March 18, 2008

DARE TO BE A CLOWN: Clown History

In America, the first clowns were circus clowns, often sent ahead of the circus with promotional material. Their function was to attract audiences. Under the big top, they worked as time-fillers, tension-relievers between dangerous acts and as distracters who kept the audience from watching scene changes. They made it possible for the audience to enjoy the show.


     To view illustrations, click on:

Many still perform the same duties today, though their status level has risen considerably. In the old days clowns were very lowly circus members, not always treated well. Today’s circus clowns are often skilled in areas other than clowning. They may be medics, mechanics, rigging experts or other kinds of technicians. Above all, they are artists, taking pride in their profession.

Clowns developed during the Renaissance, but their history goes back much further in time, to the days of the “fools.”

A clown was originally “a farm worker, hence a boor, hence—boors seeming funny to townsmen—a funny fellow, a buffoon, a jester.” He seemed funny because he failed to understand how people should act according to certain social forms. He lacked “judgment or sense, specifically with regard to social decorum.”

The clown evolved from a background of the ancient tradition of the fool. Fools often appeared in places of power, that is, the king’s court, as well as at celebrations of harvest and fertility. The fool often came from the part of the population that was deformed and “misshapen.” They were the dwarfs, hunchbacks and other physically grotesque members of society. Sometimes a child would be purposely deformed so as to perform the role of  “the fool.”


These “fools—”odd, grotesque human beings—were perhaps the only persons in society who could mock the king and live to tell about it. Fools in the king’s courts had a cultural role—and that role was not merely entertainment of the royalty.

In archaic and traditional times, societies were small, closed microcosms. Inside the microcosm was familiar, ordered space, inhabited and organized.


Beyond the outer boundaries, however, existed a dangerous region filled with demons, ghosts, the dead and foreigners. In a word, there existed chaos, death, the night.

The microcosm was a vulnerable place, open to attack by enemies from the outer region. These enemies, identified as having demonic powers, could endanger not only the equilibrium of, but the very life of, the microcosm, reducing it to the state of chaos.

 These evil spirits, enemies and wicked forces, personified in a malign power known as the “Evil Eye,” existed not only in a vague, undefined suffusion throughout the outer universe, but could be found in concentrated forms in some humans.

A sure way to attract this odd, cosmic jealousy was to praise oneself, or to be praised by other people. Conversely, the surest way to evade its unwelcome attention was to depreciate oneself, or to be mocked by other people.

The fool’s role was to ward off these demonic influences, to chase them away with his grotesqueness. Thus fools could get away with mocking kings, since they prevented the Evil Eye from attacking the king. Ironically, it wasn’t the king (who had the power and was revered by the people) who was powerful. It was the fool (who was laughed at by the people) who in reality held the power.

In today’s world, we hope our methods of making and keeping order will be sufficient to fend off chaos. Sometimes, when our methods don’t work, we are superstitious enough to feel our life is bewitched. When this happens, we too play the fool.

A fool’s major characteristic is his two-dimensionality. He is chaos and order; he creates order from chaos and chaos from order, and he reconstructs the lines between chaos and order. This is sometimes expressed immediately in his costume, where the right and left halves create a pattern of contrasts. This asymmetrical mirroring, as seen in the traditional black and white of the court jester costume, is interrelated in a way symbolic of wholeness.

Likewise, the fool could act in ways which are opposite, yet don’t seem mutually exclusive—he can be meaningless and meaningful, worthless and valuable, good and bad.

His two-dimensionality is inherent in his ability to fuse order and chaos in relation to problems of good and bad.

The clown, though infantile, is an adult. As an adult-child he contrasts adult responsibility with infantile irresponsibility. He’s a grotesque who breaks down and fuses order (the image of the responsible adult) and chaos (the infantility thought to be extraneous to adulthood). He presents contrast between adulthood’s rigid form and childhood’s potential power.

The more specific effect of this contrast is rejuvenation. After all, if the psyche’s childhood state is totally repressed, we, in a very real sense, lose a party of our humanity.

The idea that death is “bad” pervades society. Death is necessary to life, but this thought does not make it possible to regard it neutrally. The clown act attempts to reconcile death and life. He may deal with death by attacking our judgment of it as “bad,” suggesting we have the power to withstand dissolution and death.

Chaos is partly shaped by subjective interpretations. An experience of chaos—of losing control—rests on the assumption that the world here is basically hospitable to us, even if the meaning often eludes us. We want to believe that chaos is, in its most potent depths, extraneous to us. Chaos should not break through our walls, nor should bits of it turn up again and again within our means of keeping order.

The clown breaks down the boundary between chaos and order. He also violates our assumption that the boundary was where we thought it was, and that it has the character we thought it had. Whatever we had taken for granted would protect us from the dark unknown may not do so. The clown shows us that on the other side of the threat of the unknown there is a promise, which allows us to maintain a playful contact with undeveloped possibilities.

 Those who dare to be a clown experience a freedom of self normally hidden behind societal masks. I challenge you to don a clown mask for a day, an hour, a minute. You may be surprised at the result! 

     One more illustration:

Continue reading about clowns by clicking on  

Dare to be a Clown: Clown Types

Read a poem by the Beanery Online Literary Magazine visitor/contributor, Kait, by clicking on:  LOVER BUBBLE

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