This is the transcript of a paper I delivered in London at the "Festival Of..." at Central School of Speech and Drama in September 2009. It formed the final reflection on the previous year's research. Contemporary clowning over the last 50 years has largely rejected the notion that we can know what clowns do, claiming clown to be an authentic experience above all. I attempt to demonstrate such a position as false, and to reveal that clowning can be seen as a highly structured and ordered activity that owes little to the concepts of spontaneity, improvisation or play, and is therefore open to analysis of "how clowning works".
John Wright, in his study of comedy “Why Is That So Funny” brusquely rejected the notion that we can know what clowns do:
"Asking ‘How do clowns walk?’ or ‘What do clowns wear?’ are inane questions. But to ask ‘How do clowns make us laugh?’ and, more importantly, ‘What physical impulses inspire that comedy’ will take you to a place where you can find a personal ownership of ‘clown’ as a level of play." (Wright 2006: 180)
It only takes someone to state something categorically, and the clown who loves to contradict surges up inside me and speaks up with a “Why?” delivered with the intonation of a 6-year-old who just loves to contradict. Much of my research method is in fact based on such clown philosophy, which you might simplify as a kind of scientific scepticism, or instinct not to believe, to keep questioning, especially when three or more people agree on something, until there are no more questions left to ask or we are all exhausted from the attempt.
Wright’s policing of this no-go area for contemporary clowns sums up the now old-school, post-68 view that we are all better off since we did away with those nasty texts, authors, and anything that admits to being thought out beforehand, and ushered in a new era of spontaneity, improvisation and authenticity.
“Clowning takes us back to basics….it's not about routines, or structured material of any kind. “(Wright 2006: 184)
Wright does offer significant analysis of how his notions of play relate to clown, and I find much to agree with, particularly on the practical dynamics of the presence of the clown in the performer, but ultimately his position is a merely ideological one, in my opinion.
Most clown-as-play advocates lack the depth of thought that Wright brings to the matter, however. Louise Peacock, in her recently published Serious Play - Modern Clown Performance, talks of “the intensely personal nature of clowning which generates play from within the performer” (Peacock 2009: 13). Unfortunately, though, her main example is Slava Polunin, whose Snowshow is now a kind of clown franchise, the roles passed on to a list of performers operating around the globe. Not very personal, then!
Peacock offers no serious analysis of why we should continue to believe in the mantra of clown=play=authenticity. This simply stating of one’s faith in the authenticity or truth of the self is a key feature of much, though not all, contemporary clowning.
But let us leave aside debates about faith and scepticism, for I wish to turn my attention instead to another old discussion which should really interest us more as performers, as it is that question which has vexed actors, directors and actor trainers since at least Stanislavsky, and in truth since we began thinking about acting: “Is the actor pretending, or is it for real?” Or, to place a moral burden on the issue: “Should the actor pretend or should the actor create reality?”
Peacock and others, in their bland talk of truth - “the concept of performing truthfully is common in clowning” (Peacock 2009: 107) - more often than not end up talking about the “inner clown” (Peacock 2009: 34) and invoke the heritage of Philippe Gaulier along the way. Yet Gaulier has no recourse to concepts of “inner” anything. In The Tormentor, he writes: “The actor enjoys suggesting feelings. The audience enjoys feeling them. Nothing is true. Everything is false, except for our imagination“(Gaulier 2006: 174). Of course, the great clown guru is here talking about the nonsense involved in believing that characters are real. “A huge error is the confusion between the actor and his character” (Gaulier 2006: 175). If we follow Gaulier, rather than waffling about “inner clowns”, we can say that the actor, and especially the clown, is pretending for real. The pretence is authentic. That’s the best we can do to keep the faith, in my view.
Of course, such claims for a new age of acting that is more authentic, more true, more real, have been seen time and again throughout history. Soviet clowns in the 1960s, backed up by the Party, pushed away from the grotesque and towards the natural, the realistic. Oleg Popov, in his autobiography, was quite happy to break with the past:
"Let us move on to the Fratellini. Wonderful artistes, they perform in the age-old manner of buffoons, a thick layer of make-up on their faces. They are perfect connoisseurs of human nature, sharp and intelligent. But they do not try to reflect anything in their performance except such faults as stupidity, clumsiness, absent-mindedness. As a result it is hardly surprising if the most common outcome of their conflicts is a slap in the face. And the spectator hears a positive deluge of slaps. Certainly I understand that the Fratellini are the guardians of an old circus tradition, a tradition respected down the centuries. But the times demand that this tradition should be broken and it is this that accounts for the appearance of the realistic clown." (Popov 1970: 93)
A familiar argument? Well, we need only look back to the great shift from Melodrama to Naturalism at the end of the 19th century to find a similar ideological stance, one which dismissed the past as untruthful, deceitful, grotesque, false, in favour of a present which is authentic, true and, most importantly, ART.
Simon Shepherd and Peter Womack state that “drama written by the ‘emancipated dramatist’ stages its own seriousness as art. To see a play as ‘dramatic genius’ is to insist it is something more than a vehicle for the resident acrobat” (Shepherd and Womack 1996: 286).
This pretence to create performance that does not pretend, but instead is somehow “true”, finds its own kind of actor training:
"The “Method” appears to offer a uniquely modern solution to the supposedly age-old problem of repeatedly making it real. But the notion that the problem here is a problem is fairly recent. It dates from a period which has learnt to think that in a person’s head social rules conflict with instinctual drives, where intellect represses desire… The Method, designed initially to solve a rhetorical problem – how to produce truth-effects on a stage – comes, in a culture inhabited by psychoanalysis, to be a method for liberating the truths of the person." (Shepherd and Womack 1996: 286)
Correspondingly, the Naturalist ideology refuses to accept artifice: “Plot smacks too much of deceitful artifice, of hidden control” (Shepherd and Womack 1996: 283). “The good naturalist author doesn’t interfere by plotting: he just allows people to be people” (Shepherd and Womack: 284).
This is the same rejection of artifice, the grotesque and theatricality, together with a blind faith in truths, humanity, and liberating the self that we find contemporary clowning desperately trying to reinvent, a whole century on. Such a laissez-faire attitude of “don’t think, just be yourself” has become a dangerous disease in contemporary clowning. But let us not be shy of digging up clown authorship. It is lying around like unharvested potatoes. Clowns DO think!
It is worth pointing out a few of the places where these clown authors might be hiding. Isabelle Baugé, prefacing her edition of collected Pantomimes (French silent theatre of the early 19th century with Pierrot as the star), notes how one author of pantomimes, Champfleury, deviated from the norm:
"the style is remarkable and … the author does not respect the norms of writing which habitually ruled the practice of mime authorship… they generally composed in the present indicative …they avoided metaphors, comparisons and other rhetorical forms, which were difficult to translate onto the silent stage. Now, Champfleury… : the use of the past tense, figures of speech, ironical proverbs, visual descriptions of characters… "(Baugé 1995: 17).
It is evident here that the rules about how to write for Pierrot the clown are so clear that it is obvious when one breaks them.
Authors and performers have, of course, a noble history of collaborating, competing, one-upping or even trying to eliminate each other, or otherwise being chained together. Such parings abound in the field of clown: Shakespeare and Kempe (who came out on top of that one?), Irving Thalberg and The Marx Brothers, or Eric Chappell and Leonard Rossiter, whose rate of delivery as Rigsby in Rising Damp was such that “Eric had to pen extra pages of script because he devoured the dialogue at rapid speed” (Webber 2001: xi).
Scott Sedita, in The Eight Characters of Comedy, (2006) has a succinct chapter on how to act in short-form TV comedy:
The complexity and great attention to detail in sitcom writing is something that actors new comedy take for granted. They will add words, drop words, or just paraphrase. Although there might be more leniency in the world of drama to play with he dialogue (I odn’t recommend it), it CANNOT be done in half hour comedy…. DON’T CHANGE A WORD! … writers are an obsessive bunch, especially about their words…
Actors… will add words or “handles” as they’re called in the industry, thinking they’re making the dialogue more conversational, when really they’re messing up the rhythm" (Sedita 2006: 14-5).
Even those comic performers who present themselves to the audience as themselves lean just as much as anyone on their own or others’ writing. Ronnie Corbett, in his autobiography, describes his own performance as “me being me playing me” (Corbett 206: 79), but relied on only two writers in over 80 Episodes of The Two Ronnies for his cameo ramble in the chair. It is a complex question as to just how different this is to Ronnie Barker, who “found it almost impossible to talk directly, as himself, to an audience. He had to be in character” (Corbett 206: 79).
Coming back to contemporary clown training, I believe the great failure of Lecoquian teaching has been to abandon students without the resources to create material or to understand someone else’s creation. Trapped in their own collaborative love-in, companies of performers idle away the audience’s time with democracy on stage. And the clowns are the worst of the lot. Many is the full-length clown show that entertains somewhat, admittedly, but heroes of contemporary clowning such as Slava, Litsedei et al. have created works that do not stretch much further than that. Shapeless, devoid of meaning, lacking significance. Shakespeare they ain’t.
But the door into Clown Writing is wide open, and we can enter freely. If we care to look, observe and reflect, a vast array of knowledge on what clowns do is there to be had. That is what I and my workshop collaborators in London and Barcelona have been doing all this year.
And what is the result of our digging? A treasure of 50 ways to understand how clown works. Not how it feels. Many of those ways also serve to generate material. We also made strides towards a kind of universal unified theorem of clown, that might encompass a range of seemingly disparate definitions in vogue. And I would also hypothesise great steps towards the elimination of game playing from the clown devising process, a huge debt to Avner the Eccentric, one of the principal non-play clown teachers in the world today.
We have also used the 50 elements (a kind of clown periodic table perhaps?) to devise a short demonstration show, The Encyclopaedia of Clown, premiered at the Festival Of… at CSSD in September 2009. It is designed to test, compare and demonstrate the wide variety of forms and structures in clown performance.
What are my sources for the 50 entries in this encyclopaedia? Much teaching, devising and performing, first and foremost. Personally, after finishing my training with Gaulier, I was clear about what clown was, but not about how to make a show. Much of what I am now teaching in clown devising courses is a crystallisation of those early years of fumbling in the dark rehearsing shows together with Clara Cenoz, as Companyia d’Idiotes, for years before they were ready.
Secondly, as sources, there are the performances of others, live and preserved on film or video. I have sacrificed my enjoyment of a large number of clown shows over the past year in order to be able to write a decent review on each one, some of which are published on my website and blog. Inevitably cinema clowns have drawn more attention. You cannot compare the flatness of a DVD of a live show with the art of Chaplin, Langdon or Tati.
Thirdly, as already touched on, are the words of the clowns themselves. The long careers of the last three in particular have provided me with useful data for analysis of clown dramaturgy via their (auto-)biographies (Chaplin 1964, Rheuban 1983, Bellos 1999). But clowns do not usually give away many secrets. Perhaps they assume no one is interested. Coco (Nikolai Poliakoff) spends pages describing the mounting of a circus tent, but only hints at his number performed at a children’s hospital: “I tried to think of all the things I could do to make the children laugh” (Poliakoff 1941: 56). Harpo Marx, the clown of no words, spends tens of thousands of them on high society anecdotes, but only a handful on a routine (the 200 knives), though his advice is invaluable (Marx 1962: 316-7).
Fourthly, there are related fields of comedy which are not so in-bred as clowning and are happy to trade in secrets. Numerous books are on the market on sitcoms and how to write and act in them, as too on cartooning, Even stand-up comedy has stolen a march on us. Olly Double’s books are exemplary, and then there is perhaps the best autobiography from a professional’s point of view, Steve Martin’s. All these fields also boast of university level studies. In clowning I only know of two short course modules accredited by universities, at Lyon (France) and Girona (Spain).
Still, I must say I am proud to be part of a genre that continually lags behind everyone else. Always the last!
Works referred to:
Baugé, Isabelle (1995) Pantomimes, Cahors : Cicéro Éditions.
Bellos, David (1999) Jacques Tati, London : The Harvill Press.
Chaplin, Charlie (1964) My Autobiography, London : The Bodley Head.
Corbett, Ronnie (2006) And It’s Goodnight From Him…, London: Penguin.
Double, Oliver (1997) Stand-Up: On Being a Comedian, London: Methuen.
Double, Oliver (2005) Getting The Joke, London: Methuen.
Gaulier, Philippe (2006) The Tormentor, Paris: Éditions Filmichko.
Martin, Steve (2007) Born Standing Up, London: Simon and Shuster.
Marx, Harpo (1962) Harpo Speaks! New York : Limelight Editions.
Peacock, Louise (2009) Serious Play - Modern Clown Performance, Bristol: Intellect.
Poliakoff, Nikolai (1941) Coco the Clown, London: J. M. Dent and Sons.
Popov, Oleg (1970) Russian Clown, London: Macdonald.
Rheuban, Joyce (1983) Harry Langdon: the Comedian as Metteur-en-Scene, London: AUP.
Simon Shepherd and Peter Womack (1996) English Drama, a Social History, Oxford: Blackwell.
Sedita, Scott (2006) The Eight Characters of Comedy, Los Angeles: Atides Publishing.
Webber, Richard (2001) Rising Damp, a Celebration, London: Boxtree.
Wright, John (2006) Why Is That So Funny? London: Nick Herne Books.