Clowning Around – the essence of a clown

Clowning Around – the essence of a clown

“Comedy has had no history, because it was not at first treated seriously.” – Aristotle

Where does one begin to find the essence of the clown? This is a figure so well recognised by all of us and yet, what do we really know about our white-faced friends? For instance, did you know that the first week in August has been declared International Clown Week? In honour of this larger than life character, this archetypal human expression, we went digging around for a few facts about these farcical folk.

The English word ‘clown’ comes from the Old Icelandic, klunni, which denotes a clumsy person. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a clown is “a familiar comic character of pantomime and circus, known by his distinctive makeup and costume, ludicrous antics, and buffoonery, whose purpose is to induce hearty laughter. The clown usually performs a set routine characterized by broad, graphic humour, absurd situations, and vigorous physical action.”

Clowns do all that and then also a little more. They heal, they scare, they mock, they amuse. White faces; red noses; painted smiles absurdly exaggerated; wee little hats with a daisy sticking up; braces barely bolstering puffy pants… They tumble from tiny cars and trip over their outsized shoes. They know every trick in the book and they live for a roar of laughter from the crowd. They fool about and clown around and mostly we don’t think much about them.

Yet, they are the keepers of the sweet spot on the human psyche – the part that sees the absurdities and tells the truth, the part that is not afraid of being hurt or embarrassed or of showing emotion. Clowns represent at the same time our greatest vulnerability, fragility even, and the robustness that enables us to get right back up again every time we fall. Similarly, they hold the dichotomy of our innocence, the child within that never grows up, as well as the wisdom that enables us to see through the farce.

Clowns have always known what educators are only cottoning on to now: humans learn best while laughing. Clowns are never mean: the joke is always on them. When they make elaborate and conspicuous plans to make fun of someone else, the joke always backfires. Sometimes literally. Clowns are courageous: in ancient times at the royal court, clowns (or jesters) were the only ones who dared to contradict or criticise the king. Clowns are multi-talented: not only can they tickle the funny bone but they often juggle, walk tightropes, ride unicycles or tumble from trapezes while doing so.

“Wearing underwear on the outside of your clothes can turn a tedious trip to the store for a forgotten carton of milk into an amusement park romp.” – Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams

The exact origins of the clown are lost to us but this archetypal character has sprung up in all cultures and nationalities across the face of the earth. John Cech, a clown expert, points out: “The Zunis of the American Southwest had a name for this creature: he was called the Contrary. He appeared at all the most sacred festivals, dressed in a striped costume and wearing a cone-shaped hat. His job was to make fun of serious things, to call attention to the absurd, impossible side of our experience and thus to complete a kind of cosmic circle. He reminds us of that other shadowy, tricky, wobbly side to our nature. He was supposed to do what you aren’t supposed to do – fall down, eat the wrong things, say the wrong things, behave the wrong way.”

Across the globe, clowns came to entertain and gently confront in many different guises and under many different names. There is the Arlecchino, or Harlequin, from Italy; the Pierrot from France and that most intrepid of the species, the Rodeo Clown from the United States.

Clowns are also differentiated by their type of costume, make-up and performance. The whiteface clown, one of the most well-known of modern clown types, uses make-up to exaggerate their facial features and expressions rather than modify or conceal them. The grotesque clown, on the other hand, uses exaggerated make-up and costumes, such as a large nose and a skullcaps to dramatically alter his or her features. The character clown adopts a specific common character, like a butcher, a policeman, housewife or hobo. The Auguste clown is self-important and displays every appearance of dignity. Auguste clowns often work as part of a duo and their counterparts always get the better of them. Since the Auguste clown so obviously thinks of himself as smart, superior and wise, when the joke is on him it is doubly funny.

“I remain just one thing, and one thing only – and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician.” – Charlie Chaplin

As an expression of the human psyche, the archetypal clown is associated with three major characteristics: making people laugh, making them cry, and wearing a mask that covers the clown’s own real emotions. “The Clown reflects the emotions of the crowd, making an audience laugh by satirizing something they can relate to collectively or by acting out social absurdities. In general, the messages communicated through a Clown’s humour are deeply serious and often critical of the hypocrisy in an individual or in some area of society. Because of the mask he wears, the Clown is allowed – indeed, expected – to cross the boundaries of social acceptance, representing what people would like to do or say themselves,” says Carloline Myss in her book, Sacred Contracts.

Psychologically speaking, the clown of course also has a dark side, which finds expression in cruel, personally directed mockery or betrayal, specifically by breaking the confidences gained through knowledge from the inner circle. This shadowy clown type is in reality distressed by his or her unconscious lack of power and is often driven by greed or an inordinate desire for fame. It is this dark aspect of the clown that sometimes inspires a phobia, known as coulrophobia. Most discussions on this inordinate dread of clowns seem to agree that the most fear-inducing aspect of clowns is the heavy make-up that, accompanied by the bulbous nose and weird hair colour, completely conceals the wearer’s identity.

“Everyone who goes to a job he doesn’t like is a lot weirder than I am.” – Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams

Performing clowns, however, portray the good in this archetype. They are, for the most part, honourable folk with pure intentions and a firm grasp on integrity. Within the clown community there even exists an informal code of conduct that also protects the individual clown’s informal right to a costume, makeup and other unique performance attributes that must not be infringed by other clowns. In Britain, in recognition of The Code, each clown has their own clown face painted onto an eggshell and no two eggs can be alike.
One of the best known and most benevolent modern day clowns must surely be Hunter “Patch” Adams, whose story was told so eloquently by Robin Williams in the movie, Patch Adams. A qualified medical doctor, Adams became increasingly convinced of the relationship between wellness and environment and, subsequently, the healing power of laughter. Adams still works tirelessly to provide better, more affordable healthcare in an environment more condusive to healing.

And so, if you are looking for a reason to become festive this August, why not let your inner clown come out to play? Since laughter remains the best medicine, you would be doing your mind, body and soul a kindness. Heaven knows, we take life so seriously – fretting about anything we can lay our weary minds on. In honour of the ancient tradition of fools everywhere, this August, let us clown around a little.

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