A clown is a comic performer who employs slapstick or similar types of physical humour, often in a mime style. Clowns have a varied tradition with significant variations in costume and performance. The most recognisable clowns are those that commonly wear outlandish costumes featuring distinctive makeup, colourful wigs, exaggerated footwear, and colourful clothing. Their entertainment style is generally designed to entertain large audiences, especially at a distance.
Clowns are most often associated with the circus where they have performed a comedic role linking other acts in the circus performance since the late 18th century. Many circus clowns have become well known and are a key circus act in their own right. The first mainstream clown role was portrayed by Joseph Grimaldi (who also created the traditional whiteface make-up design). In the early 1800s, he expanded the role of Clown in the harlequinade that formed part of British pantomimes, notably at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and the Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden theatres. He became so dominant on the London comic stage that harlequinade Clowns became known as “Joey”, and both the nickname and Grimaldi’s whiteface make-up design were, and still are, used by other types of clowns.
The comedy that clowns perform is usually in the role of a fool whose everyday actions and tasks become extraordinary—and for whom the ridiculous, for a short while, becomes ordinary. This style of comedy has a long history in many countries and cultures across the world. Some writers have argued that due to the widespread use of such comedy and its long history it is a need that is part of the human condition. Some people have expressed a fear of clowns, circus clowns in particular. The term coulrophobia has been chosen to describe this fear.
The origin of the word “clown” is uncertain. It first appears around the 1560s and may come from a Scandinavian linguistic root meaning “clumsy, boorish fellow” (Icelandic klunni and Swedish kluns). A similar term also exists in North Frisian — klönne and in Dutch-“kluns”, meaning “clumsy person”. The meaning of clown as a fool or jester is c. 1600. “Clown” as a verb appears much later — the early 20th century — and may be linked to music hall.
The most ancient clowns have been found in the Fifth dynasty of Egypt, around 2400 BC. Unlike court jesters, clowns have traditionally served a socio-religious and psychological role, and traditionally the roles of priest and clown have been held by the same persons.
Peter Berger writes that “It seems plausible that folly and fools, like religion and magic, meet some deeply rooted needs in human society”. For this reason, clowning is often considered an important part of training as a physical performance discipline, partly because tricky subject matter can be dealt with, but also because it requires a high level of risk and play in the performer.
The “whiteface” makeup was originally designed by Joseph Grimaldi in 1801. He began by painting a white base over his face, neck and chest before adding red triangles on the cheeks, thick eyebrows and large red lips set in a mischievous grin. Grimaldi’s design is used by many modern clowns. According to Grimaldi’s biographer Andrew McConnell Stott, it was one of the most important theatrical designs of the 1800s. The whiteface clown, or clown blanc from the original French, is a sophisticated character, as opposed to the clumsy auguste. They are also distinguished as the “sad clown” (blanc) and “happy clown” (auguste).
Classic appearance. Traditionally, the whiteface clown uses “clown white” makeup to cover the entire face and neck, leaving none of the underlying natural skin visible. In the European whiteface makeup, the ears are painted red. Features, in red and black, are delicate. The whiteface clown is traditionally costumed far more extravagantly than the other two clown types, sometimes wearing the ruffled collar and pointed hat that typify the clown suit.
America’s first great white faced clown was stage star George “G.L.” Fox. Following English Joseph Grimaldi, Fox popularised the Humpty Dumpty stories throughout the land in the first half of the 19th century in America.
The auguste face base makeup color is a variation of pink, red, or tan rather than white. Features are exaggerated in size and are typically red and black in color. The mouth is thickly outlined with white (called the muzzle) as are the eyes. The auguste is dressed (appropriate to character) in either well-fitted garb or in a costume that does not fit – either oversize or too small is appropriate. Bold colors, large prints or patterns, and suspenders often characterize auguste costumes.
The auguste character-type is often an anarchist, a joker, or a fool. He is clever and has much lower status than the whiteface. Classically the whiteface character instructs the auguste character to perform his bidding. The auguste has a hard time performing a given task, which leads to funny situations. Sometimes the auguste plays the role of an anarchist and purposefully has trouble following the whiteface’s directions. Sometimes the auguste is confused or is foolish and is screwing up less deliberately.
The contra-auguste plays the role of the mediator between the whiteface character and the auguste character. He has a lower status than the whiteface but a higher status than the auguste. He aspires to be more like the whiteface and often mimics everything the whiteface does to try to gain approval. If there is a contra-auguste character, he often is instructed by the whiteface to correct the auguste when he is doing something wrong.
The character clown adopts an eccentric character of some type, such as a butcher, a baker, a policeman, a housewife or hobo. Prime examples of this type of clown are the circus tramps Otto Griebling and Emmett Kelly. Red Skelton, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin would all fit the definition of a character clown.
The character clown makeup is a comic slant on the standard human face. Their makeup starts with a flesh tone base and may make use of anything from glasses, mustaches and beards to freckles, warts, big ears or strange haircuts.
The most prevalent character clown in the American circus is the hobo, tramp or bum clown. There are subtle differences in the American character clown types. The primary differences among these clown types is attitude. According to American circus expert Hovey Burgess, they are (in order of class):
- The Hobo: Migratory and finds work where he travels. Down on his luck but maintains a positive attitude.
- The Tramp: Migratory and does not work where he travels. Down on his luck and depressed about his situation.
- The Bum: Non-migratory and non-working.
Emmett Kelly was the preeminent clown of this type. Others include Barry Lubin, Tom Dougherty, Bill Irwin, David Shiner, Geoff Hoyle, Funny Man Poodles, John Gilkey, Eric Davis, Peter Shub, Poodles Hanneford, Bluch Landolf, Larry Pisoni, John Lepiarz, Bobo Barnett, Happy Kellams, Fumagalli, Charlie Cairoli, Bebe, Jojo Lewis, Abe Goldstein, Rhum, David Larible, Scott Linker, Kenny Raskin, Oleg Popov, Rik Gern, Bello Nock, Vance Colvig, Jr. and (among his other acts) Red Skelton.
Native American clowning
In Native American mythology, the Trickster channels the spirit of the Coyote and becomes a sacred Clown character. A Heyoka is an individual in Native cultures who lives outside the constraints of normal cultural roles. The Heyoka plays the role of a backwards clown, doing everything in reverse. The Heyoka role is sometimes best filled by a Winkte.
Many native tribes have a history of clowning. The Canadian Clowning method developed by Richard Pochinko and furthered by his former apprentice, Sue Morrison, combines European and Native American clowning techniques.
In this tradition, masks are made of clay while the creator’s eyes are closed. A mask is made for each direction of the medicine wheel. During this process, the clown creates a personal mythology that explores their personal experiences.
There are two distinct types of clown characters, which originated in Commedia dell’Arte but still hold favor today, Pierrot and Harlequin.
Pierrot or Pirouette – Derived from the commedia dell’arte character Pedrolino – the youngest actor of the troupe, deadpan and downtrodden. Although Pedrolino appeared without mask, Pierrot usually appears in whiteface, typically with very little other color on the face. Like Arlecchino, Pedrolino’s character changed enormously with the rising popularity of pantomime in the late 19th century, becoming Pierrot. This clown character prefers black and white, or otherwise a simple primary color in the costume. (le Pierrot is often female, and has also been called Pirouette or Pierrette. When Bernard Delfont was made a life peer, he chose “Pierrot and Pierrette” as the heraldic supporters of his coat of arms.).
The tragic Robert Hunter song “Reuben and Cerise” mentions Pirouette twice, in symbolic colors:
…Cerise was dressing as Pirouette in white
when a fatal vision gripped her tight
Cerise beware tonight…
Cerise is Reuben’s “true love”, but Ruby Claire was a temptress:
…Sweet Ruby Claire at Reuben stared
At Reuben stared
She was dressed as Pirouette in red
and her hair hung gently down
Both women have names that translate as red, but Reuben’s true love is dressed in pure white. The other, to whom he played his fateful song, is the “lady in red.” This symbolism might imply that Reuben was Pierrot’s companion, Arlecchino:
Harlequin, or Arlecchino, is a “motley” clown. In the Commedia, Arlecchino always carries a cane to strike the other performers with—though the other performers usually take this cane from him and use it against him. This is believed to be the origin of the slapstick form of comedy. A slapstick (battacio in Italian), is a prop with two flat flexible wooden pieces mounted in parallel so that the two sticks slap together when the implement is struck, causing a slapping sound, exaggerating the effect of a comedic blow. Despite the slapstick, Arlecchino is not malicious, but mischievous, the slapstick being a classic example of carnivalesque phallic imagery (see also the commedia masks’ noses).
Like a cross between the characters of Puck and Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Arlecchino is nimble and adept at the same time as being clumsy and dim, and is normally the ‘messenger’ character in a comedy — the catalyst for mayhem.
Arlecchino has a female counterpart, Arlecchina, or Rosetta, but more often he is in love with the character of Columbina, a straightforward and intelligent maid, who is usually given the prologue and epilogue.
Arlecchino has other derivatives with slightly different features: Traccagnino, Bagattino, Tabarrino, Tortellino, Naccherino, Gradelino, Mezzettino, Polpettino, Nespolino, Bertoldino, Fagiuolino, Trappolino, Zaccagnino, Trivellino, Passerino, Bagolino, Temellino, Fagottino, Fritellino, Tabacchino, whose names could all be considered funny-sounding names, even to an Italian. Arlecchino’s name is probably derived from “hellech” plus the diminutive suffix “-ino”, meaning little devil. In the same way, “Trufflino” is “Little Truffler”, Trivellino is (Arlecchino’s) “Little Brother”, and so on. The Harlequin often loses much of Arlecchino’s character in pantomime, as he becomes more of a ballet character, to a large extent stripped of dialogue and subversive content.
Joseph Grimaldi was the most celebrated of English clowns, his performances made this character central in British harlequinades.