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Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance

Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance

by Louise Peacock

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Slapstick comedy is the primary mode of performance for clowns, and in Serious Play, drama scholar Louise Peacock explores the evolution  over the past fifty years of this unique brand of physical comedy. Though an analysis of clowning in a range of settings—theaters, circuses, hospitals, refugee camps, and churches—Peacock offers a


Slapstick comedy is the primary mode of performance for clowns, and in Serious Play, drama scholar Louise Peacock explores the evolution  over the past fifty years of this unique brand of physical comedy. Though an analysis of clowning in a range of settings—theaters, circuses, hospitals, refugee camps, and churches—Peacock offers a framework for the evaluation of clowning, and she examines the therapeutic potential of the comedic performance. This is the first book to consider clowning venues and styles in light of play theory, including comparisons of traditional clown comedy and contemporary circuses like Cirque du Soleil. A distinctive study, Serious Play also provides authoritative definitions of clowns and clown performance styles that establishes a critical vocabulary for clowning performance.

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Intellect, Limited
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6.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.30(d)

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Serious Play

Modern Clown Performance

By Louise Peacock

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-330-1


Clowns and Clown Play

Definitions of the clown types found in the circus and in the theatre are derived from a number of sources. The Auguste, Whiteface and Tramp have long been familiar in the world of circus, and these types and their variants, therefore, provide a good starting point for exploring clowning. Sometimes the long established circus labels can be applied to theatre clowns but, more often, these more modern clowns demand a different taxonomy. Much of this chapter will focus on establishing a taxonomy of clown types and the nature of their play which will provide a reference point for the analyses of clown performance that follow. Some of the definitions offered (Clown Show, Clown Theatre, and Clown Actor) are original definitions created by the author to fix some landmarks in a relatively uncharted territory. Reference will be made to the terms clown and bouffon as used by Lecoq and also to Wright's definitions of simple, pathetic and tragic clowns. The term clownesque is also considered later in this chapter as a way of discussing the overlap between clown theatre and physical theatre.

Traditional Clown Types

Between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries there was very little development or change in the nature of the clown. Clown types developed around the basic dichotomy of talking and non-talking. Famous clowns before the end of the nineteenth century include the talking clowns Billy Hayden (whose acts revolved around internal illogicality) and Whimsical Walker and Ducrow, Gontard, Durang, Rice, Auriol (skill or acrobat clowns). By the end of the nineteenth century, two key clown types had been established: the Whiteface and the Auguste. A third, the Counter-Auguste was created by Albert Fratellini in the 1920s, and a fourth, The Tramp or Hobo clown, was popularized in the United States, again in the 1920's, by clowns such as Otto Griebling, Emmett Kelly and, on film, Charlie Chaplin. It is these types that will be defined and traced through to their continued existence in clown performance in modern society. As clowning has developed, these later types have absorbed the activities carried out by clown parleurs (talking clowns) and acrobat clowns, so that now we may see, for example, an acrobatic Auguste such as Oleg Popov who includes slack-rope work in his act.

The Whiteface

The Whiteface clown was a development from the clown parleur (as exemplified by Billy Hayden). The Whiteface had a sense of importance that was reflected in his make-up and costume. Face make-up consisted of a plain white base on to which elegant lips and delicate eyebrows could be painted. François Fratellini (one of the three Fratellini brothers who became famous in France in the 1920s) can be taken as an example. The illustration above clearly shows the elegance of François's make-up in comparison with that of his brothers Paul (the Auguste) and Albert (the more grotesque counter-Auguste).

Onto his white base were painted gracefully curving eyebrows, his nostrils and eyes were highlighted and his lips were darkened. The Whiteface clown's costume was very smart. It was often a tight-fitting outfit with trousers that stopped at the knee. On the lower leg, the clown wore stockings. The fabric was richly covered and sparkly. The outfit would be completed by a neat conical hat. The costume signified to the audience apparent status, wealth and control, and this semiotic message was reinforced when the Whiteface was seen in combination with the Auguste.

The Auguste

The Auguste clown made its first appearance in 1877 although there are conflicting stories, as Hugill (1980) and Towsen (1976) suggest, as to how the name originated. In contrast to the Whiteface, the Auguste was clumsy, incompetent, and eager to do well, but, ultimately, incapable and provided a butt for the tricks and jokes of the Whiteface. The role of the Auguste has been adopted and developed by a number of clowns over the years. Such clowns include Tom Belling, Chocolat, Grock, Paul Fratellini and Coco the Clown. The Auguste's costume is typified by clothing that does not fit, including trousers which are too long or too short, too tight or too baggy; a jacket which is too big or too small; shoes or boots which are often overly long; and a hat. In the early days of the Auguste, the costume tended to be comprised of an ill-fitting dinner suit. The Auguste tries to be smart but fails. His costume has all the elements of clothing required by a smart gentleman but the mis-sizing of each article of that clothing creates a haphazard effect. More recently, the Auguste often, but not always, has wild hair, often red in colour. Early Augustes wore very subdued make-up but after Albert Fratellini created the counter-Auguste, the original Auguste tradition has faded as it has been replaced by the conventions of the counter-Auguste. The term Auguste, following the widespread influence of Albert Fratellini, can now be taken to mean a clown whose clothes are an unusual mix of colours, patterns and sizes. Augustes now tend to adopt the face pattern of a white base onto which exaggerated features are painted, such as an oversize mouth and huge eyebrows. Typically the Auguste wears a red nose.

The costume can be viewed as a parody of the ringmaster's costume. The counter-Auguste now tends to be more subdued both in costume and make-up, often without a red nose. In this way, the traditions of the Auguste and counter-Auguste have been reversed with the once subdued Auguste becoming more garish and extrovert. The subdued style associated with the original Auguste has become much more established in Europe than in the United States and it is sometimes referred to as the European Auguste.

The Tramp

There is one further important clown type: the Tramp. The tramp or hobo originated in America in the 1920s and can be seen as a variation of the Auguste. The main characteristic of the Tramp clown is that he looks uncared for. The elements of costume are similar to those of the Auguste but in addition to being wrongly sized they are also very shabby. The Tramp's make-up usually includes painted-on stubble and a down-turned mouth, often highlighted in white. Typically the Tramp looks mournful and connects with his audience by appealing for pity. Famous Tramp clowns included Joe Jackson, Emmett Kelly, Otto Griebling and, of course, on film, Charlie Chaplin.

Double Acts/Group Play

As soon as the Whiteface and Auguste came into existence, they tended to be paired. This pairing increases the varieties of play which become possible. One early pairing was Footit and Chocolat who began working together in France in 1894. Their partnership can be taken as indicative of the way such acts work. Footit was the Whiteface and Chocolat was the Auguste. According to Towsen, Footit 'reunited the great twin traditions of the talking and acrobatic clowns' (1976: 218). Whilst Footit had a circus background (his father ran the Great Footit Allied Circus), Chocolat (a Cuban whose real name was Raphael Padilla) was unskilled. Chocolat developed an Auguste character who was 'a would-be man of the world, a fool attempting to appear dignified but rarely getting away with it' (Towsen 1976: 219). Together the pair began to establish the conventions by which the Whiteface is always in control while the Auguste tries desperately to match up to his higher status partner. Later pairings continued this notion of status imbalance because it provides a good source of play. The clowns' irritation with each other can be played out to the audience and the audience can be encouraged to take sides. In this way they are drawn more firmly into the play frame established by the clowns. Remy (1997) provides us with records of some of the entrées performed by a number of clown acts. An entrée is a rehearsed clown sequence, involving one or more clowns. Entrées are usually structured to have a beginning, a middle and an end; and are used when the clowns have the audience's full attention, rather than being used to cover the entrance and exit of other acts. One of these was performed by LuLu (the Whiteface) and Tonio (the Auguste) in 1950 (Remy 1997: 196–203). In this entrée the Whiteface is a barber in need of an assistant. The Auguste is hired as the assistant and promptly gets tangled up in the barber's smock. He annoys LuLu by interfering when they have a customer. He keeps knocking the customer down and each time he does something wrong, LuLu gets more cross with him. At each point the reaction of the clown can be played to the audience. As well as each clown being able to interact with the props of the entrée, there is the added element of interacting with each other as a source of play. As can clearly be seen at this point, the Whiteface is still the dominant partner on stage and this was usually the case offstage too. The Whiteface, Antonet, always retained the upper hand over his working partner by being the one who approached other clowns each time he needed a new collaborator. However, one of his partners, Grock, was the Auguste who began to change this situation by creating entrées and routines in which the Whiteface became the foil of the Auguste. This is true to such an extent that, later in Grock's career, the Whiteface is not even identified, with Grock being billed as 'Grock and partner'. This dominance of Grock over his partner made the transition into theatre, working almost as a solo clown, much easier for him.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, a further development in clowning occurred when the Fratellini brothers began working as a group of three clowns (a Whiteface, an Auguste and a second more grotesque Counter-Auguste). This expansion in numbers allowed for the development of more complex entrées with a greater range of dramatic contrast. The performance style of the Fratellini exemplified ensemble performance and this ensemble was a significant development in moving entrée performance towards theatre performance despite the fact that the Fratellini were committed circus performers. Other trios and groups followed in their wake, such as Los Rivels and the Pickles Family clowns, and their influence can be traced to the ensemble clown companies of today such as Mimirichi and Tricicle.

Whilst these early clown types are helpful in identifying and discussing clowns, it is also important to consider how far a clown can be defined by what he actually does: the type of play in which he engages. Clowning routines and actions can be classified into types. These types are 'interruption of ceremony', 'subversion and parody', 'physical skill' (acrobatics, juggling, contortion, high wire), 'incompetence', 'interaction with objects', 'interaction with other clowns', 'status', 'food' and, more recently, 'the exploration of the human condition'.

The 'interruption of and commenting on a ceremony' exists in many types of clowning and is in itself a form of subversion, incorporating elements of parody. The main function of clowns in the Pueblo (New Mexico and Arizona), Mayo-Yaqui (Sonora, Mexico) and Maidu (North East California) peoples is to interrupt religious ceremonies and to comment on them. These clowns disrupt the ceremony in a display of transgression, but the clowning is, in fact, an integral part of the ceremony and the use of make-up or mask clearly indicates the role and nature of the clown. Interruptions on a less socially-significant level occur when the clown interrupts the ringmaster in a circus. In both of these examples the clowns model playful behaviour as a way of responding to authority figures or potentially dull situations.

The Maidu clown's interruption of ceremony is closely linked to the clown's frequent recourse to subversionary tactics and the use of parody. The sacred clowns' treatment of the priests can be seen as parodic, as they often mock the priest's style of chanting, moving and dancing. More recently, parody for the circus clown operates in two ways. The first is self-referential within the circus; the clown parodies the act which has gone before. In Cirque du Soleil's Alegría, one clown enters with a candle, which symbolizes a minimalist parody of the fire act that went before and which used flames in a much more dramatic way than the clown is able to. Secondly, clown acts may parody or satirize events that are happening in wider society. For example, Popovconstructed a routine that centred around a washing machine which initially was able to wash hens, turning them from black to white but which ultimately fell apart. Popov developed this sketch in reaction to common problems with Soviet washing machines at the time. Greater use of parody and subversion has been made towards the later part of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, in the work of Dario Fo and the political demonstrations of CIRCA (Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army).

In many areas of clowning, clowns display considerable physical skill. For example, some Native American clowns leap from rooftops. Circus clowns, as well as clowning, are able to demonstrate a range of other circus skills. Popov, the Russian clown, is able to perform on the slack wire. Grock (a Swiss clown whose career began in 1903 and ended in 1954) was a musical clown able to play many instruments. Coco, another Russian clown performing earlier than Popov beginning in the 1920s, trained in several areas of the circus such as juggling and slack-rope before focusing on clowning. Another significant physical element in clowning is the clown's ability to mime

Circus, and by extension clowning, is not, and never has been, a primarily verbal form. It has also long been a nomadic form, with circuses touring the world in search of new audiences. For the juggler, the acrobat, the equilibrist, the language spoken by the audience is not significant, as the impact of their acts relies on physical skill, not verbal communication. For the clown, where verbal exchanges might form an important part of the act, the matter of language had to be addressed. A range of techniques was developed in order to allow clowns to communicate fully with their audiences. Some clowns chose not to speak, often using whistles or squeakers instead. Other clowns reduced the language in their act to a minimum and compensated for lack of verbal communication by improving their physical and mime skills, ensuring that their act could be understood wherever they went.

Failure or 'incompetence' is a staple ingredient of clown performance. Clowns demonstrate their inability to complete whatever exploit they have begun. In doing so, they speak to the inner vulnerability of the audience whose members are often bound by societal conventions which value success over failure. When the clown provokes laughter by failing, he provides a release valve and allows his audience to enjoy a feeling of superiority that relates to the Hobbesian theory of superiority in relation to laughter. Clown sketches that focus on specific examples of incompetence, such as tripping and/or falling, as part of the laughter provocation, are relying on the laughter release mechanism which occurs psychologically when we believe someone may have been hurt, but then realize they have not. According to Bergson, the 'laughable element ... consists of a certain mechanical elasticity' (1911: 10). We might expect the person to avoid the trip or fall by checking the impulse to fall, but we laugh when they do not. In this way the clown who slips on the age-old banana skin is funny as long as he gets up with only a pretence of being hurt. If he turns out to be really hurt, the audience stops laughing. Clowns in the theatre are able to create much longer sequences involving failure or incompetence, due to the longer time frame of their performance.

The remaining elements of clown routines – 'interaction with objects', 'interaction with others', 'status' and 'food' – are most readily exemplified in the work of both circus clowns and theatre clowns and have been developed in response to the clown's limited use of language-based sketches. Remove language and the remaining sketch must communicate clearly and immediately through physical action. In many ways these elements are interconnected because clown interaction, whether with objects or other clowns, tends to be governed by status. For example, the clown who performs the simple 'walk-around' act (a circus clown act where the clown fills in between other acts by working around the circus ring, entertaining the audience) of trying to pick up a ball or balloon, is engaged in a status interaction. Every time he goes to pick up the balloon, he kicks it. The balloon floats into the air and the clown cannot reach it. As soon as the balloon falls to earth the sequence is repeated. Each time, through look and gesture, the clown signals to the audience that this time he will succeed and then time and time again he fails. In this routine the clown has lower status than the balloon because it always defeats him. Of course, in a way, the balloon does not defeat him; he defeats himself because he remains unaware throughout that it is his own fault that the balloon keeps heading skywards. In this way, the whole act is a demonstration of performed incompetence in which the clown cannot establish a higher status than the object he seeks to control.


Excerpted from Serious Play by Louise Peacock. Copyright © 2009 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Louise Peacock is a lecturer in drama at the University of Hull.

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