Wednesday, 30 September 2009

An Encyclopaedia of Clown

[This is a lengthy piece of work, so I thought I'd publish it bit by bit. Here are the first two entries to be going on with.]

50 ways or elements (a kind of clown periodic table, perhaps?) to understand how clown works and how to generate material.

We used the Encyclopaedia to devise a short demonstration show for the Festival Of… at CSSD in September 2009, designed to test, compare and demonstrate the wide variety of forms and structures in clown performance.

To read more about how we compiled the Encyclopaedia, see my paper ‘The Dramaturgy of Clown or “What do clowns do?”’


1. Breaking the written rules of the game.

By “rules of the game”, we mean any norms of behaviour stated explicitly, and which are designed to generate a particular activity in an orderly way. Evidently the breaking of these norms will threaten or even destroy the activity. Donald McManus defines clown’s role as contradicting the context: “Clown logic does not have an essential meaning other than to contradict the environment in which the clown appears” (McManus 2003: 17).

We commonly use words like “cheating” or “disobeying” to denote these disruptive behaviours, but perhaps the most radical way is to “refuse to play”. The Olympic 100-metre runner who takes drugs (cheats) is abhorred by the sporting community, but is ultimately understood, as their behaviour is motivated by the ethic of winning the game, and thus shares the same values as sporting society. But the runner who strolls down the track instead of trying to win is an affront to the community’s ideals that cannot be assimilated within its value-system. The clown’s role thus situates him/her as an outsider, one who knows that: “There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for these rules, and so on” (Carse 1986: 10).

We all have the impulse to disobey, as well as the impulse to maintain order. Both are key elements in clown.

2. Breaking the unwritten rules of social cohesion.

By “rules of social cohesion” we mean any norms of behaviour not stated explicitly, but which are implicitly applied by mutual agreement of a group. As with the above entry, the breaking of these rules leads to the threatened or actual unravelling of the pretended order. Relationships between people, and between people and objects, start to fail.

In order to know when we are breaking the rules, we need to know and acknowledge what the correct behaviour would be. For example, we know how to use a chair properly: we can sit in it or stand up from it. We can move it or stack it, offer it or accept a seat in it.

Improper uses might be: standing on it, pulling it away when someone sits, or fighting with it. All these uses are common and logical, but remain improper in the sense that we or the chair fails to comply with the primary use it was intended for.

Going still further, we can find fanciful or tertiary uses: taming a lion, balancing it on your forehead, a chair which collapses, a chair made of paper.

Clowning thus engages directly with material and social reality, first and foremost. It sees things “as they are”. In spite of our constant breaking of the unwritten rules that surround us in our activities, those rules never go away. They may change, but new ones are continuously appearing. The goal of eliminating them is an unattainable utopia. Clowns are content to play infinitely with the rules, and thus take up no permanent political or ideological position. They are constantly responding to and contradicting the context, which is constantly changing.

I think this is a salutary lesson at our own historical moment in clown in the West. Clown is far simpler than those who equate it with self-expression, or creativity, would have it. It does not consist in having far-fetched ideas that bear no relation to reality. In brief, clown is not a short-cut to escapism. Only by accepting and coming to terms with reality does the clown truly free him/herself from the weight of materiality. You can’t change reality – it will always remain reality. This acceptance parallels the recognition of the flop in performance, when one accepts one has failed, and the audience duly laugh.

Paul Bouissac argues that not only do clown routines depend on playing with the real, but they actually serve to define what is perceived to be real and unreal. According to Bouissac, clowns thus reveal and demonstrate the tacit principles underlying society, and are thereby the producers of a kind of socio-anthropological theory-in-practice: “circus clown performances demonstrate the basic but unwritten rules on which our construction of a culturally bound meaningful universe rests” (Paul Bouissac 1997:195).

Bouissac goes further: “Profanation is not so much the breaking of a rule made explicit in a legal code as the exposure of the rule of the rules, the principle or principles that are so fundamental for the holding together of the regulative system that they cannot be formulated. For instance to make explicit and to publicize the following rule, “it is forbidden to British subjects to sneak into the Queen’s bedroom unannounced at dawn,” is unthinkable, in terms of the system, because it would imply that this action is indeed a possibility… it seems obvious that the nature of the rule transgressed, not the quantity of the transgressions, distinguishes profanation from simple rule breaking. It is as if a cultural system with all the prescriptive and prohibitive rules which form its body were actually relying on a few crucial but unformulatable rules, some sort of culturally tacit axioms or silent dogmas from which all the other rules are derived and justified but which are themselves undemonstrable, unjustifiable and ultimately impotent…. In a way we could say, metaphorically, that every morning a clown sits on the Queen’s bed, at the risk of losing his passport.... Founding rules cannot be justified by the rules they generate. In this sense, any society hangs from an unsupported hook.... I would like to lay down for discussion the claim that profanation denotes a class of actions which question these tacit principles through the selective transgression of some of the rules that are derived from them or by exhibiting some behavior which implies a system of rules that would be derived from the negation of these cultural axioms; circus clowns would then specialize in such demonstrative actions performed in the ritualistic mode which is the only way in which the unthinkable and unspeakable can be actualized within the system” (Bouissac 1997: 197-9).

3. Objects or people are in the wrong place

Paul Bouissac splits what he calls profanation into five categories. His first one goes like this: “a particular object assigned to a certain place or position is moved to and placed in an inappropriate place or position” (Bouissac 1997). To simplify, I would say: “objects are in the wrong place”. And to this I would add the category of people.

To illustrate this principle, here are some examples:

- Someone sits on a chair placed in front of the door
- A lifeguard in the desert
- A little rubber duck in someone’s mouth
- A clown is in the audience

Another sub-category of this is the absence of an object where it should have been:

- A coat hook is missing, so the coat hung falls to the ground
- A teacher is asleep in bed while his students sit in the classroom

A similar analysis to Bouissac’s has been made by Rowan Atkinson, in his TV programme, Laughing Matters, in which he discusses the rules of comedy. According to Atkinson, “an object or person becomes funny by being in an unexpected place”.

4. Objects used by the wrong person

This follows the first part of Bouissac’s second category: “an object that should be manipulated in a certain manner (or simply be seen) by a particular person or class of persons, is manipulated in this manner (or is seen) by an unqualified person…” (Bouissac 1997).

- A baby drives a car
- A business man sucking a dummy
- A bald woman uses a hair-drier
- A granny uses a pneumatic drill

A simple way of coming up with ideas of this kind is to ask the question, “ what’s the worst birthday present you could give someone?”

5. Objects used wrongly

I have separated this category out from Bouissac’s second, which continued thus: “… or is manipulated in an inappropriate manner” (Bouissac 1997).

- A hammer to break an egg
- Wipe your nose on your sleeve (while holding a hankie)
- A dining fork to dig the garden
- Drying your hair with a bike pump
- Eating a shoe

6. Action done by the wrong person

- A tramp unveils a new shopping centre
- The Queen does a car insurance advert

The same kinds of people keep coming up when we think of examples of people out of place. Favourites are: the Queen, tramps, the Pope, babies and animals.

This group covers those actions that are not so strictly attached to a particular object and its inappropriate use.

The word ‘inappropriate’ is quite a good one here, but it does sound too euphemistic to me. That’s why I use the word ‘wrong’. We all know when something is wrong, or right.

7. Action done for the wrong person

Bouissac’s third category is: “a patterned behaviour that should be performed in the presence of an object or person is performed in the presence of an inappropriate object or person”.

- A wheelchair is wheel-clamped
- A conductor conducts the audience
- A comedian tells jokes to dogs

8. Action done when you shouldn’t

The first part of Bouissac’s category number 4: “a patterned behaviour that is prescribed in a specific context is performed in another context…”

- TV news reader falls asleep
- Laughing at bad news

Most bodily functions have such socially restricted correct contexts that they easily lend themselves to being done when you shouldn’t: farting, peeing, shitting, burping, yawning breastfeeding, having sex, and dying are comedy classics!

9. Action not done when it should have been done

And now the end of Bouissac’s number 4: “… or is not performed in the prescribed context”.

- Bride doesn’t say “I do”
- Doctor stands by
- Forget to open the door in order to go out
- Suicide bomb fails to explode
- Sun doesn’t set
- Parachute doesn’t open

10. Misunderstood words

Bouissac’s number 5 is: “a word or text to which a prescribed interpretation is attached, is interpreted in another manner or, still worse, the consequences of this new interpretation are actually implemented”.

The following are some famous examples. A prize for anyone who knows who said them.

- “I’ve got one, too”
- “Who’s on first base”
- “Four candles”

Other routes to verbal chaos are through:

- speech impediments
- foreign languages
- deafness

Works cited

Atkinson, Rowan (1993) Laughing Matters, Tiger Television for the BBC.

Bouissac, Paul (1997) The profanation of the sacred in circus clown performances, in Richard Schechner and W. Appel (eds.), By Means of Performance, Cambridge: CUP.

Carse, James P. (1986) Finite and Infinite Games, New York: Random House.

McManus, Donald (2003) No Kidding! Clown as Protagonist in Twentieth-Century Theater, Newark: University of Delaware Press.

3 comments:

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Adam G said...

John-- thanks for this very insightful article-- I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your blog. And I will definitely add your site to my clown blogroll on my blog http://www.clownlink.com

Also, in reference to the above commenter, you probably have to moderate all comments, otherwise the spam keeps coming!

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