“The Greatest Showman,” a musical biopic of P. T. Barnum, starring Hugh Jackman, opens today in movie theaters.
When José Martí lived in New York City, Barnum’s entertainment ventures were already fixtures among the city’s amusements, and it is not surprising that the Cuban was well acquainted with what the legendary showman had to offer. Martí may have been busy building the Cuban nation, but he rarely passed up an opportunity to let the city amuse him.
Martí had a predilection for “The Greatest Show on Earth.” In one of his earliest chronicles, in September of 1883, he labeled Barnum a “man of genius”: “This world gives rise to so much pain, but it also gives us those who alleviate it. He who discovers ways to attract and entertain others is a benefactor of mankind. Happiness is the wine of the spirit.” To Martí, Barnum’s show at Madison Square Garden was the site of fantastic sights, which he described in 1887 with childlike wonder:
Shiny chariots with their hairless coachmen, gladiators smeared in white to resemble classical statues, their horses dancing on a wire, . . . women hanging by their hair from the highest reaches of the circus, elephants prancing and making like clowns until one of them tires of the tamer’s harassment, . . . breaks down the door and is followed by an infuriated herd that knocks over musicians and dancers and heads into the stables beneath the seats in a volcanic rumble.
In April 1894 Martí hosted the return visit to New York of General Máximo Gómez, the aging but still respected military leader with whom Martí had an unpleasant falling-out ten years earlier during a meeting in Madame Griffou’s hotel in Greenwich Village. This time Gómez was returning to New York at Martí’s invitation. The young upstart poet and orator who had so annoyed the general with his impertinence when they had last met was now the head of a unified civilian movement poised to take a revolution to Cuba. Anxious to lay aside any animosities between them, Martí hoped to persuade the general to lead the military campaign, and Gómez was ready to be persuaded. It was important to establish a good personal relationship with the general, and to that end he enlisted the help of his favorite New York attraction. One day during Gómez’s stay in New York, Martí scribbled a note to his assistant, the young attorney Gonzalo de Quesada, excusing himself for not being able to attend an event that evening because, he wrote, “tonight I am taking the General to Barnum’s.”
The lens of history renders it an extraordinary sight: the builder of the Cuban nation and its most revered military figure, icons both, sitting together enjoying the “Greatest Show on Earth.” That spring of 1894 Barnum & Bailey’s featured attraction was a pair of large chimpanzees, “Chiko and his bride Johanna,” whose trained act was a parody of the bliss and agony of human matrimonial life. Judging from the advertisement in the New York Times, the three-ring circus at Madison Square that season was an extravaganza:
Wild and domestic brutes performing at one time, . . . eighty marvelous circus acts, fifty aerialists, twenty acrobats, thirty-three golden chariots, . . . two herds of elephants, two droves of camels, . . . twenty animal clowns and twenty pantomimic clowns, . . . a real Cossack encampment, . . . savage people, black and brown skinned natives from everywhere, . . . truthful, moral, instructive, and historical.
Truly historical was the bond that the writer and the general cemented in those few days in New York. The evening at Barnum’s was part of Martí’s strategy to gain the trust of the cantankerous but indispensable warrior who was a critical piece in the revolutionary movement that Martí was organizing in New York to take the war for independence to Cuba. Gómez served, until the end of the Spanish-Cuban-American War, as the commander of the Cuban rebel troops.