Friday, September 10, 2010

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

“Three Types of Clowns” ?

Because Clown College strongly influenced — and may have started — the current idea that there are three types of clowns, it might be helpful to address this topic here. This division splits clowns into whiteface, auguste, and character clown. The dominance of this three-part division after the 1960s suggests the influence of a pamphlet created and illustrated by the school’s second dean, Bill Ballantine. This three-part split does make teaching easier, helping would-be clowns sort through comic impulses.

That split also reflects comic traits. The whiteface and auguste fit the straight man/stooge comedy pair, while the character clown, especially the currently popular tramp clown, represents the solo comic figure. However, any clown “type” is inherently vague, as traits inevitably overlap. For instance, the blackface circus clown before the Civil War talked but was not considered a “talking clown.” Similarly whiteface clowns were originally knockabout comedians, while today they’re often considered too refined for broad physical comedy.

This division of convenience has evolved into what many consider requirements. That urge for certainty may reflect growing uncertainty about what a clown is. Before Clown College, a circus clown was simply and clearly the costumed comic figure in a circus. But after the Sixties, a “clown” could be someone who had just graduated from Clown College, with no experience, or anyone who simply decided to apply makeup and throw on mismatched clothes. In such a fluid situation, it could be reassuring to have rules to follow, an attempt to prove that one was “officially” a clown. That urge to claim the role would explain the rise in common use of clown slang, such as “Joey,” “Clown Alley,” and “First-of-May” (rookie).

In any case, here are the types, as now regarded, as they developed, and as symbols:

            The whiteface has a full-face makeup of white, with accents in colors, and wears a neat, even fancy costume. Currently the whiteface functions either as the straight man in a comedy pair or as a presenter, often elegantly costumed. Historically the whiteface began as knockabout stage clowns like Grimaldi, with a side influence from commedia dell’arte characters. In the 19th-century circus, whiteface clowns were both knockabout and talking clowns, and they continued broad physical comedy into the 20th century. Though now regarded as more an authority figure, what a whiteface clown does still depends more on the needs of a gag or the show than the “type.”

            The auguste (pronounced aw-GOOST) typically has skin-tone makeup, with a red nose and white around the mouth and eyes, and wears baggy pants. This is what most people consider a generic “circus clown.” Some wear more elegant costumes, and can be called “neat” augustes. The auguste is usually the stooge or second-banana in a comedy pair, though it can also function like a whiteface. The most common origin story says that an American performer (variously a clown, rider, or acrobat) named Tom Belling was kicked out of his circus in Germany in the 1860s and got laughs when he snuck back in dressed in oversized clothes, fell, and bloodied his nose, with the baggy pants, red nose and blundering establishing the “type.” The label “auguste” has various origin stories itself; a likely one says it began as an ironic flip of “august” (aw-GUST), the word for dignified. Some see a class division, with the whiteface representing the elite, the auguste as exemplar of the rising / struggling middle class, and the tramp clown standing for the lower class.

            The character clown is not really a type, even in this three-part division, but a category encompassing many types of clowns. Anything that can be identified as a character, such as a policeman or a professor, can be turned into a character clown. Perhaps the first character clown was one of the most popular ever, the rube clown. Nineteenth-century stages and circuses were full of this unsophisticated hick from the sticks, and some still play it. The non-circus rodeo clown, for instance, is costumed like the rube clown. Other character clowns in the 1800s were “ethnic” clowns, based on major immigrant groups, the “Dutch” (German), Irish, Italian, and “Hebrew” (Jews). (The Jewish comedian Chico Marx played an Italian character.) With the increase in woman clowns, the “cute little girl” emerged as a type. Currently, the most common character clown is the tramp clown, evolved in the late 1800s from unemployed tramps caused by the Industrial Revolution. (Some writers, on no apparent evidence, distinguish between tramp and hobo.) The tramp clown has become a symbol of the sad, lovable clown; ironically as the tramp clown became more lovable, the original tramp, the homeless person, became more scorned. The character clown demonstrates the imprecise nature of clown categories: With males clowns often playing exaggerated females, are they “women" characters,” whitefaces dressed in drag, or augustes simply goofing around? 

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