With recent waves of "scary clown sightings" and the recent fall of several circuses, some ask, "is clowning dying?" or "is circus dying?" The answer- to survive it must evolve and adapt. I accidentally came across the following article, in which the style of clowning had to evolve as the circus did 132 years ago:
Chicago Tribune, March 29, 1885
THE CLOWN HAS HAD HIS DAY: The Double Circus-Ring and the Wealth of Attractions Killed HimNew York Mail: "It is a sad fact," mournfully said a veteran circus manager, "but it is beyond dispute that the days of the joke-cracking and song-singing clown are over. He expired when the double circus-ring came into vogue. In his place the horse-play or pantomime Grimaldi arose."
"How did the double ring kill the witty(?) clown?" asked a reporter for the Mail and Express
"The vast audience could not hear him. The miles of canvas, the ampitheatre, filled with 10,000 people, made the great lung power necessary to be heard an utter impossibility. The large railroad travelling circuses have nothing but pantomime clowns. In the small shows, where actors are few and something must be done to fill the time for the acrobats or whatever they may be to rest, before they appear in some other daring feats under other dazzling names, the song-singing, punning clown is used. But he is fast going out for other reasons. The newspapers and almanacs contain nearly all the jokes and puns and to repeat them in the ring over and over again becomes monotonous and tires even those who do not read. Thus to supplant this, horse-play was invented."
"What do you mean by horse-play?"
"Broad humor. For instance, the clown sticks a needle in a chair, and the ringmaster innocently sits down on it. He gets up in a hurry. This kind of fun tickles the audience. They see it and understand the point made, but it is not so with a pun of joke. I was a clown before I became a proprietor and I know all the inside tricks of the profes(ion). When I traveled in the small towns of 8,000 and 10,000 inhabitants I always managed to pump some garrulous man in the town before the performance, so as to get off a local gag. This always pleased the audience, and occasionally caused a little row if the 'gag' was at the expense of some fellow in the audience. Then I would sing a song and hear all the little boys in the streets singing it afterwards. There was some glory in that, but now the clown must be a first-class tumbler and a good pantomimist to succeed. He sinks his individuality with some ten or fifteen others, who come out caparisoned in caps and bells. The lines are drawn and the old order giveth way to the new. Grimaldi's mask has more fun in it than Dan Rice's double entendre jokes. Sic transit Gloria mundi."
Don't let the title fool you- the witty joke-telling clowning didn't die, it found rebirth later on in smaller venues like the Vaudeville stages, burlesque halls, and again years later in talking pictures.
When Joseph Grimaldi retired from clowning back in 1823, people felt sure that pantomime was dead. 'We fear the spirit of Pantomime departed with Grimaldi' claimed one critic reviewing a pantomime in 1832, and again in 1848 in Mirror Monthly Magazine of London "The rollicking fun of Clown seems to have departed with Delpini and Grimaldi...the true spirit has evaporated."
Movements come and go, and eventually the old becomes the new again. These cycles have been going around for centuries!