The Circus as a Steampunk Trope

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Regardless of what anyone says, I stand by the notion that steampunk is an impossible idea to ultimately define (at least as I write this it still seems to be). That does not, however, mean it is impossible to talk about the various aspects that feed into the greater idea of what Steampunk is, and one of those core tropes, I would argue, is that of  The Circus.

Before I continue on, yes, this article is precisely being timed to go live as we at Steampunk Chicago build up promotional steam for our next big show – The Gearbox Fantastique – which is, unabashedly, a steampunk circus event. But more on that later.

The circus. To run away and join it is freedom, to actually work it is often destitution, to find fame in it a Herculean task and yet the image of The Circus, both in reality and in the fantastique, refuses to die.  I was first exposed to the whimsy of circus through such modes as the music of Tom Waits, the film The City of Lost Children and the television show Carnivale, amongst a whole host of other things.  To say the least, I found the circus in exactly the same places I found steampunk, and for me, the two are inextricably linked.

But why are they linked?  Yes, the circus does not typically include big gears or airships, but I’ve never felt that gears and airships directly label something as steampunk either.  Aesthetics aside, the two essentially come from the same place.  A world on the brink of something, where laws and rules are shoddy at best and non-existent at worse (I do stand by the “punk” in steampunk. )  Both celebrate a strong DIY ethos and a means toward self-invention.   The steampunk world is one composed of inventors, tinkerers, fringe academics and ideologues.  The circus, carnivale, vaudeville and cabaret are populated by re-invented people, fringe entertainers, bigger than life barkers and people who either just don’t fit, or refuse to fit, into every day culture.

Perhaps at it’s core, this is why I see them so intrinsically linked.   The circus is just another part of the steampunk motif.  What type of entertainment could be better for those of us who, while we still enjoy our television and Internet, are finding a new vitality in seeing live acts? In one night you see more unbelievable things (before your eyes none-the-less) than you see on the average television program anymore, and keep in mind, television has post-production going for it.

In this environment of growing mainstream banality, is it any surprise that over the past five years some very large, and mainstream, acts have evoked both steampunk and circus themes?  Britney Spears, Rush, Motley Crue and Primus are just a few of the many.  These are performers who are trying to reach and excite a new audience while retaining their old, and it seems that the DIY, retro-future appeal of steampunk, cabaret and the circus are just the vehicle for the job. That said, I have no issue with popular culture trying to capitalize on any of the aforementioned.  Certainly some acts have done a great job incorporating the subtlety and whimsy of it all while others have grotesquely abused the form.  That aside, I feel that still the most honest and best of such acts can be seen on your smaller stages (but who’s to complain should we all be graduated to larger ones?). I only hope the number of stages and acts grows in each coming year.

So! Did I catch your whimsy? I do hope so, because The Gearbox Fantastique is this Friday, featuring the triumphant return of The Squidling Brothers with Bunny Savage on guitar, Maray Fuego on Squeezebox and Haley Jane performing burlesque.  Alongside these phenomenal show-people are The White Ghost Shivers, a band that I can guarantee will be a crowd pleaser. We round the event off with Chicago’s own Mutiny Sideshow with their mind bending suspensions and the crowd favorite, Magician Michael Burke.   Of course we also have The Steampunk Chicago Djs on the Fusion-O-Scope, The Ladies of Dieselpunk hosting and myself – The Lord Baron – as your MC.   You can RSVP for reduced admission at either or (and win tickets!)  Or if  you prefer to purchase them, simply go HERE.

Oh, what was that?  You are starting to think this entire article was just a big ploy to get you into the big tent?

Well then good readers, all I can say is welcome to the circus.

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  • 1 mamagotcha Feb 16, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Can 17-year-olds attend this performance?

  • 2 mamagotcha Feb 16, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Never mind… Yelp page says 21+

    It would be nice to have some all-ages events for the teen-steampunkers.

  • 3 Lord Baron Joseph C.R. Vourteque IV Feb 17, 2011 at 9:52 am

    We are working on that. The unfortunate truth is a majority of clubs in Chicago are 21+, and only a few are 18+ or all ages. The double problem with an all ages event is it has to end at 9.

    But our Carnivale Delirium show, in October, will definitely be 18+, so be on the lookout should you be of age by then!

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