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Due to my unconventional lifestyle as a public performing artist a lot of my friends and associates are actually professional clowns. Since the international 2016 “Creepy Clown epidemic” some clowns (and friends) have reported a loss of income, public aggression and threats of physical assault. Further concern is being generated by part one of the “It” movie to be released later this year. There is a growing fear that the art form and profession is due to die out. (1, 2, 3, 4)
This subject interests me, in many respects it interconnects with my religious practice. Clown symbolism and tradition goes back to ancient history, quite possibly prehistory. The idea of the fading profession is worrisome to say the least. So here I thought I’d venture into the history of clowns, the symbolism and the likelihood of their function in the Mysteries. It may interest readers that clowns have always been a border between the profane and sacred, life and death.
It is more than possible that the clown itself was a feature of early western religion and folk traditions. What anthropologists generalise as the term Shamanism. Outside of Europe in America, clown medicine men play an important function as mediums between worlds of real and unreal, guides of spirits and apotropaic warders against evil and illness. This is exemplified by native American cultures such as the Pueblo peoples, within their culture was a separate society known as the Zuni Ne’ wekwe: funny people whom dressed in mud. Although defined as apart from society the Zuni played a crucial role in healing ailments through comedy. The Iroquois similarly used such means as healing including: “False Faces use clown-like theatrics to exorcise disease”. (5) Also the Heyoka of the Lakota, of whom spoke, walked and behaved opposite of nature.
In these instances the clown shamans are contrarians and exist in two realms of real and unreal. They mock and ridicule sacred ritual, committing taboos and breaking social conventions (transgressive), yet, at the same time empowering themselves and the community by completing a paradox of profound. The clowns are mirrors of society pointing out faults within their own culture and reinforcing the overall social commitments of the normal.
Satyr Plays and Classical Theatre
The origins of the Greek theatre is a historical mystery but it is possible it begun in the clownish antics of profane versus profound in Greek satyr plays. It is here that we find parallels between clown medicine men in America.
The earliest known Dionysian festival is Anthesteria, which among many things (including coming of age rites), centres around the marriage of Dionysos to Ariadne. The marriage itself was an enacted ceremony between the Queen of Athens to Dionysos. As a theme in Greek Mystery cults: marriage, coming to age and death are interlinked, thus Mystery deals primary with the subject of death and rebirth, ie., initiation.
How this was performed is mostly unknown, but earlier references suggest that the ritual ended with consummation of the marriage in a cow shed, making the king a cuckold to a god. This sacrifice was restorative of nature:
“Not all the magistrates lived together. The King kept what is now called the Boukoleion [cow-shed] near the Prytaneion. The evidence is that even now the mating and marriage of the wife of the King with Dionysos takes place there.” Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 3.5
The function of the clown comes into this through the attendees of this ceremony. Men dressed as satyrs, donning masks and appearing as a cross between human and animal. These lewd creatures would accompany Dionysos with slapstick and farce. Although the ritual between the Queen and Dionysos was secret, it is thought to become open to public as satyr plays. In turn, these plays were later superseded by tragedy during Anthesteria, but the satyr plays still maintained a place in the festival as interludes between tragic plays. Maintaining the balance of the theatrical experience of the audience. This is argued by Richard Seaford:
“Moreover, Aristotle in Chapter 4 of his Poetics (by far our best source for the genesis of tragedy) states that tragedy began in improvisation and that it took time to acquire its elevated tone ‘because it developed from the satyr-play-like’. He also stated that tragedy developed ‘from the leaders of the dithyramb’. This evidence all coheres. The dithyramb was a hymn (originally processional) to Dionysos, that might be performed by satyrs, and indeed at the Athenian Anthesteria it seems that pipe-playing satyrs participated in a festal procession of the kind likely to have been accompanied by the dithyramb. The procession was, moreover, probably followed by the secret ritual in the old royal house.”
“At the Dionysiac festivals the citizens en masse watched the ritual impersonation of myth on the streets, but were excluded from the mystic ritual at the heart of the festival. And so not only was the traditional processional hymn transformed into a scripted stationary hymn under a hillside (so that all could see), but also the irresistibly secret sights of mystic ritual were opened out to the curious gaze of the entire polis. Greek ritual tends to enact its own aetiological myth, and the first tragedies were, I suspect, dramatisations of the aetiological myths enacted in mystery-cult – as was, a century later, the highly traditional Bacchae.” (6,7)
The only example we have of a satyr play is The Cyclops by Euripides, this farce making light of Homer’s Odyssey. But with other examples of Athenian comedy we get insight into Mystery, openly mocking what is consider profound such as: The Frogs and Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes. This can be used as an example of clownish characters making light of subjects as serious as religious rites and death. The refinement of Athenian writers however stripped away the farce, inventing tragedy. But elsewhere this was not the case.
In Poetics (5.1449b), Aristotle speculates comedy originated from the Dorian colonies in Italy and was refined by the Athenians.
“The making of tales (i.e. plots) originally came from Sicily, but of the Athenians Crates first began, by discarding the abusive scheme as a whole, to construct stories and tales.”
This connection from Aristotle is interesting, as unlike Athens, the Dorian colonies of Italy, Magna Graecia, comedy was held in high regard. Again it was also deeply rooted in Mystery cults, Bonnie MacLachlan discusses this in her essay on the Locrian Cave, in which comedic actors were given cultus in caves where maidens would perform rituals to indicate their coming of age (initiative death) as a woman. (8)
“Rhinthon, who was born in Syracuse but worked in Taras/Tarentum, has earned the reputation of expanding the genre of tragi-comedy, subverting some of the Attic conventions. It is very likely that his plays were performed in the theater at Locri, and the presence of a phlyax figure in the Grotta suggests that Locrian women enjoyed the sophistication and wit he represents.
[…] There may have been actual theatrical performances in the cave: among the votive objects were miniature models of the Grotta on which curtains were carved in relief. Terracotta figurines of comic actors and musicians, along with masks, indicate the importance of the theater to the votaries. The chiaroscuro mix of the serious and the comic, like the interplay between death and life, would be appropriate for the rituals in a nymphaeum.”
So while the concepts and history of Greek comedy is a little more nuanced than the Native American clown societies, we still witness themes that follow the same context of the profound and profane. The seriousness of death being turned into a farce, the religious ideals and natural cycle being challenged by beings (satyrs) that exist between worlds of real and fantasy.
Middle Comedy and New Comedy
The distinction between old, middle and new comedy in Greece is retrospective. The evolution of theatre being subtle. This is further complicated by the fact that no plays survive from the Middle era and only fragments from New Comedy era. (Probably because this was a return to the farce and impromptu.) Aristophanes is often credited with instituting the concept with his satirical plays that dealt with historical or contemporary people. This was a departure from the old as the prominence of mythological beings and satyrs was downplayed or humanised. It is during these two periods that archetypes/stock characters representing everyday life began appearing on stage like: parasites, revellers, philosophers, boastful soldiers, courtesans, bakers and cooks. It is safe to assume that the costumes and themes of Commeia dell’arte arose from these eras. New Comedy saw human masks with grotesque features, similar to satyr masks, that are easily identifying by the audience. A improvised mockery of the social caste and social conventions.
Roman Christians closed the theatres in 391 AD with it the history of performance became a vague memory. We can only assume that the traditions of New Comedy never died out in the medieval period. It is possible that troupes took their art to the streets as travellers, thus maintaining some lineage from the old. This is entirely an assumption, as akin to Middle and New Greek Comedy, the historical record of the rise of the Commedia dell’arte is few and far in the thousand year gap between the closure of the theatres and the emergence of it in the Renaissance. That said, some examples of the similarity between latter Greek comedy and Commedia dell’arte is the function of the stage, a special stage wagon, and the stock characters. The Commedia took on and developed its own traditions originating from Italy slowly evolving into its own art form, most noticeable is the interplay between the Zanni (rustic fools), Harlequin and the Pierrot.
The Harlequin (Arlecchino) is known as the trickster, sometimes appearing frail and weak, yet nimble and capable of great physical feats. He uses deception and tricks to fool those that around him. He is often known for his black mask and colourful diamond-shaped costume, he carries a club which later evolved into the Marotte. The Harlequin is often associate with the devil or a servant of Satan, but going back to the Greek theatre he is also a linked to Herakles. The Harlequin is interesting as although connected with what we would consider evil he is the anti-hero, through his feats the audience become charmed, enchanted by his prowess.
The evolution of the court Jester likely comes from The Harlequin, the Jester role in the court was to mock the rulership of the monarch, yet through his honesty an unusual adviser. The Marotte too played a very important role, it is a parody of a parody, a miniature puppet of the jester himself who likewise served as an advisor to the jester, sometimes the serious expression of the jester or alter ego, thus completing the paradox of the Jester/Harlequin.
The Pierrot is the counterpart and victim of the Harlequin. He is the trusting fool, the sad clown, sometimes considered a peasant or common man. His usual story is his naïve and fruitless love for The Courtesan who later betrays him for the Harlequin. (Remarkably akin to the Dionysian cuckolding the king of Athens.) The Pierrot is one of only stock characters of Commedia dell’arte that does not wear a mask, only white face paint, his costume is mostly white with a workers cap / dunce cap, he wears exaggerated loose clothing with large buttons.
His lack of a mask makes him something that the audience instantly identifies with and also able to convey real emotion. The audience can see themselves in the Pierrot, though, by the misdeeds of the Harlequin he becomes the butt of jokes, meaning that the audience ends up laughing at themselves, the catharsis of seeing others suffering.
The Modern Clown and rise of Fear
With the Industrial revolution and development of technology and easier means of travel the modern circus developed. The modern clown drew heavily from the Zanni traditions of the Commedia dell’arte. The mask of the Harlequin becoming simplified face paint and clown noses (known as Auguste), the themes of the trickster and sad clown continued. There is usually a blend of different costumes from daggy, loose colourful clothes to parodies of everyday clothing with each clown having their own personality, jokes and act. The profession of clowning was such that they developed their own unique registry for costumes in the 1940’s that gives us some insight to the diversity of costumes. (9) The advent of film and television saw clowns becoming popular culture, Charlie Chaplin and Emmett Kelly playing upon the sad tramp clown. While in the US the TV show The Bozo Show. In Australia during the 90’s we had Crikey the Clown, a cynical and belligerent clown that performed questionable antics for children’s morning TV. (10) Yet the popularity and international invasion of clowns can never be trumped by that of McDonald’s (Ronald was originally played by Willard Scott who played Bozo). Clowns became a culturally accepted funny role throughout the twentieth century.
Also in this period three famous evil clowns evolved. The first and eldest is the Joker, the counterpart of Batman. The Joker was directly inspired by Gwynplaine. Jokers role fittingly fills that of the profound and profane as the silly villain that rises against the ultra-serious Batman. The evolution of the Joker is complex in itself, but he went from an outright ridiculous nemesis to deformed and frightening during the 80’s, climaxing with Heath Ledger’s performance.
The second being the real-life evil clown and serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Gacy had two clown persona: Pogo and Patches that he would perform for charities and birthday parties. An interesting feature of Gacy’s costume is that he broke clown conventions in the style of his makeup, opting for more pointed-sharp features that appear sinister. It’s unknown if this was intentional.
The third is known as the scariest clown in popular culture (11), Stephen King’s It or Pennywise. It is an eponymous being that appears as the phobia of its victims. Commonly appearing as a clown. King said of It that he found clowns to be the first and most frightening figure to introduce to children, his insight is particularly interesting as his book hits on themes of coming of age and developing as adults. (12)
Coulrophobia is a neologism and unofficial fear of clowns. The development noted with the appearance of the above evil clowns. Popular culture introduced an aspect of the clown that I believe has always been inherent. The function of initiators into adulthood (death of the child). The clown is deliberately confronting, transgressive and contrarian. Their function results in three fears:
The first is the “Uncanny Valley” a hypothesis that humans have a natural revulsion towards something that mimics / alters the human form. This revulsion formulates into fear. The source of this is our instinctive response to a dead body, a psychological self-defence mechanism. Death is the ultimate loss of identity. Clowns fall into the uncanny valley as they are both living and dead, they have no identity. Their appearance is often similar to a corpse, if not that the exaggerated and deformed features put us on nerve. Whether we know it or not, clowns by their function, are deathly.
The second fear is Confrontation. Clowns force us into a fantasy that likewise results in us questioning our reality, questioning ourselves. All art-forms do this, art is some kind of illusion, a magic that transcends the real and draws us away – thus art by nature is confrontational. It’s further enhanced with clowns because they are not just an inanimate sculpture or a painting but something that talks back. Clowns are interactive and this forms as comedy, making fun, making fun of you. They are honest and free creatures that serve to humiliate. This is embarrassing because they force us to question ourselves, to know yourself, picking out our faults and making it into a joke. For some this is damn right terrifying.
The third is linked above. The initiators of adulthood. Is it any wonder why clowns are most often featured at birthday parties? They are harbingers of coming of age, the bridge between child to adult. If one watches horror movies a common trope is a set of objects that we as adults find scary: children’s toys. Toys, like clowns, exist in two worlds: as a child they are a reminder to who we will become -a baby doll, or a tin soldier- but as adults they remind us of what we were. It’s something that we have lost, our innocence. Clowns are usually adults that behave like children, this transgressive behaviour is a reminder that formulates into envy and therefore disgust.
So why now? In 1988 PBD aired the documentary and last commentary of Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth. In the third episode Campbell expresses a worry for Western culture because of the lack of initiation rituals. In previous epochs, and still in cultures outside the west, youths undergo some kind of personal experience to become an adult and fit into society. This initiation was/is an ordeal of such greatness it served as a constant reminder of one’s self – an identity granted to us by our forebears (these forebears sometimes appearing as shaman-clowns). In the modern western culture there is no such ritual, our identity is granted to us by the impersonal government in the form of a driving license or I.D. card that allows us the ability to drink alcohol. To some extent we never become detached from our childhood and we lack any purpose and identity. We’re lost. When it comes to subjects that used to be innocuous and common -like clowns- we’re repulsed, our childhood, which should be beautiful, is turned into a manifestation of fear. This is why Stephen King’s It is so effective as a piece of literature he is tapping into a purpose of the clown, the initiator.
I find it worrisome that the clowning profession may be hurt by the developing popular culture image of clowns, yet as history demonstrates there has always been an evolution of clowns. In a society that is so lost in finding its own identity it is little wonder that something we once were able to laugh at has become an personification of horror. Our culture is increasingly becoming one of fear that shuns death, the inherent nature of clowns is a reflection of death. It is their duty to bring it to us and face it head on, with us ultimately laughing in its face. It is now that clowns are most needed and it is now that audiences need to find laughter. I hope this essay has been helpful to not just my readers, but the clowns themselves.
“I had a friend who was a clown. When he died, all his friends went to the funeral in one car.”
1 2 3 4
Clown Doctors: Shaman Healers of Western Medicine
Linda Miller Van Blerkom
Seaford, Dionysos, pp. 89, 90
This essay was made possible by my kind sponsors. If you would like to contribute to my writing and art become a patron!