‘Semiotics At The Circus’, by Paul Bouissac

Semiotics At The Circus is that rare thing – an academic work on circus written by one who has had a decades long career within the industry.  Paul Bouissac’s passion for his subject shines through the sometimes dense technical language of semiotics, and the vivid recounting of performances he includes are the most precise and evocative that I’ve ever come across.

Semiotics is, in brief, the study of signs and ways in which they are read.  In this case, the deep anthropological and cultural significance within a variety of circus acts, and in the construct of the circus form itself.

Like the acts of a traditional circus compilation, the book’s chapters do not immediately appear connected, but combine to create a whole: an overall demonstration of how the mechanics of circus can be explored beyond simply observing the spectacle, leading to a greater appreciation and understanding of its cultural relevance.

Focussing almost exclusively on ring-type performance, Bouissac addresses concepts of space, timeliness, dramaturgy of various acts, the ways in which performance objects are marketed, and approaches to recording and analysing such ephemeral seeming objects.  The use of horses and bicycles feature prominently as case studies, and a chapter is dedicated to ‘The Logic of Clown Faces’.  The manipulation of audience perception is also discussed in depth, notably with regards to animal performance and to risk.  A compelling argument is given as to why attending a live event always has a more profound impact than a recorded version.

Bouissac is assertive in his readings and interpretations, and there are times when his statements of ‘circus always does X’, ‘all circuses do Y’, ‘every act of this type does Z’ exclude modern variations on the classic form.  As always, the author’s reception of available signs is wholly dependent on his unique experiences and expertise.  That said, Bouissac’s experience is apparent, and his insightful research puts him at the top of this burgeoning field of study.  Semiotics At The Circus should be a staple of every circus scholar’s library.


Bouissac, Paul. Semiotics At The Circus (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010) ISBN: 978-3-11-021829-9


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