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Eleanor Lybeck, All on Show: The Circus in Irish Literature and Culture

Olena Tykhomyrova
p. 169-170
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Eleanor Lybeck, All on Show: The Circus in Irish Literature and Culture, Cork, Cork University Press, 2019, x + 229 p.

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1All on Show: The Circus in Irish Literature and Culture is a unique undertaking which brings the ethereal world of the circus, as it is reflected in Irish culture, to scholarly attention. Proceeding from the well-established theoretical background of the carnivalesque, the author delves into the conceptual spaces outlined by the ambivalent nature of the circus and explores their metaphorical potential. The study elucidates the various ways in which this potential is realised within the central notions of Irish literature: national politics, family, gender, and identity.

2To explicate the ways the circus sensitivity weaves itself into culture, Eleanor Lybeck traces the history of this kind of entertainment in Ireland and its connection with the theatrical art. The study benefits greatly from the extensive use of archive materials, including rare and exclusive documents, as well as from a large array of texts, such as song lyrics, press publications, essays, travel journals, letters, biographies of famous performers, etc. To demonstrate the interconnectivity of various cultural phenomena pertinent to her field of research, Lybeck resorts to intermediality, analysing art, theatre, cinema, illustrations, posters, bills, postcards, photography, and accounts of actual circus performances. The result is a panoramic view of the circus’ cultural significance.

3With its focus on literary manifestations of the above-mentioned significance, the book offers insights into the protean nature of the circus resorting to literary critique. In chapter 1 in particular (“Joyce’s Family Circus”, p. 16-28), the circus comes across as a place of vulnerability where physical control, cruelty, and humiliation are the tools of entertainment, metaphorically transferred onto one’s psyche as the space of personal anxieties. Wider dimensions are involved as these individual insecurities penetrate into social, religious, and political spheres, in which the circus trope helps unearth cruelty, absurdity, and even surrealism of the respective domains. Lybeck shows how the grotesque circus body infuses the texts under scrutiny and directs characters towards minor and major transformations, brought on by the idiosyncratic energy of the circus. Many critical identity questions, within the context of Irishness, are viewed through the prism of performance, drama, and certain roles that are continuously played out in the ring of history, being adopted both by authors and their creations.

4The study performed on such a profound level contributes to our understanding and indeed demands a rereading of several seminal works, especially Ulysses by James Joyce with its inextricable web of allusions and implications. Thanks to the meticulous analysis offered in the book, the circus trope presented in texts by James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, Pádraic Ó Conaire, Brian Friel, Stewart Parker, and others yields its rich harvest of meanings and connections that are still relevant today. It is particularly emphasised in chapter 4 (“Revisioning the Circus”, p. 131-174), where the subversive nature of the circus is highlighted, especially with regard to gender and sexual anxieties. The trope’s significance for creating revisionist narratives is exemplified with the help of texts by John Banville, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Deane, and Seamus Heaney, as well as Neil Jordan’s 1991 film The Miracle. The conclusion puts the topic into perspective for the 21st century’s Ireland and points out that the circus metaphors reveal the same cultural continuities / discontinuities for Irish and worldwide cultural shifts.

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Référence papier

Olena Tykhomyrova, « Eleanor Lybeck, All on Show: The Circus in Irish Literature and Culture »Études irlandaises, 46-1 | 2021, 169-170.

Référence électronique

Olena Tykhomyrova, « Eleanor Lybeck, All on Show: The Circus in Irish Literature and Culture »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 46-1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 08 juillet 2021, consulté le 20 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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