Monday, 27 July 2009

Review: Serious Play

Serious Play, Modern Clown Performance
by Louise Peacock, (Intellect Books 2009)

As a specialist in the field of clown (as a practitioner and an academic), I was excited when I recently learned of this book's imminent publication. There are so few rigorously written studies of clown that I was ready to welcome any contributions to the serious study of this complex art form.

Having read the book, I am astounded and appalled that such a shoddy piece of work could get past the publisher's checks. The published text is based on the author's PhD thesis, but the writing would hardly bear up to scrutiny on an undergraduate level.

Apart from being very poorly written from a point of view of style and clarity of thought, the text contains several factual errors, such as the lumping of Chaplin into the category of Hobo Clowns, a form which the author rightly states was born in the 1920s. Chaplin's tramp character (NOT the same as a Hobo), as everyone knows, had been appearing in films throughout the previous decade.


The author devotes a large section to discussing the clown activist work of CIRCA, but neglects to mention that the founders of CIRCA have long ago abandoned this project, declaring it to be an untenable position.

The basic assumption of the book, that clown is equivalent to play, is never justified, and ignores the large amount of clown work done in recent years that rejects the usefulness of play theory to clowning.

If this had been published some 20 or more years ago, it might have had some resonance, but today it reads as a poorly researched personal reaction to a handful of shows rather than a rigorous study.

I do not understand how someone with apparently very limited knowledge or experience of clown (the author has done a workshop with Angela da Castro, seen Slava's Snowshow a number of times, and very little else) has managed to get such a misleading work into the marketplace.

2 comments:

Louise said...

As the author of the book I felt moved to respond to Mr Davison’s comments. For the most part what Mr Davison has to say constitutes an unsupported and rather offensive attack. Apparently this is a shoddy piece of work which is poorly written. Interestingly, Mr Davison does not provide any examples and his own written style “would hardly bear up to scrutiny on an undergraduate level” hardly demonstrates a great facility with words.
I refer to Chaplin as a tramp clown in a paragraph which establishes the terms ‘tramp’ and ‘hobo’ as alternatives. Of course, there are distinctions to be made. Just as it is possible to make distinctions amongst a whole variety of Augustes but, in under 200 pages, some detail has to be sacrificed.
The accusation of plagiarism is defamatory. As with all his other comments Davison provides no evidence. McManus writes about clown in relation to theories of acting, beyond the fact that I mention Verfremsdungeffekt on p99 ( it’s tricky to write about Brecht without mentioning it) I can’t see how I could be accused on drawing heavily on him. We both write about Mann ist Mann- the obvious text for Brecht and clowning. McManus writes about Brecht in relation to Chaplin, Valentin and the Fratellini Brothers and I don’t. Both McManus and I refer (with both of us attributing correctly) to Mayer’s comments that Brecht intended to rewrite Waiting for Godot. It is equally difficult to support an accusation of plagiarism in relation to the material on Beckett. McManus and I look at the same plays – as anyone looking at Beckett and clowning would. Once again McManus spends some time on the link between Beckett and the Fratellini brothers. My own focus is on exploring Beckett’s clowns in relation to Existentialism. McManus looks at Endgame which I only mention in passing. We both look at Act Without Words 1 and I go on to include Act Without Words 2 (McManus doesn’t). As an AHRC creative fellow Davison is well aware of the significance of accusing an academic of plagiarism. He has made this accusation without support in a manner which is totally unacceptable.
CIRCA’s founders may have ‘long ago abandoned this project’ (though once again Davison does not tell us how we could verify this) but the CIRCA website is still active with links (http://www.rebelclown.net/clogs/) to activity occurring in 2009. Even if CIRCA had entirely disbanded, the work that took place would still be worthy of discussion.
Mr Davison is, of course, entitled to his opinion that play theory is not useful in relation to clown. However, again he fails to give his reader any indication of where to find ‘the large amount of clown work done in recent years that rejects the usefulness of play theory to clowning’. Academics routinely disagree about the application of critical theory but I found play theory to be a useful tool for examining the nature of clown performance.
The allegation that the work is poorly researched is unsupported as is the suggestion that I have seen only a handful of performances is again unfounded. The bibliography lists 14 live performances and they are only the ones which are directly referenced in the book. I cannot claim such a long involvement with clowning as Mr Davison, but it has been the main focus of my research for 10 ten years.
Mr Davison’s final point seems to suggest that only someone with long experience in performing as a clown can write about clowns and clowning. One would hope that, as a practitioner, he has much to contribute to our understanding of clowning. There is also room for academics to write on this kind of performance. Indeed, I would hope that useful understanding might develop from contact between these different perspectives. He accuses my work of being misleading but again fails to establish in what way I mislead.
Mr Davison – you are entitled to your opinion but you need to retract the accusation of plagiarism. It is libellous.

Jon Davison said...

Firstly, in response to your call for me to remove my accusation of plagiarism, I am happy to comply. It is not my intention to get embroiled in legal disputes. Also, I must admit that I used the term without due rigour. My intention was to criticise the lack of references to McManus's work, which I feel has heavily influenced your arguments in parts of your own book. This is my own subjective impression, and not something I could set out to prove. So I hope that clears that up and you will accept my apologies for any offence caused.
Concerning this point and all others I made, my intention has not been to offend, but to criticise.
"Mr Davison does not provide any examples and his own written style “would hardly bear up to scrutiny on an undergraduate level” hardly demonstrates a great facility with words." I presume you are pulling me up on some grammatical point here that escapes me due to my living outside the UK for about 15 years. My point was about the expression of ideas, though.
"CIRCA’s founders may have ‘long ago abandoned this project’ (though once again Davison does not tell us how we could verify this)". This is easily verifiable by contacting any of the founding members of CIRCA. I am aware of this due to my regular collaboration with one of them.
"However, again he fails to give his reader any indication of where to find ‘the large amount of clown work done in recent years that rejects the usefulness of play theory to clowning’." Have a look at Avner the Eccentric's teaching: http://www.avnertheeccentric.com/workshops.php or my own criticism of clown as play: http://www.jondavison.net/the%20phenomenology%20of%20clown.pdf
I think that you have made an assumption that play theory is useful in explaining how clown works, and my opinion is that the onus should be on you to justify such a position, which is a disputed one in the field of clown. This is an example of what I feel is misleading.
Finally, I certainly do not believe that academics cannot write about clowning, nor that opinions should be limited to those with long experience. My final point was that I think you draw your central and general conclusions about the nature of clowning from a limited range of examples, focusing heavily on Slava Polunin and Angela de Castro. If the book was limited to being a study of these two figures, then all would be well and good.