The Greatest Showman and the Deceptions of American Capitalism

by Edward J. Balleisen

BalleisenPerhaps unsurprisingly, The Greatest Showman, the new cinematic musical about the nineteenth-century American impresario of entertainment P. T. Barnum, unabashedly takes liberties with the historical record. As reviewers have already documented (Richard Brody in the New Yorker, Bruce Chadwick for History News Network), it fabricates matters large and small, as is the wont of Hollywood screenwriters and directors who work on biopics, while ignoring a host of truthful vignettes that cry out for cinematic treatment. As a historian of business fraud, I found myself especially disappointed that the musical steered clear of many aspects of Barnum’s career that speak powerfully to elements of our own moment, including the rise of a Barnum-esque publicity hound and conductor of media misdirection from the White House, and the constant turmoil swirling over allegations of fake news. And yet, The Greatest Showman does get some of the larger implications of Barnum’s life right—especially his injection of a democratic style of hullabaloo into American capitalism.

A full inventory of the film’s flights of fancy would require catalogue length. But a sampling conveys the minimal concern for fidelity to historical detail. The movie portrays the young Barnum as the poorly-clad son of an impoverished Connecticut tailor, rather than the child of a respectable proprietor who had a number of well-to-do relatives and also owned a store and inn. It gives Barnum experiences that he never had (begging and stealing food as an orphaned New York City street urchin; clerking for an insurance company). It depicts his move into the world of entertainment as occurring sometime well after the establishment of the railroad, perhaps even after the Civil War, rather than in the 1830s.

The Greatest Showman ignores Barnum’s earliest promotions of lotteries, curiosities and hoaxes, including his cruel exhibition of the elderly African-American slave woman Joice Heth as supposedly the 161-year old former wet-nurse of George Washington, and his willingness to profit further after her death through a public autopsy, experiences that laid the groundwork for his management of the American Museum. The screenwriters (Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks) have Barnum buy the museum on a wholly fictional mix of frustration, fantasy, and fraud, made possible by his fraudulent provision of fake collateral to a New York City bank that lends him the necessary $10,000. Instead of coming to grips with the actual Barnum’s vociferous advocacy of temperance, the film conjures up a hard-drinking man who makes deals over whiskeys in saloons. Rather than showing how Barnum consistently found new performers over the years, it brings together the midget Charles Stratton (known on stage as Tom Thumb), the Siamese twins Change and Eng, and the other members of the troupe within weeks of Barnum’s purchase of the American Museum.

The historical Barnum had a falling out with the famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind not because he refused her amorous advances in the middle of their American tour (the musical’s explanation), but because she tired of his relentless focus on maximizing the returns from her concerts. A key antagonist for Barnum in The Greatest Showman is one “Bennett,” portrayed as a stiff-collared, high-toned theatre critic of the New York Herald. The actual James Gordon Bennett was the publisher of that paper, who proved more than happy to go along with hoaxes and sensationalism himself, using both to help cement his newspaper’s position as the first penny newspaper that catered to the broad masses. The character of Barnum’s high society sidekick Philip Carlyle is entirely fictional, as in his relationship with Anne Wheeler, an African-American female trapeze artist. One last illustration—the film attributes the fire that destroyed Barnum’s New York City Museum to neighborhood toughs who did not like his business, rather than the actual arsonist, a Confederate sympathizer who wished toward the end of the Civil War to strike a blow against the Union.

Of course, by indulging a willingness to elide facts or push outright lies in the service of a hokey story, the makers of The Greatest Showman adopt Barnum’s own modus operandi as a purveyor of entertainment. And the movie does a creditable job of engaging with some of Barnum’s larger cultural significance—his recognition that publicity and HYPE of any kind was often a marketing asset; his understanding that the public would be forgiving of misrepresentations and humbug if they, on balance, enjoyed the eventual show; his embrace of difference and variation within the human condition as worthy of celebration (if also exploitation); his compulsion to expand operations to take advantage of new opportunities, even at the cost of incurring gargantuan debts; his relentless focus on the American mythos of democratic opportunity, whether through his own experience (as carefully narrated in his autobiographies) or those of the stars in his shows. As the film implies, there was indeed deep-seated antagonism to Barnum’s business practices and willingness to engage in fakery, though the complaints came overwhelmingly from pulpits and the pages of evangelical newspapers, rather than protesters who made their presence known outside the Museum. And Barnum did in fact seek to defuse those critiques through the promotion of respectable performers such as Jenny Lind, alongside his curiosities, penchant for misdirection, and outright fakery.

Nonetheless, The Greatest Showman also missed many opportunities to explore episodes in Barnum’s life that have renewed resonance in the early twenty-first century. One crucial theme here concerns Barnum’s engagement with American race relations, both as promoter and in his post-Civil War forays in Connecticut politics and public service. Barnum’s often dehumanizing treatment of people of color and his evolving political views on race will surely occasion much commentary amid the current dramatic growth in ethnocentric nationalism and racially-grounded politics, as in a recent Smithsonian Magazine piece by Jackie Mansky. Other contemporary developments that suggest the value of reconsidering Barnum’s historical significance, closer to my own expertise, include the reoccurrence of massive business frauds, the emergence of enduring conflict over the appropriate role of government in consumer and investor protection, and diminished faith in institutions of all sorts.

The musical, for example, overlooks Barnum’s own bankruptcy in 1855, brought about because of his misplaced faith in the promises of a clock manufacturer who was willing to relocate his operation to Barnum’s adopted home town of Bridgeport, Connecticut, as part of an industrial development scheme. Barnum freely endorsed the Jerome Clock Company’s loans, opening himself up to devastating losses when the company failed, losses made worse by the firm’s eventual forging of Barnum’s endorsement on many additional notes. Yet he also sidestepped the worst consequences of that failure by illegally transferring assets into his wife’s name, a move that greatly facilitated his ability to get back on his financial feet, and for which he never faced public condemnation or legal penalty. Barnum’s insolvency thus speaks to the reality that even the savviest operators can be victims of imposition; and that well-connected perpetrators of commercial deceit have often been able to sidestep the most damaging fallout from their actions.

Another fascinating episode that The Greatest Showman ignores is Barnum’s growing focus on debunking the deceit of other purveyors of rhetorical (or actual) snake oil. By the 1860s, the promoter sought to legitimize his own brand of hokum and bluster not only by adding unquestionably respectable acts to his museum and eventual circus, but also by exposing frauds in many sectors of American life.  Compiled in his 1866 volume, Humbugs of the World, these endeavors targeted misrepresentations in retail trade, medicine, and religion (especially in the realm of spiritualism). Here Barnum intuited the great power associated with well-constructed strategies of deflection—that one could gain trust in part by setting oneself up as an arbiter of untrustworthiness. Perhaps there is no greater contemporary practitioner of this particular form of showmanship than the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump has rarely hesitated to get out ahead of critiques of his own business and political practices by casting the first stones, as through his allegations of malfeasance by political opponents (the pleas during the 2016 general election campaign to investigate Hillary Clinton and “Lock Her Up”) or representatives of the media (the incessant allegations of FAKE NEWS.) In addition to muddying factual waters, such strategies can shore up support among the faithful, sustaining the conviction that their champion is fighting the good fight, and could not possibly be engaging in duplicitous behavior of his own.

In the end, The Greatest Showman cares most about exploring fictionalized or wholly fictional romantic tensions—those between Barnum and his wife Charity and between the Philip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler—as well as the degree to which Barnum lives up to his purported insistence on an inclusive respect for his socially marginalized performers. These choices constrain the musical’s capacity to engage deeply with Barnum’s historical significance as an entrepreneur who played an outsized role in creating modern mass entertainment. And so a multitude of opportunities go begging. Barnum’s many legacies, however, continue to reverberate in contemporary America, whether one focuses on the the dynamics of social media saturation, the process of invented celebrity, the sources of abiding racial tensions,  the implications of pervasive commercial dissembling, or the nature of popular skepticism about expert appraisals of reality. And so the ground remains open for cultural reinterpretations of the Great Showman’s life and times.  If the twentieth-century is any guide, we won’t have to wait too long for another cinematic treatment—every generation or so, some movie-maker finds the resources to put Barnum back on the screen.[1]

[1] Previous films include “The Mighty Barnum” (1934), “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), “Barnum” (1986), and “P. T. Barnum” (1999).

Edward J. Balleisen is professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.