Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Clown Prosthetics and Amputations

A man strolls down a busy market street a few days before Christmas. He seems unremarkable enough, hands in pockets, nonchalant, dressed in a black suit. He passes a small child, who suddenly cries out in horror. Or is it disgust? The child’s big sister turns to see what has occured. She screams. A group of kids on the other side of the street take note, and clutch each other in disbelief: are they laughing, are they afraid, are they disgusted, or all these things at once? Adults begin to take notice, too, a crowd forms, blocking the man’s path. He stops, turns, seems unsure what to do. He is surrounded. What will happen? And then, slowly, he begins to dance, steps to the left, steps to the right. Lifts his left leg into the air, lowers it, then his right leg, and whilst it stays positioned at the horizontal, his middle leg begins to rise as well. He begins to spin on his left leg, his other two flailing in the air. In a grand flourish, he crosses his legs in a complex knot, all three of them intertwined. The audience, roaring with laughter, applauds and pushes forwards to toss coins into the man’s hat that he has left on the ground. And Christmas continues.

The three-legged man is a traditional and often used routine in the clown’s repertoire. The above anecdote is a slightly idealised account of my own early experiments in Barcelona and Arkhangelsk in 2005-6 with Clown Prosthetics and Amputations (Davison 2006), which included, as well as the three-legged dance, a song with telescopic arms, a rant by a bodiless head, a keyboard piece by Stravinsky for 11 fingers, and others.

Clown history gives us an endless list of examples. In the category of prosthetics we have: the circus entrée where the clown finds that there are two too many feet sticking out of the end of his bed (Rémy 1962: 78-80); Chaplin, in Limelight, reprises the routine where his legs keep shrinking and growing (Chaplin 1952); and Steve Martin’s The Great Flydini who pulls assorted objects out of his flies, having one arm inside his costume to control and feed the objects out, and a false arm hanging at his side (Martin 1974).

Amputations would include: Laurel and Hardy’s Block-Heads, where Ollie mistakenly thinks Stan has lost a leg which is simply tucked under him as he sits (Laurel and Hardy 1938); Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson’s chopping off prisoners’ legs in The Dangerous Brothers (Edmonson and Mayall 1991), and Ade losing his head out of a train window, then using it as a football in The Young Ones (Edmondson and Mayall 2004); or the long tradition of circus clown guillotine sketches (Webber 1996: 54-5).

As well as adding or subtracting, we can also re-arrange external members and internal organs: Hanswurst moves Mockinpott’s heart from his bum to its proper location (Weiss 1972); The Goodies had reversed feet (Goodies 1970); and Harry Hill first uses a false arm to leave his real arm free to manipulate his puppet, then in order to use two puppets switches the false arm to the wrong side of his body and finally removes his dummy’s head and puts a tennis racquet in its place, then turns the racquet round to reveal a painted face of the dummy, all because the dummy can’t pick up the racquet to play inter-species tennis (Hill 2005), which is as good an example as any of just how far comedy can go in rearranging the world and still make sense and has led some to claim that Harry Hill is a post-modern comedian, though long ago Sandy Powell had confused head and arse on his dummy: ‘I know his face but I can’t put a name to it’ (Powell 1992).

Paul Bouissac, defining profanation or the breaking of unwritten rules as the job of clowning, considers circus clowns’ to be ideally placed

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....Questions concerning the borderline which distinguishes humans from animals, or the precise moments when human life starts and is terminated, or the structure of identities, are questions which call for answers necessarily involving some amount of arbitrariness (Bouissac 1997: 199).

As Mat Fraser has it in Thalidomide the Musical: ‘It’s not my identity, it’s just my body’ (Fraser 2006).

Clearly clown is not the only genre that plays around with the body in this way. But what distinguishes it from the rest is that the transformation is perceived as ridiculous. Not only are these body-parts wrong (wrong place, wrong number, etc), they are also funny.

Indeed, one way of defining clown is as self-ridicule: laughing at myself, I make the audience laugh. I can ridicule my behaviour, my feelings, my movements, my speech, my thoughts, my beliefs and, ultimately, my own body. I can laugh at my own body because it behaves wrongly (I bump into something), or because it moves wrongly (I dance eccentrically), or because it looks wrong, which is what concerns me here.

If I look my wrong body fully in the face, as it were, its wrongness produces an alienation effect between me and it. The effect of ridiculing my own body means that I break my bonds of identification with it (and, by extension, with all bodies). I can no longer say, ‘I am my body, which is normal and perfect and just like everyone else’s and is a transparent medium for living.’ Clowning reveals that the body is not transparent. It is opaque, as it is a physical obstacle to getting what one wants. It fails to work properly.

But at the same time, clowning reveals the body as transparent, as it is voided of its illusory naturalness or rightness. We see through the trick: the trick of pretending that our bodies are real, unchanging or even necessary.

When I began working with three legs I found that two pairs of trousers and a broomstick were already enough for me to fool myself and see three legs. The issue was: how complete does the transformation have to be in order to be convincing? Or, perhaps more accurately, how convincing does the effect have to be in order to be pleasurable to an audience?

Watching the three legs in the mirror, I know it can’t be real, but what I see is telling me it is real. This produces a veritable shiver of excitement. If I were ever to end up believing the three legs were actually real, then this shiver-effect would probably disappear. The theatrical and comic effect of the three legs (or any similar transformation) seems to rely on the fact that we know ‘what is real’, and when we see ‘what isn’t real’ there is a clash between this knowledge and the perception.

Melissa Trimingham (2004: 89) makes a similar point when discussing Oskar Schlemmer’s creating of stage illusions: ‘success relies upon the audience knowing how it is done but finding the sensation of “believing the impossible” to be irresistible’.

And John Langshaw Austin defines this philosophical perspective by resorting to just such stage illusions.

Next, it is important to remember that talk of deception only makes sense against a background of general non-deception.… It must be possible to recognize a case of deception by checking the odd case against more normal ones (Austin 1962: 11).

And when the plain man sees on the stage the Headless Woman, what he sees (and this is what he sees, whether he knows it or not) is not something ‘unreal’ or ‘immaterial’, but a woman against a dark background with her head in a black bag. If the trick is well done, he doesn’t (because it’s deliberately made difficult for him) properly size up what he sees, or see what it is; but to say this is far from concluding that he sees something else (Austin 1962: 14) (Author’s emphasis).

The clash between what we expect and what really is there not only produces laughter, it can also produce pain. Many amputees suffer from severe pains in the region where their missing limb was. Recent medical research (Lotze et al. 2001; Ramachandran and Hirstein 1998) suggests that in spite of the brain receiving visual evidence which tells it that there is no arm there, the part of the brain that is responsible for initiating movement still operates normally and sends out instructions to move the non-existent arm (as the brain itself has suffered no damage). The conflict between one part of the brain saying, ‘left arm, lift!’ and the other part saying ‘there isn’t any left arm!’ may then produce paralysis (of the phantom limb, the limb that is not physically there but is perceived to still exist), and this paralysis produces the pain.

The most effective treatments are thoroughly theatrical and involve fooling our perception of reality. Using a prosthetic limb helps reduce pain, as there is then something to move and to see moving. A mirror-box may also be used to reduce pain. The patient puts their existing arm inside an open-topped box which is divided down the middle by a mirror. When you look at the mirror, you see the reflection of the arm, and it appears in the position where the missing arm would be. This visual information then agrees with the brain’s intention, removing the conflict (Ramachandran and Rogers-Ramachandran 1996).

We can even feel sensations in a fake limb:

Hide one hand under the table, resting palm down on your knee. Then ask your helper to tap, touch and stroke with their fingertips the back of your hidden hand and the table top directly above the hand with an identical pattern of movements, for a minute or two. About half the people who try this find that the table starts to feel like part of their body - as though the hand is transferred into the table. ‘What this is telling you is that the brain's body image is amazingly plastic,’ says Vilayanur Ramachandran. ‘You've grown up with this body and yet the table gets assimilated into your body image.’ Just as an amputee might experience a phantom limb, says Ramachandran, our entire body image is a phantom - something the brain constructs for convenience (Cole n.d.).

So, if removing a limb doesn’t remove the brain’s capacity to intend to move the missing limb, then would the addition of a limb lead to the brain adding a capacity to move, for example, a third leg? Is the brain wired to respond to only two legs, two arms, no more and no less? Dr. Jonathan Cole, a researcher at the Wellcome Trust, thinks that ‘the brain is wired for two legs, but there are papers on the very rare syndrome of patients' feeling they have three arms or legs, known I think as supplementary limb syndrome’ (private email correspondence).

Corresponding with Dr. Cole, it struck me how we were curious about the same things. But how can this be so? Medicine is in the business of creating or restoring normality, or equilibrium. Clowns, on the other hand, are in the business of creating imbalance, they delight in disrupting normality, and find heightened presence in gross misrepresentations of the body. As a clown I am aware of my own pleasure in the freedom to misrepresent, but what might be the motivations, the pleasures of the prosthetician?

Oliver Sacks, in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, certainly exhibits a taste for the bizarre: ‘One … patient, under my care, describes how he must “wake up” his phantom in the mornings …. Only then can he put on his prosthesis and walk. What other odd methods (one wonders) are used by amputees?’ (Sacks 1986: 64). Is the prosthetician’s vocational motivation a nurse-like drive to relieve suffering? Or, more darkly, do they have forbidden fantasies imagining taking off that spare leg at bed-time and laying it down for a rest? Personally, I always store my false leg standing up.

Sacks has of course famously been transferred to the stage by Peter Brook. But it was in the earliest accounts of amputee experiences that I found particularly inspiration for my own work. William James’ case studies of American Civil War amputee soldiers’ experiences date from the point in history when a large number of amputees start to enter general society. Medical science had advanced enough to be able to save a soldier’s life by cutting his leg off, rather than letting him die as a result of his wounds. First accounts of phantom limb pain date from this time, as does the medical fascination with prosthetics.

One such man told me that he felt as if he had three legs in all, getting sometimes confused, in coming down stairs, between the artificial leg which he put forwards, and the imaginary one which he felt bent backwards and in danger of scraping its toes upon the steps just left behind.

The lost foot also sympathizes sometimes with the foot which remains. If one is cold, the other feels cold. One man writes that whenever he walks through puddles and wets his sound foot, his lost foot feels wet too (James 1887: 249-258).

Could I feel my third leg more? I resolved to improve my performances by trying to make more connections between brain and third leg. Or perhaps I should say, connections between my body and third leg. I worked on initiating the movement of the false leg from the same place as I initiated movement of my real legs. Any student of Feldenkrais will tell you that the further away from the centre of the body that you initiate a movement, the less efficient it will be. Movements that begin from the pelvic-abdominal region are far less energy consuming (Feldenkrais 2002). They are also more theatrically effective. Beginning the movement of the third leg from the body-centre had a vastly superior effect on an audience. By exaggerating this procedure, and doing the same exaggeration when I moved my real legs, I could achieve some kind of equality in the quality of movement of all three. This resulted in a wave-like movement that began in the abdomen and flowed out through the legs.

We could say that this created movement that was more organic, more connected, perhaps more authentic. But clowning is no more allied to concepts of authenticity than it is to falsification. This is demonstrated by another important movement, of a very different order, that I added to aid this evening out of movement quality. Since in order to move the third leg I had to move my right hand and wrist, which holds the end of the stick which is the false leg, this wrist movement was partly perceptible to the audience through my right trouser pocket. I therefore copied this movement with my left hand in my left pocket, whenever I moved my (real) left leg. This acted as a kind of decoy, removing the clue to the false limb.

Which brings us to respond to that age-old actor’s dilemma – ‘Is it real or is it pretence?’ – with a clear ‘both’. Clowning openly manipulates the authentic and the fake in order to be convincing. More radically, clown finds its success in failure, in wrongness, and points to a mode of performance that thrives on the inauthentic or unbalanced body, and ultimately on a disidentification with the body. This absence of body-success, far from being a hindrance to presence, becomes that which produces that presence. Clowning may thus offer a fast-track to finding this presence-in-absence, avoiding the trap that the serious performer has historically sometimes fallen into of having to pretend that what she is performing is ‘really real’. Clown may therefore offer the performer the opportunity to achieve presence via acceptance of the failure to be present.


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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, pp.195-9.

Chaplin, Charlie (1952) Limelight, Warner.

Cole, Jonathan (n.d.) Phantom limb pain, Pain and the Wellcome Trust. Available at: http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/en/pain/microsite/medicine2.html (Accessed 22/04/09).

Cole, Jonathan (2006) private email correspondence, 18/02/2006.

Davison, Jon (2006) Clown Prosthetics and Amputations, MA thesis, University of Kent.

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Edmonson, Adrian and Mayall, Rik (2004) Bottom – Mindless Violence, Mr. and Mrs. Monsoon Video.

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Author Posting. (c) Jon Davison, 2010.
This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Jon Davison for personal use, not for redistribution.
The definitive version was published in Performance Research, Volume 14 Issue 4, December 2009.
doi:10.1080/13528160903553053 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13528160903553053)