Read an Excerpt
Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy
Twice Upon a Time ...
Once Upon a Clown
The clown was always disreputable, once his ties with religion were severed. Although the old song tells us 'the things that we're liable to hear in the Bible, they ain't necessarily so', merry-making, as far back as we care to go, was associated with drunkenness and wine. The biblical archetype, Jubal-Cain, was said to have been 'the father of all such as handle the harp and organ', which places him perhaps dubiously as the ancestor of Harpo and Chico Marx. Nevertheless, by the time we got to Bacchus, the ties to divinity were getting a little shaky. The Greeks were supposed to have initiated, or defined, the art of the Pantomime, the development in dance of a language of gestures, in which emotions and ideas can be presented. The old Hellenes were said to have given us Tragedy and Comedy, although Chico Marx once quipped that 'You can't take anything from the Greeks; you can't even get your change back.' Tragedy was for the upper classes, the kings and queens and gods and princes. Comedy was for the common people.
The Romans stole all the Greeks' ideas, though their sense of humour was somewhat coarser. A good day out at the Colosseum might start with the jugglers and magicians but end with blood and guts on the sand. One of Stan Laurel's early stage acts, formed in a break from his stint with Fred Karno's road show, was entitled Rum 'Uns from Rome, but there were none so rum as the Romans themselves. The author of the Satyricon, Petronius, was said to be 'a man who spends his days sleeping and his nights working or enjoying himself. Industry is the usual foundation of success, but with him it was idleness.' One of the little ditties enclosed in his famous work goes like this:
The Censor frowns and knits his brows, The Censor wants to stop us, The Censor hates my guileless prose, My simple modern opus.My cheerful unaffected style Is Everyman when in his humour, My candid pen narrates his joys, Refusing to philosophize.
An easy recognition. Out of the Roman Mimi, defined as 'an impudent race of buffoons who excelled in mimicry, and like our domestic fools, admitted into convivial parties to entertain the guests', emerged the gaudily costumed character of Harlequin - a clown of shaven head, sooty face, flat, unshod feet, and patched coat of many colours. Out of the same mould emerges the Italian Pulcinello, or the English Punch, with his long, hooked nose, his staring, goggle eyes and humped back. The generic name for this whole family of clowns has echoed down the centuries - in Latin sannio, in Italian zanni, in English zany. With the fall of Rome, and the rise of sombre-minded Christianity, these mimes were excluded from the rites of the Church, and their entertainments were frowned on. According to the Theodosian Creed, it was forbidden to administer the sacraments to actors except when death was imminent, and then only so that, if they recovered, they could renounce their calling. Rogues and Vagabonds, they wandered the earth, stubbornly laughing at tragedy. They were a worldwide phenomenon, in the Islamic and Oriental realms as well as the Christian. No culture was complete without its clowns. The elite among them became the court jesters, the fools with cap and bells who could laugh at the king when anyone else doing so would be doomed. But the truth, told behind the mask of the jester, could be only a joke: the proper 'truth' was still reserved by Church and State.
The old zannis continued to mutate, begetting a new family in the Italian theatre of the fifteenth century and on: Pantaloon, a merchant; Dottore, a comic physician; Spavento, a braggart; Pulcinello, the joker; and the blundering servant, Arlecchino. A description of Arlecchino - Harlequin, in R. J. Broadbent's 1901 A History of Pantomime, echoes, once again, with a close familiarity:
He is a mixture of wit, simplicity, ignorance, and grace, he is a half-made-up man, a great child with gleams of reason and intelligence, and all his mistakes and blunders have something arch about them. The true mode of representing him is to give him suppleness, agility, the playfulness of a kitten with a certain coarseness of exterior, which renders his actions moreabsurd. His part is that of a faithful valet; greedy; always in love; always in trouble, either on his own or his master's account; afflicted and consoled as easily as a child, and whose grief is as amusing as his joy.
Sometimes Harlequin was just a simple booby or dolt, or a kind of Sancho Panza, travelling with a companion who was sharp-witted and smart, who played the part of his foil. These clowns developed in various ways, with different masks and costumes. One French observer of the eighteenth-century English clown type wrote:
[He] is an odd and fantastical being ... His strange dress seems to have been taken from the American Indians. It consists of a white, red, yellow and green net work, ornamented with diamond-shaped pieces of stuff of various colours. His face is floured, and streaked with paint a deep carmine; the forehead is prolonged to the top of the head, which is covered with a red wig, from the centre of which a little stiff tail points to the sky. His manners are no less singular than his costume. He is not dumb, like our Pierrot, but, on the contrary, he sustains an animated and witty conversation; he is also an acrobat, and very expert in feats of strength.
The early nineteenth century saw a great inheritor of this old tradition: Joseph 'Joey' Grimaldi. Until his death in 1837 Grimaldi dominated the comedy scene in London. Before the days of the cinema, before the days of photography, it is difficult to gauge the particular qualities that made him so unforgettable to the audiences of his day. Whether in the simple way in which he stole a pie from a pieman, or in his many masks as a chimney sweep, a dandy, a tragic actor, a wet-nurse, he was a master of mimicry, who, in the words of a contemporary, 'uses his folly as a stalking horse, under cover of which he shoots his wit'. He also sang comic songs, 'infused with biting satire ... poking fun at the vices of the age, getting laughs out of transforming everyday objects and gilding every situation with his inimitable and immortal comic gift'. Grimaldi was noted as well for his comic duelling, and the astute student of comedy might flash forward to Stan Laurel's solo two-reel short of 1923, Frozen Hearts, in which our hero, as a Russian swain, Ivan Kektumoff, duels with his rival, the equally well-named Lieutenant Tumankikine, for seven non-stop months until both are buried deep in snow. Clowns, if not their audiences, always know their history.
Grimaldi became a prototype for the clowns of the Circus, the Big Show sired by the eighteenth century's penchant for extravagance and spectacle. But as a stage performer, in the London theatres of Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells, he also set the mode for a generation of music-hall performers who were to follow, adopting his mélange of comic songs, patter, physical agility and multiple personalities expressed through a gallery of roles. The Harlequin coat of many colours dropped away, and a kind of genteel frock coat, with frayed pants and an often battered hat, reminiscent of the man about town who is somewhat the worse for wear, became a more common signature.
The story of music-hall is the story of the many individuals who were its featured entertainers. In the 'legit' theatre, the play's the thing, but in variety, it's the performer. Grimaldi established the idea of a 'style': it doesn't matter what you do, but how you do it, the manner it is that makes the clown.
Above all, music-hall was a popular medium; in the words of one of its chroniclers, Mr W. MacQueen Pope,
an entertainment of the People, for the People, by the People. It made no claim to Art, it made no claim to Culture, yet it was in its individual way a very highly skilled form of stage art ... Music-hall was always very much larger than life. It ignored half-tones, it went out for highlights all the time. And it was right in doing so, because it dealt with a public which was itself surging with vitality. For music-hall was born on the wave of prosperity which came into being on the accession of the young Queen Victoria, it belonged to an era of prosperity and the people who welcomed it and supported it were the sons and daughters of an age of Beef, Beer and Peace.
Music-hall was a medium for the 'working classes' - or those of them who could afford the price of admission, as far from everybody shared in the benefits of the Victorian industrial boom that made Britain Europe's foremost empire. While this theatre thrived, Karl Marx (long before Groucho) formed his theories of the contradictions of Capital while nursing his carbuncles in Soho. But the audiences of music-hall seemed happy with their contradictions - at least while the show was on. Like their predecessors in the eighteenth century, who cheered at John Gay's The Beggar's Opera - the play that, by its boldness, galvanized the government of the day into instituting formal stage censorship - but also applauded war with France, so the people of Beef, Beer and Peace cheered ontheir Imperial Army when it went to war for Queen, Country and Commerce. Like the general public of the next century's mass-entertainment medium - America's moving picture industry - they could be supremely jealous of their own freedom from government, and less particular about the rights of foreigners, at one and the same time. This, too, would mark the nature of mass entertainment on stage and screen, and to our day.
The clowns knew all their moods and fears, their joys and their anxieties. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, while the Great White Queen swallowed greater and greater parts of the planet in gobs of pink on the map, the great stars of the English music-hall strutted their stuff upon the stage: Arthur Roberts, 'a shrewd and knavish sprite'; George Robey, with his bowler hat, frock coat and cane well ahead of tramp Charlie Chaplin; Little Tich, diminutive mutant with five fingers and a thumb on each hand; Albert Chevalier, 'coster' singer, who knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road. And the women too. Major stars like Marie Lloyd, who sang 'a little of what you fancy does you good', Vesta Victoria and Vesta Tilley, the fabulous male impersonator, all had huge followings, spicing up an age that has presented itself to us as one of rigid conventions.
But the greatest of all was Dan Leno. Born as George Galvin in 1860, the son of itinerant actors, at an address that soon after became - according to legend - Platform I of Saint Pancras railway station, he was a child star by the age of eleven, billed as 'Dan Patrick Leno - descriptive and Irish Character Vocalist'. The family show was a simple slapstick act, much like that, one generation later, across the ocean, of the Three Keatons: Joe, Myra and little Buster. Leno wrote of himself, in a brief spoof autobiography entitled Dan Leno, Hys Booke (ghosted by one T. C. Elder): 'I came into the world a mere child, without a rag to my back, and without a penny in my pocket, and now I am a farthing millionaire.' (A primal echo of Groucho Marx's 'Years ago I came to this country without a nickel in my pocket and now - I have a nickel in my pocket.') 'I very soon displayed artistic ability,' wrote Leno, 'for having procured a large quantity of strawberry jam, I varnished all the furniture of a room with it, including the exterior of the cat, and the interior of a pair of my Dad's new boots, which he declared went on more easily next time he tried them.'
Leno's forte on the stage, after an early career as 'champion clog dancer of the world', won at a competition in Oldham, was his role as a variety of Christmas pantomime characters, frequently women, the famous 'Pantomime Dames' - Widow Twankey, Mother Goose, Fair Zuleika in The Forty Thieves - as well as a range of comic characters from real life - the Shop Walker, the Fireman, the Railway Guard, the Cobbler, the Ice-Cream Man, the County Councillor, the Hen-pecked Husband, the Chattering Wife, and One of the Unemployed. When people argue, nowadays, that vaudeville and variety are dead forms, remind them that the ubiquitous imitators and stand-up comics of present-day television derive their formulas from such as Dan Leno. For over ten years, he also performed a double act with another great variety man, Herbert Campbell. Campbell was large (nineteen stone) and rotund, and Leno was short and wiry. From 1891 they presented a series of notable double acts in Christmas pantos. In 1895, Campbell was the Baron and Leno the Baroness in Cinderella, assaying some vintage repartee:
Oh! That my first husband was alive!
Would that he were!
My first husband was the father of these girls, and do you know what he did?
He died, and I don't blame him.
In a sad serendipity, Herbert Campbell died in July 1904, and Dan Leno three months later, of a brain tumour, having been in failing health and mentally unstable for three years.
Leno's personal humour was quirky and eccentric, in a mode we would today call 'surrealist', a concept unavailable at the time, though this was an age that had already seen the publication of Lewis Carroll's Alice fantasies. He knew from experience that ordinary people's lives were odd and unpredictable, and had to be drawn in waves and curves, rather than straight lines. Marie Lloyd said of Leno:
Ever seen his eyes? The saddest eyes in the whole world. That's why we all laughed at Danny. Because if we hadn't laughed, we should have cried ourselves sick. I believe that's what real comedy is, you know. It's almost like crying.
Stan Laurel, a celebrated master of the comedy cry, always offered Dan Leno as his major influence among the English clowns. There is no evidence, however, that Stan ever saw Leno perform. Leno's last performances were in 1902, when Stan was twelve, and those were mainly in London, which Stan had yet to visit in his teenage years. But the influence of Leno, his gentle style, his formula of patter and songs, different characterizations and comic gags, spread through his peers and imitators.
Above all, the comedians of music-hall thrived on the characters they created on the stage. Whether you topped the bill, or 'opened' to a cold audience, or played down the bill to a sated clientele, or 'closed' the bill to the shuffle of seats as the patrons hurried to leave the hall, you had at the most fifteen or twenty minutes to wow the crowd and draw its interest. You had to be instantly recognizable. You had to be yourself in mask, a familiar face, a known commodity. In a business - for it was a very busy business at the turn of the twentieth century, with thousands of acts featured in hundreds of theatres throughout the country, and dozens of acts advertising in the stage journals' 'Variety Artists Seeking Positions' sections, seeking a venue for a magician, a vocalist, a serio-comic, a man with forty dogs, a living statue, a one-legged unicyclist or whatever - it was far from easy for a newcomer to command attention. But we must be mindful of the motto of Our Two Heroes, emblazoned on the cart on which they are bearing the crated piano they must deliver up the thousand and one steps to 1127 Walnut Avenue:
TALL OAKS FROM LITTLE ACORNS GROW.
And so, without further ado -
STAN AND OLLIE: THE ROOTS OF COMEDY: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF LAUREL AND HARDY. Copyright © 2001 by Simon Louvish. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.