Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Circus Minimus

Bill Peach

The mayor and city councilmen had thought it was just a prank when the first request came from Historical Dramatic Productions, Inc. to stage a reenactment of a Roman Circus at the Municipal Auditorium. The city had been reluctant to allow the event, offering a long list of legal justifications to deny access to a municipal facility. The primary objection was over the closing act which was billed as a portrayal of the sacrifice of a Christian to a lion. The legal staff of the city was concerned that such a portrayal would evoke the wrath of the religious community and animal rights groups.

Earlier in the year, the Auditorium had been rented to the area Churches of Christ for a revival that had drawn over 8,000 local Christians for six consecutive nights. Lawyers for a local civil rights group argued that the city could not discriminate based on the content of the religious message and that as long as there was fair market compensation for usage it would not effect a violation of church and state legality. After many meetings between the lawyers on both sides, the contract was signed, a date was fixed, and the publicity began.

The production company met with PETA officials who determined that the one lion used in the production was harmless and was being handled by a licensed animal trainer. The chariot races and other equestrian events were being staged by the Middle Tennessee State University Equestrian team. The costumes were being designed by the fashion design department of a local college.

Publicity began in late July for the event scheduled for early September. Public reaction was mixed. Some people in the religious community were skeptical as to how Christians would be depicted in the production, but others saw this as an opportunity to call attention to the courage of early Christians. The production company contacted local churches asking their participation, requesting several hundred church members who would be dressed in authentic Christian clothing. Several churches volunteered to participate, convinced that the sponsors were sincere and would treat the religious image with some historical accuracy.

The participation of the local churches became a major factor in ticket sales. The Christian and lion scene was to be the dramatic closing with a spectacular cast of hundreds. Once the churches became involved, there was broad support for the event throughout the city by those who saw this as a Christian event rather than as a circus as it had been advertised.

In early August, several rumors that threatened the event began to circulate. The rumors followed a true misfortune in the death of the aged and benign lion. It just died unexpectedly of old age, and the trainer was distraught and went back to Florida. The first rumor was that the lion had been replaced by one recently caught in the wild and that the sponsors, for fear of having the circus cancelled, had not told anyone connected with the city or the churches. The second rumor had to do with the integrity of two of the owners of the Historical Dramatic company. It was alleged that they had connections to a group of atheists in Florida, and had participated in some questionable activist documentaries in which religion had been discredited and not depicted fairly. That may or may not have been true, but it made its way through the churches. In a matter days, all participation by the churches was cancelled. Ticket sales stopped and the sponsors refused to give refunds on advanced sales.

In a prepared press release, the promoters announced that the show would go on but the closing scene would be cancelled unless they could find some Christians to volunteer. They made no attempt to explain why the scene could not be done with actors playing the roles of Christians, but rather launched a vindictive assault on the religious community, insisting that they could not find even one Christian in the entire city.

This exchange precipitated days of letters to the editor. Some suggested that the event sponsors were godless troublemakers who were hostile to Christianity. These were countered by letters that echoed the idea that the city was in fact void of the religious fervor of the early days of the Christian movement.

After several days, the senior pulpit minister of the Good Life Community Church called their bluff and offered to represent the local Christians. Reverend Andrew Klease was a retired Marine officer who had found God in a near-death experience in Korea and dedicated his life to the ministry. Throughout the city, churches applauded Reverend Klease for his bravery, though they still questioned the feral threat of the lion or any harmful intent of the promoters.

Ticket sales resumed and the sold out sign went up in the ticket window. For reasons that may have been coincidental, the event had been scheduled for a Wednesday night, or as it was called, a church night. Most churches chose to meet for a brief worship service and provide church bus transportation to the auditorium. Most Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians ignored the event, treating it as yet another unfortunate display of ostentatious religious misconduct and theological grandstanding. Reverend Klease became a heroic figure among the Evangelical ranks, a symbolic icon of bravery and selfless devotion to Christ. To the secular community and mainstream Christians he was seen as a more comedic or tragic figure.

The church buses made their way through the snarled traffic around the Auditorium and the Wednesday night church people were unloaded at the front entrance. The sellout crowd was a diverse group of the curious and the serene. To some it was a joke; to some it was a tangible manifestation of a true Christian spiritual presence.

An impatient throng, anticipating the final confrontation, sat through the long program. The chariot races had been run at a safe speed in the limited space and did not rise to the dramatic level of a Ben Hur. The skillful horsemanship of the drivers was exciting enough to overshadow the amateurish design and construction of the chariots.

All gladiatorial events were supervised by a retired Hollywood director working with local Civil War re-enactors. The games were spectacular. They seemed slightly diminished by the absence of the smell and smoke of gunpowder, but the authenticity of the costumes and weaponry was meticulous. The promoters had rented costumes from a company that was a supplier for epic Hollywood productions. The Civil War re-enactors exhibited their usual skills to effect realism and historic exactness. One of the local universities planned and executed the several track and field events that may have seemed more Greek than Roman, except for very authentic attire and equipment. Overall, it was a success. Each event was followed by enthusiastic applause and crowd approval. The Wednesday night church crowd had gotten its money’s worth.

The last gladiators, including the dead and wounded, exited or were dragged from the arena floor. The herald trumpets, played by the music students from a local Baptist university, proclaimed the long-awaited final scene. The flourishes of the trumpets ended, and the arena lights were dimmed as suspense and uncertainty engulfed a silent audience.

The spotlights framed the arena entrance as Reverend Klease entered wearing a pure white toga, also more Greek than Roman, tied at the waist with a purple sash. An approving crowd of fans and sceptics rose to its collective feet in some mixed din of praise and ridicule. Reverend Klease circled the arena perimeter as the applause followed him like a wave, rising and falling with his proximity.

The mood of the auditorium was one of victory. The religious community had stood tall and stared down any who would question the bravery of Christians. The applause, mixed with whistles and cheers, continued and grew louder.

The spotlights separated and one circled the arena until it caught the glistening mane of the young, large lion as it emerged from another arena entrance. This was not the blunt-toothed and tranquil survivor of black-and-white movies as advertised in local publicity releases.

The cheering crowd became quiet except for deep breaths of disbelief and an occasional muffled scream. Surely the animal-handlers would come and capture the lion and return it to its cage. How would they end this drama? Whatever statement they had hoped to make was lost in the impending horror of this tragic finale. Would Nero or Caligula suddenly appear and lift an upturned thumb to deliver this devout man from martyrdom? It was time for Historical Dramatic Productions, Inc. to end the production and drop the curtain on this farce.

Reverend Klease, with no sign of fear, moved toward the lion. The lion stood motionless and watched the man in the white robe and purple sash. The crowd watched, not knowing if this man of God was about to be mauled and bitten by a lion innocently caught in this anachronistic role as a the villain in the chronicle of Christianity. Every person in the audience wanted to cry out to Reverend Klease and tell him to run. You don’t have to do this! You don’t have to prove your faith! Run! Run! Instead, he moved closer. The reluctant lion, still not certain of the identity of this fellow creature, leaned backward with its back legs bent and its tail wagging. Finally, it showed an open mouth with finger-length teeth, and still did not move toward Reverend Klease.

In that moment of truth, that climactic big finish that all dramatic events must have, the lion with an almost deafening roar sprang from the arena floor into the air toward his smaller but unflinching adversary.

With the skill and courage of a retired Marine officer, with bravery in a time of peril, with the reflexes of his days in Korea, Reverend Klease fired a burst of five or six rounds from his pistol which he had hidden under his white robe and purple sash. The lion landed at the feet of the reverend and soon became motionless on the arena floor.

A dazed audience watched in horror. Short isolated and spontaneous applause was followed by a hush of uncertainty. Some were obviously crying; others covered their faces and turned their backs to the carnage in the arena. A still spotlight caught the spreading pool of red that now encircled the lion’s head and front paws. Reverend Klease took one look behind him as he left the arena floor. Children clung to their parents’ legs and hid their eyes. There were some sounds of relief and approval for what seemed to have been a last second miraculous escape from a potential tragedy.

The church buses were waiting just outside the auditorium exits. The Wednesday night Christians spoke very little as they boarded the buses and rode back to the churches to pick up their cars and go home. The few words that were spoken were humble prayers, thanking God that this night was over.


Bill Peach, storyteller and philosopher, resides in Franklin, Tennessee. He is the author of The South Side of Boston, the memoirs of an eight-year-old growing up in the community of Boston, Tennessee, and Random Thoughts, Left and Right, a collection of essays, articles, and short fiction on subjects including organized religion, human rights, the First Amendment, politics, violence, and sexuality. He also published a play, To Think as a Pawn, a study of confrontation and reconciliation between generations with different views of time, religion, and patriotism.

© Bill Peach

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012