The Circus of Dr. Lao
Front cover of first edition
|Author||Charles G. Finney|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935) is a novel written by Arizona newspaperman Charles G. Finney and illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff. It won one of the inaugural National Book Awards: the Most Original Book of 1935.
Many later editions omit the illustrations.
The novel is set in the fictional town of Abalone, Arizona, whose inhabitants epitomize ordinary Americans as they are simultaneously backhandedly celebrated and lovingly pilloried for their emergent reactions to the wonders of magic and of everyday life. A circus owned by a Chinese man named Dr. Lao pulls into town one day, carrying legendary creatures from all areas of mythology and legend, among them a sea serpent, Apollonius of Tyana who tells dark, yet always truthful, fortunes, a medusa, a satyr, and others. Through interactions with the circus, the locals attain various enigmatic peak experiences appropriate to each one's particular personality.
The tale ends with the town becoming the site of a ritual to a pagan god whimsically given the name "Yottle", possibly an allusion to the Mesoamerican god Yaotl, whose name means "the enemy". The ritual ends when the god himself slays a virgin, her unrequited lover and the priest. The circus over, the townsfolk scatter to the winds. Apparently few of them profit from the surreal experiences.
The book's appendix is a "Catalogue" of all the people, places, items and mythological beings mentioned in the novel, summing up the characters pithily and sardonically, revealing the various fates of the townsfolk and listing a number of plot holes and unanswered questions not addressed in the book.
List of Dr. Lao's captured animals:
- Satyr: 2,300 years old, he was captured in Tu-jeng, China near the Great Wall. He was born of the union of a goatherd and one of his goats.
- Medusa: She was very young and wore very little clothing. She had many species of snakes in her hair, of which three are mentioned: Tantillas, the brown, with black ring around their necks; Night Snakes, grey snakes with black spots on them; and Arizona elegans, faded brown snakes. She was a Sonoran Medusa from Northern Mexico.
- Roc Chick, "nowhere near as big as Sindbad said it was, but plenty big enough to do what Sindbad said it did!" It hatched from an egg which would sweat salt water.
- Hound of the Hedges: Created when water touched a dry ricefield for the first time in many years. His tail was made of ferns, his fur was green grass, instead of teeth he had rose thorns, his blood and saliva were chlorophyll.
- Mermaid: She was captured in the Gulf of Pei-Chihli, the same day as the sea serpent. Her tail was sea-green and sleek scaled, her tail fin was as pink as a trout's. Her hair was seaweed green, her human half was young and slender with slight breasts.
- Sphinx: A hermaphroditic, African Sphinx. Its head was blunt nosed and womanlike, it had breasts like a woman and had the voice of a man. It is not mentioned whether it had wings like the Greek sphinx, or no wings like an Egyptian sphinx.
- Chimera: The chimera was male unlike the chimera in Greek myth thus its body was different. Although it still had a lion's body and a snake's tail, it had eagle's wings and a metal barb at the end of the tail that can strike as a scorpion. (It seams that Finney describes something closer to a manticore.)
- Sea Serpent: He was almost a hundred feet long and was dark grey, his tongue was as thick as a man's arm and bright yellow. His eyes were bronze and had black slits for pupils. His tail was paddle shaped similar to a sea snakes. The Sea Serpent is the only animal that did not become tame after being captured. He planned to escape with the mermaid and return to the sea.
- Werewolf: She started her transformation as a large gray wolf. When she transformed she changed into an old woman, not the young lady the men were expecting.
- Unicorn: a Kirin of Asian Myth.
- Golden Ass: A man who had been extremely rude to Isis was transformed in to a golden haired donkey and was kept by the circus.
The novel was later adapted by Charles Beaumont into the script for an effects-filled 1964 movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. The film features a great deal of stop motion animation, and was produced by George Pal, himself a stop motion animator of long experience.
The "7 Faces" were all portrayed by Tony Randall. He appears as the doctor, who alternates between acting comical Chinese stereotype who speaks broken English and a dignified figure with a solemn deep voice who demonstrates a mastery of English, Medusa, Pan, The Abominable Snowman, Appolonius of Tyana, who serves as the sideshow fortune teller and who refuses to shield people from unhappy truths, the magician Merlin, who is old and fumbling so that the obtuse audience does not realize he performs actual miracles when not performing clumsy sleight of hand, a stop motion Serpent in the circus that changes its face depending on who looks at it, and, finally, a circus patron who appears once in a crowd scene. According to Turner Classic Movies, Peter Sellers had also been considered seriously for the multiple roles but was not yet considered a big enough star.
In the book the name "Lao" is evidently pronounced "Low", as the doctor recites a doggerel poem which does not otherwise rhyme properly. A version of the poem is recited in the film. In the movie the name is variously pronounced to rhyme with "low" and "how", and Randall himself uses both pronunciations. Similarly, the town's name "Abalone" is pronounced various ways: like the name of the shell fish ("ab-a-lo-nee"), to rhyme with "Avalon" and to rhyme with "Navarone".
The movie follows the book in only a vague way, and inserts a plot about how the town miser, played by Arthur O'Connell, wishes to dupe townspeople into selling their land as he knows a new railroad is coming.
- "Books and Authors", The New York Times, 1936-04-12, page BR12. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2007).
- "Lewis is Scornful of Radio Culture: ...", The New York Times, 1936-05-12, page 25. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2007).
- Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. p. 115.