by Jon Davison
This is a transcript of a paper given at the TaPRA Conference 2014, Royal Holloway University
This paper will outline some of the options open to us today for the analysis, interpretation and writing of the history of clowns and clowning. It begins with an overview of the more commonly found forms of clown history, the ‘monumental’ and the ‘anecdotal’, together with their aims and limitations. It then goes on to explore an approach to clown history which places clowns and clowning within their social, political and historical contexts. How might such a perspective bear upon how we understand such widely differing historical manifestations of clowning as clown performers in Shakespeare’s company, the New Woman clowns of the 1890s, or issues of lineage and genealogy in the spread of roles such as Pierrot, Clown or Auguste across the worlds of clowning, pantomime and commedia?
And how might such an examination affect how we interpret contemporary clowns and clowning, whose stories and histories have tended to be self-written, from Jacques Lecoq to Slava Polunin? Can mapping distant clown histories provide a model, methodology and indeed the courage to confront our own period and practices with a critical eye?
In conclusion, this paper argues for a critical and rigorous approach to clown history which demonstrates a healthy scepticism towards clown practitioners’ self-mythologising, guided by the clown historian Tristan Rémy’s observation, in Les Clowns, that ‘Clowns, notably, have a propensity to mystify’ (1945: 381).
I have two main points:
First, that most ways of doing clown history have been utterly useless.
Second, as a result, we are asked to rely on stories and myths with no basis in reality such as sad clowns, inner clowns, clowning as healing, women can't clown and other such mystifications, in order to try and understand clowns and clowning. In other words, bad history produces bad theory.
In this paper I want to present an overview of a history of clown history. What has clown history been ...so far in history?
I’ll briefly look at different common presentations of clown history and ask what those concepts (of what history is) produce, in terms of how we are then able to conceive of clowns.
In their place I want to suggest a more critical kind of history which places clowns and clowning in their political and cultural contexts. In order to see what such an approach might produce, I propose a brief look at some historical and contemporary clowns.
- What is clown history?
Clown history isn’t just a question of history, whether that is a history of clowns or of their practices. It also concerns philosophy and theory, or how we think about and theorise what clowns do or are supposed to do.
Victor Vladimirov, Director of the Moscow State College of Circus and Variety Arts, speaking at the 1993 World Clown Congress, asserted that:
“In order to have any movement forward in clowning, you have to have a philosophy of clowning. In order to have a philosophy of clowning, you have to have a history of clowning” (cited in Bruce ‘Charlie’ Johnson (2010) ‘History and Philosophy’ in Clowning Around, March/April 2010).
Foucault’s take on Nietzsche’s three classes of history put monumental history in the first type:
the second of the Untimely Meditations called “monumental history”: a history given to re-establishing the high points of historical development and their maintenance in a perpetual presence, given to the recovery of works, actions, and creations through the monogram of their personal essence. But in 1874, Nietzsche accused this history, one totally devoted to veneration, of barring access to the actual intensities and creations of life. The parody of his last texts serves to emphasize that “monumental history” is itself a parody.
(Foucault, Michel (1971) Nietzsche, Genealogy, History in Foucault (1991)The Foucault Reader, p. 94)
By way of an example, here is Clown Bluey doing Nietzsche’s second kind of history, the monumental one:
So, where did clowns originate from? Right through ancient history there have always been men (and women!) who have had the ability to make others laugh…
Ancient Egypt 5000 years ago used to keep African Pygmies known as Dangas in the Royal Courts to amuse the Pharos and Royal Families…
Ancient China had clowns attached to the Imperial Court as long ago as the Chou Dynasty (1027-221 B.C.)… One is named as Yu Sze, who was clown to Ch’in Shih Huang-ti, who built the Great Wall of China…
Ancient Greece had clowns who wore short tunics (“chiton”) which were grotesquely padded at the front and rear and knitted socks like tights…
Ancient Rome had several types of clown. Some were known as Sannio ... Another clown was Stupidus (hence our word stupid) which was Latin for mimic fool…There was also a lower form of clown who was known as Scurra …There were yet others known as Moriones…
In Malaya, clowns exist today who are similar to ones who performed thousands of years ago. They are called P’rang …
A well known clown existed in Turkey in about 1440 … His name was Nasr el-Din who was court jester to Tamburlaine (or Timur) the Mongol Conqueror. ..
In the East, a strong tradition of Jesters existed and indeed goes back further than that of Europe, certainly as far as the 8th Century…
In the 1700′s, Italian Commedia del’arte al improviso (professional improvised comedy) was imported into this country…
In 1778, there was born a man who, by his own personality, skill and sheer hard work was to snatch the Harlequinade away from the Harlequin and hand it firmly to the Clown. The man was Joseph Grimaldi …
Prior to this, in 1768, Philip Astley opened his Amphitheatre, the first “circus”…
The Auguste appears to have made his appearance in the middle of the 19th Century and many tales are told of his origin…
(Clown Bluey (2013) ‘Clowns International: Clown History’) http://www.clownbluey.co.uk/more-info/clown-history
Timelines make us think in terms of cause and effect, one thing leading to another. Which is another kind of concept:
In evolutionary history, the assumption is that nothing can exist without having grown out of something which existed before. This gives us a sequence of generations, where each new generation can only come into being because of the existence of the previous one, and is supposed to retain some of its characteristics. It is a family resemblance model.
One of the most popular examples of evolutionary history in clown studies concerns the commedia dell’arte. This probably has everything to do with the fact that there are a range of characters with names, which cross historical and national boundaries. It already looks like a family migration.
The problem here is that, for instance, whilst ‘Pierrot’ might be, linguistically speaking, the French form for ‘Pedrolino’, this tells us nothing of why Deburau’s Pierrot does not resemble an Italian Pedrolino of previous centuries. In other words, family trees don’t explain why particular manifestations of clowns actually occurred when and where they occurred.
At worst, they entertain the idea that the elements of a clown are somehow contained within that clown, essential inherent, not historical, and can be passed on in some kind of genetic way.
At best, such genealogies create connections which are highly disputable:
‘The clown, being of recent tradition, has no ancestors beyond a few generations. ‘
(Rémy, Tristan (1945) Les Clowns, p.14)
Clowns are notorious for encouraging self-aggrandising myths and legends about themselves. As the clown historian Tristan Rémy’s observed, in Les Clowns, that ‘Clowns, notably, have a propensity to mystify’ (1945: 381).
Everything from claiming to have invented a clown number that has been around for centuries (most clowns), or a costume likewise used by all (Chaplin)to having cured spectators or children of not being able to walk (Charlie Rivel), deafness (Grimaldi) or from dying (Fratellinis) to posing as the ‘philosopher’ clown (Grock, Polunin). The same stories attach themselves to different clowns, cropping up in autobiographies over the years. In Grock’s case, even, one story of daring-do was lifted straight from the pages of a novel.
Perhaps we should include in this category such free-floating myths as the ‘pathetic or tragic clown’, invented by Modernist painters and authors at the end of the 19th century and maintained by moody teenagers, morphing into the trope of the evil clown at the end of the 20th. This is more a case of a kind of mock ‘clown theory’, but in a historical discussion I think it pertinent to point out that theory’s own particular history. And most importantly, that it has one!
Finally, in this list of pop forms of clown history, we have:
The attempt to erase clown history occurs, of course, in a particular historical moment.
‘the circus clown [...] has little to offer theatre’ (Jacques Lecoq in Murray, Simon 2003: 70)
‘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, Oleg 1970: 93)
Or Fellini, in his mock-documentary of 1970, The Clowns, who pronounced the clown to be ‘dead’. [play video]
Something all these kinds of history have in common is that they merely allude to clowning, rather than specifying what clowns do, such that we might be able to think about them. Instead, they allude from the vantage point if a pre-established myth, or ideology, if you like.
The anthropologist Paul Bouissac, who has written extensively over several decades on clowns and clown theory, says most clown history only alludes never specifying what clowns did or do thus depriving us of a means to theorise about what they do. Bouissac is concerned how this useless history of clowns and clowning prohibits any kind of theorising about clown performance which would have any kind of historical perspective, and much of his work is driven by a desire to describe and then analyse how clowns produce the effect they produce.
The historical literature generally deals with biographical and chronological data and their interpretation, and offers little information on the precise behaviour of clowns as performers. A trick may be mentioned out of its immediate context, or part of a costume may be described, but the circumstances in which they were used are not given.
Bouissac, Paul (1976) Circus and Culture: a semiotic approach, p.153.
Bouissac accuses a range of commentators, including anthropologists, psychologists, artists and film-makers, of ‘second-hand knowledge’. These commentaries make the mistake of assuming that clowning can be summed up by merely listing some of it’s obvious features, without understanding the structures and forms by which it organises itself (Bouissac is a semiotician, by the way). As in this example, in S. Tarachow’s Circus and Clowns:
“The clown does incredibly stupid things and never seems to learn; even in the judgment of the child he is stupid. Equipped with a broom, he tries to sweep away a circle of light cast by a spotlight, but never succeeds. He follows a bauble suspended from his own headdress. He engages in endless bickering or problems with another clown, problems and quarrels that could be settled in a moment if either clown showed an ounce of intelligence. Other clowns act out the most fantastic childish indulgences. One might endlessly break dishes, another eat enormous amounts of pie. Another is abysmally dirty. Sometimes the dirty clown creates a comic situation in which the superego is gratified. The clown removes a fantastic number of dirty shirts and finally arrives as a spotlessly clean one. There is a good deal of aggression as well as masochism. They strike each other, quarrel, fall, trip. The slapstick and bladder are prominent.”
All of these statements are true, but their sum total is a very poor account of observable sequences
(Bouissac 1976: 153-4)
Bouissac’s own analyses instead focus on the specific cases of individual clowns.
It’s almost as if no-one wants us really to have a proper history of clowns and clowning. Now why would that be?
So, how could we do better?
Let’s have a brief look at some specific examples
Take the history of women clowns.
- What is women’s clown history?
Bruce ‘Charlie’ Johnson tells of an instance in 1990 of a variety arts magazine editorial complaining that women were taking the men’s clown jobs because they were more popular. The author
implied that women were hurting the art of clowning. He supported his position by claiming the only woman to star in a circus until recent times was Annie Oakley and that female clowns had not existed until late in the twentieth century. (Johnson 2010)
Two myths are implied here already. One, that women clowns don’t have a history. And two, that women are not, or should not be, better clowns than men. This latter complaint about women clowns taking the men’s jobs would of course be an extreme form of erasure. Simply put, they should ‘disappear’.
Johnson’s written reply to the editorial disputed this view of history, citing Evetta Matthews, who appeared on an 1895 Barnum & Bailey Circus poster. And elsewhere, in Early Female Clowns (2000), Johnson lists: ancient Greek female Dorian Mimes in the 7th century BC; medieval glee-maidens; Mathurine, a seventeenth century jester at the French court; and the role of Columbine in Commedia dell’Arte.
Johnson’s defence of women clown history is to be applauded, but as we can see, he has had to have resort to those forms of history I have argued are non-functioning. He inserts female figures in the list of monuments. This doesn’t get us very far. Nor does mentioning Columbine. Despite being a part of the commedia ‘family’, women clowns don’t really ‘count’ in those family trees of pierrots, harlequins and others... Which would beg the question: how is it that in recent times suddenly female clowns were ‘born’?
But if we dig a little deeper, and look not just for allusions to women clowns, but specifically what one of them did, we can get somewhere more interesting.
The poster Johnson mentions announces ‘Evetta, the only lady clown’. On the surface, this looks more like a publicity gimmick playing on the novelty value of a woman appearing as a clown, quite the opposite of an acceptance of women clowns in circus.
But what did Evetta actually ‘do’? Here is a contemporary account:
Mathews boldly sat down next to male audience members, made faces at children, and danced, tumbled and twisted ‘like a rubber doll’ while in the arena. Press releases noted that she had ‘all of the new woman's fads’ because she rode a bicycle, swung Indian clubs, ‘and does everything a man does to keep herself in proper trim.’ [From ‘A Very New Woman,’ unidentified newspaper clipping, 1896, Circus World Museum] (Davis 2005: 5)
The description is really an interpretation lacking specific details of how she constructed her performance, or what meaning it might be intended to have. But if we look at Matthews’ own words, they confirm that she consciously saw herself as being in tune with the progressive times:
I believe that a woman can do anything for a living that a man can do, and I do it just as well as a man. All of my people laughed at me when I told them that I was going into the ring as a clown; but they do not laugh now when they see that I can keep an engagement all the time, and earn as much money and more than they can in their branches of the business. [From ‘A Very New Woman,’ unidentified newspaper clipping, 1896, Circus World Museum] (Davis 2005: 5)
The context is of course the New Woman movement, and circus performance was one of several public arenas which women were claiming:
starting in the late 1890s, ‘New Woman numbers’ were a frequent part of the largest circuses: women, clad in ‘becoming’ bloomers, ‘of the most trim fitting, advanced new woman dress reform pattern,’ played all roles in the arena: ringmaster, grooms, and object holders.
Janet Davis (2005) ‘Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakirs, and Lady Savages: Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America’, p.2.
From this perspective, Matthews’ clown is not just a freak one-off.
So can we theorise that the actions of women clowns in the 1890s and 1900s produced progressive models of women? Unfortunately things are not so simple.
Lulu the clownesse
Here is a description of Lulu the clownesse:
Lulu, in her extraordinary pre-dinner evening dress, but still in her clownesse’s wig, mounts a fixed bar installed in the centre of the ring by two riders, and she bends backwards to place her sweet, cheeky face with its strange smile between the rustling frills revealed there beneath, which suddenly frame the inverted oval of her little face, delicate and wicked – her mouth calling – between her black-stockinged legs and white umbellate petticoats.
Champsaur, Félicien (1901) Lulu, Roman clownesque p.653
The clown is purely fictional, from a novel and pantomime by the generally despised vaguely pornographic author, Champsaur. When fictional clowns are described in more detail than real ones, we know that clown historians are in trouble.
The most obvious lesson, though, is that we would need to know much more about what each of these clowns did and how they did it, in order to distinguish between clown as new woman and clown as male erotic fantasy.
- Clown history today
What can these lessons in clown history teach us today when we come to look at clowns nearer our own time?
I suggest that, following Bouissac, we first observe what clowns do, and pay no heed to what they, or most others, say, before beginning any kind of analysis.
A quick browse through contemporary women clowns, for example, might reveal that, while most, in a post 60s liberated world, might claim genealogy, as it were, with Evetta rather than Lulu, nearly all do at least one of the following things:
[see video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGiOa0ujTOo&feature=youtu.be]
- Dress as a man [Annie Fratellini]
- Impersonate a ‘monument’, whether male [Nola Rae] or female [Gardi Hutter]
- Deal with supposed ‘women’s issues of romantic love [Pepa Plana], marriage [Caroline Dream], or beauty [Clowns Ex Machina]
- Exceptions are rare: [Clara Cenoz, Kate Pelling]
Likewise, if we look at contemporary male clowns, we find what they say doesn’t necessarily match what they do.
By ‘what they say’ I am here referring to which discourses are used to explain, frame or theorise on the fundamental questions of ‘what clowns are’ or ‘what clowns mean’. Which is what, I would say, history is for. These discourses may be employed by the clowns themselves, by audiences, reviewers, commentators or, as here, academics. The discourses appear in programme notes for shows, interviews with the media, facebook clown groups, workshop blurbs, and so on.
Let’s take the case of
What do they say? And what do they do?
Polunin himself, has the following:
in Russia under Brezhnev Licedei was an island of spiritual freedom in the country where there was no freedom at all. (Polunin 2001)
I prefer when comedy and tragedy are together (Polunin 2001)
I had a dream to turn it into a contemporary art form, to make it more than just fun for children. I thought there was something more profound, a mystery, a modernity in it. (Polunin 2011)
It’s that ‘more than’ which is the key to selling this particular ideology. ‘More than’, together with its sibling, ‘not just’, are of course fairly poor rhetorical devices which disguise the fact that you are unable to say what the ‘more’ bit is. It remains unsayable, mysterious, ideological.
And he is followed by a steady stream of fawning middlebrow theatre critics, such as Alexander Kan, Arts Editor of the BBC's Russian Service, who interviewed Polunin on his return to London in December 2011, with Snowshow, which basically strings together those old clown numbers from the 80s:
Slava Polunin is proud to be a clown. But when you look at what he does you see much more than conventional fooling around of a circus jester. His work is deeply rooted in contemporary avant-garde theatre and dance. (Polunin 2011)
Other tropes from such critics are the delight in spotting the winks to serious modernity:
The foolery on display owes something [...] to Beckett (the proceedings begin with a Godot-style visual gag about hanging yourself). (Paul Taylor in The Independent, 23rd December 2011).
Louise Peacock interprets the noose gag as follows:
Around [his] neck is a rope, carrying with it the full symbolic force of the noose. Simply and directly, the notion of mortality and, perhaps, of life’s unbearability (Sartre’s ‘Anguish’) is communicated to the audience. (Peacock 2009: 81)
If we are in the game of interpretation, then a more level-headed analysis might suggest that there are two main possibilities here. One, that the nooses are ‘just nooses’, and the gag works because it’s impossible for either clown to be hanged. Or, two, that clowns are in the habit of messing about with the serious stuff of fears, death and our inability to make the world as we want it. Either way, there is nothing special about this scene to set it apart from other clowns. But of course, if one expects to see Sartre, then Sartre one shall see.
As both a clown historian and a clown performer myself, I can honestly assert that I see nothing original or exceptional about this gag. So either all clowns are existential geniuses or none of them are. But in no way does this number mark Polunin out.
Even the critics of Snowshow make use solely of allusive description:
When he made Snowshow in 1993, it was soon after the fall of communism, and the grimness of that world lent its weird population of tramps an edge and pathos that now has dissipated. [...] And now, how does it fare nearly 20 years on? [...] The pace is excruciatingly slow, and I have to admit that this time round, many years after my first amazed encounter, I felt the slowness, and the cosiness, rather more keenly. [...] At any rate, I felt that I remembered, seeing Polunin in this long ago, something more hesitant, isolated and withdrawn in the performance. (Ismene Brown in theartsdesk, 29th December 2011)
Perhaps the most telling data, though, aside from the raw evidence of the actual clowning onstage, is that provided by online reviews by audience members. A quick perusal of current online reviews by spectators (not a scientific survey, admittedly) reveals an almost equal divide between mostly 5-star and 1-star reviews. And although the comments are diametrically opposed – typically ranging from ’clowning at its most sophisticated’ to ‘pretentious tosh’ (ticketmaster 2011) – they are agreed on one thing, that the issue is meaning, and not how funny the clown is.
I hope I have gone some way in showing how our received notions of clown history are misleading. Instead, I propose we view clowns and their clowning as specific practices, occurring in different moments in different societies, being shaped by those moments and societies. In other words, clown history is part of all other histories: cultural, social, political, economic, technological, ideological and so on. If we simply set our sights on what clowns did and how they did it in each historical moment, and how what they did was inter-related to those moments, we might end up with a clown history which is more complex and probably more intriguing than the potted one which re-hashes the march of empires or the regurgitation of tired ideologies of unequal genders, masks, or mystical inner selves.
© Jon Davison 2014