Friday 4 January 2013

Historicising Contemporary Clown

The Colloquium of Performance Research at Central School of Speech and Drama

Thursday 17th January 12-13.30

details and registration:

Jon Davison: Historicising Contemporary Clown

Contemporary clown generally presents itself as a myth-breaking form of clowning, one which dispenses with the supposedly false forms of history, which since the onset of the contemporary period (ca 1956/1960) would be marginalised by the newly-coined term ‘traditional’ clown (Little 1991), now deemed ‘useless’ (Lecoq/Murray 2003) or ‘dead’ (Fellini 1970), the new clown aspiring instead to ‘art’ (Simon 2009). Anyone of the general public who still thinks clowns ‘wear big shoes’ or even ‘has to be funny’ is, under this new regime, regarded as hopelessly ignorant, backward and misguided, a cultural under-class unworthy of forming part of the audience for the new clowns.

This elitist hegemony of the art-clown has reigned for half a century, an age which has not dampened the orthodox claim still to be equating clowning with such concepts as authenticity, truth or freedom, more suited to a post-Second World War Paris, in awe at a godless world where personal freedom as preached by existentialism seemed the only way to take a step forward in an absurd world.

I propose that it is time to make a start on the notoriously tortuous task of contextualising our own historical moment (albeit a ‘moment’ lasting five decades), and begin to see the present as history, exploring contemporary clown’s genealogy as a clown critic seeking to expose self-myth-making.
In order to make this pill easier to swallow, I propose firstly a trip back into ‘real history’, 100 years ago, where distance makes paradox and complexity easier to accept in ‘clown history in the past’, before returning to our own times to uncover the ‘clown history of the present’. It is thus hoped that the mapping of distant clown histories may provide a model, methodology and indeed the courage to confront our own period and practices with a critical eye.

I will examine two histories 100 years apart which demonstrate how clowning throws up multiple meanings and ideological alliances, thus reaching a fuller understanding of the complex embedding of clowning in the wider social and historical context.

Clowns and the New Woman (1895-1914)
Images and texts on women clowns of the period signify both the physical and public liberation of the New Woman and the woman as available object of male fantasy. The politically aware Evetta Matthews was billed as ‘the only lady clown’ on Barnum and Bailey’s 1896 poster, whilst the fictional character ‘Lulu’ in Félicien Champsaur’s pantomime (1888) and novel (1901) of the same name is the precursor of future femme-fatale Lulus.

Perestroika Clowns (1985-2012)
Video and textual evidence of Slava Polunin’s performances from 1985 and today appear to show an unchanging performance, masking the facts of historical change from Gorbachev’s Soviet Union to today’s globalised tours.