmoored, unsettled life of a vagabond. His freedom to perform is forever stuck in a rut, epitomized not as personal agency or conquest but circumstantial reaction to the world flattening on top of him. Intent, of course, doesn’t matter; the film is inflected with and infused by Chaplin’s life situation and meditation thereof whether he intentionally favored the comparison or not. Besides, even within the frame (lacking any knowledge of Chaplin the man), the film is shackled to an introspective, melancholic air of emptiness where comedic set-piece transforms into existential crisis. As afflicted with a love for human kinesis and endless movement as ever, Chaplin invokes the tentative nature of movement as something which you can control or which can control you; the flailing human body is elevated to a totem to confused humanity in an ever-motile world as the Tramp is paradoxically paralyzed by his unending momentum.
When the dust settles, the Tramp entertains, only to be trapped in the now-empty circle of the removed, vanished circus, stranding him in his own loneliness. He can do nothing but walk away to the next presumed adventure, alone and with nothing to live for but the thought of a future escapade, an escape from a life where the escape is also the trap itself. Like the lone wanderer in a John Ford Western, the Tramp is a construct predestined to help the world (to provide laughter, almost in spite of one’s will to do so) without ever existing within the knowable space of the world. Nothing for him remains but to walk away without revealing sadness or exultancy or even accomplishment, but simply a pastoral countenance of “another day, another life lived”.
A withdrawal into comedic set-pieces and navigable shorts loosely stitched into the visage of a feature-length presentation, the film escapes to the comfort of simpler but no less arduous times, tracking the implicit connection between the Tramp (as a diegetic character), the Tramp as Charlie Chaplin the actor, and the early days of proto-cinematic comedy in the vaudeville tradition. But if the film is shackled to Chaplin’s tortured career, it is also enlightened by it. For one film, Chaplin didn’t adopt the position of the eyes of the world, but the eyes of himself, possibly regressive for its fundamental backward-looking nature, but also fundamentally empowering as an investigation of how he, we, anyone, knows their own being.