I have worked with some of this material in the past, but now seems to be the moment to really take the bull by the horns. We begin with William Tell, and the first question is, ‘how do we begin?’ The other main question is, ‘how do all three performers remain true to their ‘own clown’ whilst interpreting clearly defined roles?’
A first analysis of the text leads me to split the piece in two. The first part consists of a kind of prologue, where the scene is set and the clowns become known to us. The second is the action proper, consisting of the trick played on the august by the clown. In the first part, each of their individual desires, needs or, if you like, super-objectives, are exposed. We are talking theatre here, where an actor will want to know what his role wants from the scene.
We have M. Loyal, the ubiquitous circus owner or director, so-called after the famous circus-owning family of the Loyals, and thence used as a generic name for this figure. The English term ‘ringmaster’ doesn’t really capture the same connotations. Strictly speaking the ringmaster takes his place at the centre of the ring in order to direct the horses who canter around its perimeter. Loyal’s place is more at the barrier, the entrance to the ring. Loyal’s desire is that the show go well, that the audience are happy.
Then we have the clown. In the terminology of the time, this is what we understand as the white-face clown, and not the red-nosed one. His role is to drive the action, for it is he who habitually has something to show, something to prove, even. This may be a piece of music, or a magic trick, or anything that involves skill, fantasy or pretention. Clown entered the circus in its early days, and has taken many forms - acrobatic, musical, verbal - according to the fashion of the times. Determining just why fashions come and go is a tricky business. But we can often identify factors such as circus architecture, censorship laws, war, or depression. For example, in 1864 the law in France changed to permit circuses to present spoken dialogue.
The gibberish of the heirs to the English clowns lost favour. Now the comedy of situation could be added to the comedy of gesture and attitude … French clowns could play scenes with several characters in a language the audience understood. The comedians of the French ring could now vie with the clowns of the English spirit. (Rémy 1945)
Speaking clowns, sometimes referred to at this time as “shakespearean clowns”, such as Tom Matthews, had indeed been popular in England in the 1850s, since the passing out of favour of Grimaldi-style “total clowning”. But any thoughts that this new style of clowning is any less vulgar or explosive than its predecessor are dispelled by Baudelaire’s comments on seeing one, probably Matthews, in Paris:
The English Pierrot arrived like a tempest, fell like a sack, and when he laughed, his laugh shook the theatre: that laugh was like a happy thunderclap…Where Deburau dipped a finger in the milk, the English plunged both fists and feet. (Baudelaire 1855)
If England had Clown, born of the genius of Grimaldi, the French had Pierrot, made famous by Deburau. But even such a national treasure was doomed to passing trends. Talking of Kalpestri, the successor (c.1860-80) to the Deburau family style, Isabell Baugé considers this to be the beginning of the end of the Pierrots.
His style was vulgar and gross. In any case, the fin-de-siècle audience had abandoned the mysterious creation of Deburau for a more macabre and decadent Pierrot, who was disquieting rather than comic. (Baugé 1995: 11)
It was the turn of acrobatic pantomime to rule in the 1870s. Rémy is quite scathing in his comments on the Hanlon-Lees, the greatest exponents of this form, considering it a style performed by specialists, often without much innate comicity. The Hanlon-Lees Brothers rose to fame through the appeal of
their fantasy-worlds, diabolical rather than spiritual, emphasising strength, precision, illusions, props, miracles, and a violent upside-down world. (Remy 1945: 53-4)
Their biographer, John A. McKivern, gives specific details:
In “Pierrot Menuisier”, Pierrot sells upholstered coffins to people. When he kills a man for declining to purchase, he is hunted by the man’s ghost wearing the coffin he had tried to sell him. As gendarmes approach, Pierrot fires a gun and hits a pregnant cat producing a hailstorm of kittens falling on the stage. (McKinven 1998: 34-5)
So what was it that brought about a turn of fortune for the Hanlon-Lees, for they had been around for a while, debuting in London back in 1847?
For over a century English pantomimists had been celebrated in France for their eccentricity, their awe-inspiring rough and tumble. The Hanlon-Lees startled even English audiences… Violence was a characteristic of their work from the very beginning; it was one of their greatest attractions in the eyes of Parisians…in 1872. (Thomas Walton in Entortilationists, quoted in McKinvern 1998: 34)
But it is Émile Zola’s comments of 1876 on the 13-month successful run at the Folies-Bergère of their show Do-mi-sol-do, that suggest their humour chimed with the post-Franco-Prussian War climate:
This exotic art provoked the only laugh of which we were capable at that moment, a laugh without gaiety, convulsive, full of fear. (quoted in Rémy 1945: 57)
The descendents of such mayhem might be spotted much later on in the cinema of Mack Sennett and his Keystone Kops, or the TV of The Young Ones. In our history of clown, however, I have dwelled on the dark violence of the 1870s merely because it is the storm before the calm. For it is the next decade which brings us to the third clown of our trio, the august.
The success of the august was born of a reaction by the mass public against the solemn and over-fabricated style of acrobatic pantomime. Through his freedom of action and the spontaneity without which he could not fulfil his role, the august led a protest against the select and stilted milieu of the circus of the second Empire… Demystified and explained, the mechanics of the Hanlon-Lees and their successors were becoming banal. The shows at the higher quality circuses were becoming serious and people were beginning to get bored of them… (Remy 1945: 83)
Rémy attempts to unravel the various myths and legends about the origin of the august clown, dedicating a whole chapter to “Birth of the August”. Being a historian dedicated to unearthing as much truth as is possible, Rémy is suspicious of the clowns’ own words. In fact, clowns at first regarded the august as a terribly inferior role, and only later, when the august gained popularity, claimed to have been the inventors themselves. Rémy regards the clowns’ own memoires to be vastly unreliable evidence. So let’s stick to the facts.
His [the august’s] remarkable history begins with James Guyon who appeared at the Hippodrome de l’Alma, at the end of the 80s, and who gave life to an august who became the prototype of all the others. The fact is that after James Guyon one finds but a single circus without a more or less comic august, but so little different from the model that each imitator can claim to be the original. (Rémy 1945: 64)
Despite this sudden craze, augusts are regarded by (white-face) clowns as grossly inferior. Edouard de Perrodil, in Monsieur Clown (1889), gave this warning:
Never make the mistake of calling a clown an august in his presence, he will take you for the most contemptible, vulgar and unintelligent ignoramus. On the other hand, I do allow that you give the name of clown to an august, he will be flattered and will offer you his hand as a sign of recognition. (quoted in Rémy 1945: 65)
Despite their disdain, the clowns claimed to have somehow collectively invented this new figure that was taking the limelight. The Fratellinis may be the source of one particular legend, picked up by Pierre Mariel:
One evening, in 1864; an English horseman, employed in a Berlin circus, trips as he exits the ring where he has just placed some equipment. Tom Belling, named August (the name of this horseman), was known, urbi et orbi, for his intemperance. Such that some fools, not doubting that his fall, somewhat comic, was due to a state of endemic drunkenness, heckle him with: “August, August”. He gets up and looks at the audience, laughing… His ridiculous manner and his red nose cause the auditorium to repeat, with a gay abandon: “August, idiot”.
So what kind of clown is this august? He starts as the clown dressed as a citizen, the parody of the Ringmaster.
The ringmaster knew just how to take advantage of the incredible stupidity of the August. He gave him a special costume which has been kept since then and that everyone recognises: ill-fitting black suit, with ridiculous tails (de Perrodil quoted in Remy 1945: 67-8).
This simple figure is not primarily an acrobat, but a professional comedian, irrespective of whether he has other skills or not.
The august’s role can be summed up in one word: reaction. Whilst the clown is continually proposing, the august is continually reacting, mostly in a way that conflicts with the clown’s goals. An essential feature of the august is that he doesn’t appear alone. He needs the clown, and it is this partnership that, from the 1890s onwards, ushers in the golden age of clowning.
It is most likely Pierantoni and Saltamontes who were the first example of a pair of clowns that were not simply brought together occasionally for the performing of an interlude or an entrée, but who were united by a team spirit and capable of playing the whole repertoire according to their own games and their own ideas. (Rémy 1945: 101)
Such a partnership is founded on dramatic principles, relying on a theatrical complicity born of a long-standing pairing. which is the beginning of the revolution in clowning. It was Foottit and Chocolat who were to become the first stars in this new format.
Thanks to [the august]… the classical entrée… extends, expands, takes on the proportions of a comedy sketch and becomes theatrical in form. (Remy 1945: 103)
Their repertoire depends on the personalities of the performers, rather than their techniques or staging. This is the beginning of the golden age of circus clowning, where the dramatic possibilities of the clown/august relationship, together with the Ringmaster, will be explored fully for the next half-century.
So there we have them. Two clown roles, and a straight man.
In this workshop w concentrated on the second part of the text, working on getting the mechanics of the action right. Once we were more or less satisfied with our results, we turned our attention again to the prologue. IT makes sense if you perform the number in a circus, but what if we were to do it somewhere else? Like a pub, for instance, or in the street?
Creating a new context doesn’t mean creating new material, or corrupting what you have. This isn’t an exercise against the flow, like those awful politically correct renderings of little red riding hood, for example. We are not looking for an ironic reading, but a renewal. So in devising a new prologue, we will probably use all the ideas already present, unless they absolutely contradict our new context.
Our pub results were pretty satisfying. Loyal becomes the publican, Clown strides into the bar, weapon in full view, and causes a stir, understandably. Loyal wants to know what on earth he’s up to with that rifle in here. Clown talks him round and Loyal demands a demonstration. At which point Clown calls on August, who has been sat there at the back all this time, planted in the public. The rest is textual…
This gave rise to an interesting discussion on reality. What happens when you walk into a pub with a big gun on your shoulder? You get arrested! Or shot! So we have to make some choices from the options available. In order for the gun to have an effect, it must be believable, to an extent. But it must also be in play, as this is clown. If the audience know the clowns are coming, we can get away with more realism. But if it’s a surprise, we have to signal that it’s only theatre.
I shall report back when we have tried it out a number of times.
Baudelaire, Charles (1855) De l’Essence du rire.
Baugé, Isabelle (1995) Pantomimes, Cahors : Cicéro Éditions.
McKinvern, John A. (1998), The Hanlon Brothers, Illinois: David Meyer Magic Books.
Tristan Rémy (1945), Les Clowns, Paris: Grasset.
Rémy, Tristan (1962) Entrées clownesques, Paris: L’Arche.