Friday, September 10, 2010

DAVID CARLYON: A Brief History of Clowning in the United States (Part Seven)

“Here We Are Again” (now and next)

In the late 1800s, clowns often entered the ring with the then-celebrated cry, “Here we are again!” As the late 1900s turned to the twenty-first century, that cry applied across the clowning world, with the multiplication of types, venues, and comic impulses.

This multiplication can’t hide the fade of 3-ring clowning. Ringling, still the major traditional circus, shut down its Clown College, reduced the size of its Clown Alley, and turned to headliner clowns, the sweet David Larible and the acrobatic Bello Nock. Other traditional circuses often now have only a clown or two; some present shows with no clowns. While clowns who remained continue to present gags, they increasingly transform traditional improvisation with the audience into audience interaction as a semi-scripted part of their work. This seeming spontaneity often includes planted props and whispered instructions. As actual 3-ring clowning decreases, the clown-as-symbol increases. Television, movies, and advertisements repeatedly employ the clown to represent hilarity or an ultimate children’s pleasure. Because the link to genuine clowning weakens year by year, those examples increasingly repeat each other’s clichés, and the symbols become less and less reflective of what a real clown would do. Though Cirque du Soleil shows seem too dark and hard-edged to be sentimental, they contribute to the sentimentalization of the clown, with their recurring outsider figure, a stranger-in-a-strange-land as lovable as the tramp clown.

As clown symbolism expanded, it took a sharp turn into the 21st-century, into the Scary Clown. Children have periodically been afraid of clowns, just as children are afraid of thunder or cops or their teacher on the first day of kindergarten; it was a part of the circus landscape, easily managed by an experienced clown. However conventional wisdom began to accept it as a legitimate phobia. Reasons for that change are murky but four elements suggest themselves. First, the huge increase in amateur clowns and young clowns out of Clown College meant a growing number of clowns without the experience to deal with occasional flights of children’s fright. Second, the rise of the Internet meant that the scary-clown symbol could be easily repeated, with repetition making it seem legitimate. Third, just as the sad-clown cliché relied on a contrast from the assumption of unalloyed happiness, movies relied on the same contrast as they featured deliberately scary clowns. Fourth, similarly, the rarely achieved assumption of perfect hilarity and happiness, and the correspondingly vapid clowns symbols, generated a reaction. Though clowns are no more or less likable than any other performer, to proclaim a dislike of clowns became the newest clown symbol, an inherent boast of being independent.

Because talking clowns faded from the circus, those like Dan Rice seemed a dead end. However, his brand of clowning / comedy continued onto the vaudeville stage, next into movies, and then into television. The Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye, Red Skelton, Bob Hope and many other comedians carried the DNA of Dan Rice’s comedy. It would take over a century though before cable television and the Internet created the true successors of political clowns like Rice, in entertainer / political commentators like Jon Stewart on the left and Glenn Beck on the right.

10 for Further Reading

Many of the thousands of books written about clowning are interesting. These ten give a good overview. The first three are general histories:

- Remy, Tristan. Clown Scenes. A look at classic clown routines by a leading French circus historian.

- Speaight, George. Clown. A noted circus historian looks at clown history from a British and European perspective, with many color pictures.

- Towsen, John. Clowns. Remarkably, though written thirty years ago, this probably is still the best single volume on the history of clowns.

Five more books offer glimpses of clowns in successive historical periods:

- Late 1700s-early 1800s: Dickens, Charles. The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi. More Dickens’ version than a memoir, it strongly influenced what people think of clowns.

- 1800s: Bratton, Jacky and Ann Featherstone. The Victorian Clown. This is a three-part look at early clowning in England (overlapping issues of American clowning): An 1840s overview; a memoir from the 1850s; and a collection of clown sketches from the 1870s.

- 1800s: Carlyon, David. Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of. Though some of its details of American culture will not interest all, this book focuses on what 19th-century clowns actually did in the circus ring, and how Rice fit a changing American culture.

- Late 1800s-mid-1900s: ? [Anyone interested in writing a biography of Slivers Oakley? This era of clowning is still waiting for a careful, rigorous historical study. The closest might be the ten pages in Janet Davis, The Circus Age.]

- Mid-1900s: Ballantine, Bill. Clown Alley. The second dean of Ringling’s Clown College gives an insider’s perspective on clowning with the circus.

- Late 1900s: Jenkins, Ron. Acrobats of the Soul: Comedy & Virtuosity in Contemporary American Theatre. While offering a steady stream of truth-tellers defying conformity, it does give a helpful overview of the new clowns that would have a strong influence into the 21st century.

Most books about clowns, non-fiction and novels, rely on various versions of sentimentality about clowns. Here are two notable literary versions:

- Boll, Heinrich. The Clown. A Nobel-Prize winner used the character of a clown to examine German national, political and religious soul-searching after World War II.

- Miller, Henry. Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. This slim book romantically depicts its hero-clown seeking not fame or huge laughs, but the humble, human connection of smiles.

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