The Canadian Art Database

Gary Michael Dault

The Clowns

BorderCrossings, Vol. 13 #4, Fall 1994.
[ 2,132 words ]

Never did I have the slightest doubt, not even at age nine, when I joined my friends at the railroad station at dawn to meet the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train and actually got to water the elephants, never (and especially not then) did I ever have the slightest doubt that the circus was about Something Big, that it asked and answered Large Questions. The greatest show on earth — had I known the word — was metaphysical.

That lower-case curmudgeon, American poet e e cummings, put the matter succinctly in the opening moments of his play Him, when the main character, Him, hurls a burning, contradictory curse to the heavens: 'Damn everything but the circus!' The circus, an oasis of sanity, goes un-damned because it represents an alternative to the spoiled, moronically contaminated world at large. It seems to me, however, that the circus is infinitely more a compression and crystallization of our large world than any kind of momentary relief from it. Poor old Him is hoist on the horns of a tautology. Mind you, he gets closer to the truth when he muses to himself, 'And here am I, patiently squeezing fourdimensional ideas into a twodimensional stage, when all of me that's anyone or anything is in the top of a circustent...' Why in 'the top of a circustent?' Because that's where the aerialists are, the angels of the metaphysical circus.

The circus, says Federico Fellini, discussing his film 8 1/2 — which uses the idea of the circus to such stirring effect — 'is the microcosm of our world. Even today,' Fellini confesses, 'the circus overwhelms me and terrorizes me as it did when I was a child. I cannot help seeing in it the desperate effort man makes to organize his own life. Every element of life is found there, pell-mell, just as violent, just as tragic, just as tender...'

Fellini's vision of the circus touches upon the concept of plenitude, a Renaissance idea which sees all life projected against an ordering hierarchy — a sort of creation-ladder upon whose rungs stand all forms of being in ascending order, from the most elemental to the most multivalent. We are located, for example, above the brightest of the beasts and a little lower than the angels. Dogs are allotted a space higher than say, goldfish. And dragonflies are higher up than slugs. And so on until the end of biology.

This hierarchical ordering of life adopts the age-old assumption that what is high above us is closest to God and is therefore worth aspiring to. What is 'down there', is beneath us spatially and developmentally — the site of some inchoate, discarded experience which we are busily transcending. Step back a few paces, squint your eyes and what you have is a medieval model of the cosmos in which Heaven is high up, Hell is a fire down below and what is here is some kind of Middle-earth, a testing and contesting place where we enter into the moral battles which dictate the nature of our subsequent lives (and afterlives).

Drag this medieval cosmos sideways through time, up to the early 20th century, and you have the same model with the parts named differently: what was heaven is now Freud's superego. What was hell is now id. And middle-earth, the contesting place, is the locus of the Freudian ego, the rounded, fleshed-out Us we get when we have tussled ourselves into wholeness in the war between our base and our lofty impulses.

The circus is the model of these evolving moral paradigmatic structures, these desperate efforts to organize our lives. Up 'in the top of the circustent' is the realm of the flyers, the trapeze artists, the beautiful, smoothly muscled, perfectly proportioned spangled and coifed spirits of the air. The aristocrats of the circus, resplendent with a hauteur of achievement — death risked nightly as circus noblesse oblige. The flyers are the cosmic familiars of the Big Top, an identification occasionally made explicit in certain acts like that of Roselle, 'The Man in the Moon', who performed 'a rotating hand-balance' on the curve of the sparkling moon hung just beneath the very top of the circus tent and which trembled beneath him like the blade of a scimitar. Eventually the moon killed him, this hubris-inflated moon-calf, this tinsel-Icarus who had clearly overreached himself.

And where is hell in the circus? Where lieth the lair of the id? Why with the animals, natch. With the ponderous, compromising pachyderms and the bouncy, resentful bears, and the big jungle cats with broken spirits and buried hates, and the bedroomy barebacked horses making their despairing rounds. The animals are grounded, sublunary creatures, tied to the earth and the fetterings of their cages, dreaming, maybe, of mayhem, dreaming, maybe, of release.

And what goes on in the circus's middle-earth? The Ringmaster, for one thing. The Ringmaster is to the circus what the omniscient author is to the novel. The Ringmaster is Virgil to the audience's Dante, guiding us through this three-level divine comedy. The Ringmaster is adjacent to the circus, a commentator, a soundtrack, a kind of linguistic midwife to the spectacle, bridging the gap between the arcanities out there in the spotlights and the audience's need-to-know. He is the Lord of the Rings. But he is himself not in the circus. And he surely belongs not to the circus's middle-earth but rather to no earth at all. The Ringmaster is everywhere and nowhere.

The clowns are the legitimate citizens of the middle-earth of the circus. They are the circus's ego triflers. Clowns are all becoming — and are, at the same time, numberless modalities of falling-away. As Fellini intones so respectfully, while narrating his inspired documentary The Clowns (1970),

The clowns didn't make me laugh. No, they frightened me... those chalky faces, those enigmatic expressions, those twisted, drunken masks, the shorts, the crazy laughter, the absurd atrocious jokes... they reminded me of other strange and troubled characters who roam around every country village...

Clowns R Us. They are fallen; they aspire. They are living contradictions, the glories, jests and riddles of the circus world. Unlike the animals of the id, those yellow-eyed inhabitants of the circus-inferno, and unlike the diaphanous super-egotistical aerialist-angels, who know precisely what they are and are not, the clowns of the middle-earth don't know what the hell to make of their being human, all too human.

Clowns don't even know what forms to inhabit. They are shape-shifters. So effulgent with humanness, their features are apparently formlessly and unsatisfactorily distributed — meager and drained of expression at one point (those blank faces, bleached as white-washed wall), lumpy and congested and tumescent at another (those big feet, those big noses, those big lips, that big hair). Size is an obsession with clowns — a coming-of-age characteristic they share with Lewis Carroll's Alice, who never seems to be able to keep track of her hands or feet. It was the clown Lou Jacobs, of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, who puffed and putted into centre ring in a diabolically tiny tin automobile and then unfolded his giant stature from the confining car and stood towering over it, pleased to be there, pleased to be anywhere — what was all the laughter about?

Clowns try their best. They squirt water and whack each other on the backside and fail to behave themselves, all in the name of getting on together. They are eager to learn — aping everyone from the Ringmaster to the jugglers and bareback riders and acrobats. They get caught up in baggy-trousered parodies of non-clown activities so that they might at once better themselves and puncture what they see as pomposity of human achievement. Like court jesters, they are not beheaded for their behavioural treasons; they are only clowns.

But this is the clown as a perambulating vulgarity, a brutish comic Caliban, fallen and, however touching, unredeemable. And there is, as we all know, a hierarchy within clownworld just as there is a hierarchy that sorts and separates angels.

The sad and beautiful Auguste, tragic hero of Henry Miller's The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder (1948), is a useful emblem for this vertical division into levels of rarefication and breeding. Auguste, descended from the ancient and noble white-faced clown of the Commedia dell'arte, stands throughout much of his act at the foot of a ladder — the stairway to paradise, the essential symbol of human aspiration. The knockabout laughter of the ordinary street clowns has given way to an 'extraordinary smile which was engraved on Auguste's sad countenance. In the ring,' writes Miller,

this smile took on a quality of its own, detached, magnified, expressing the ineffable. At the foot of the ladder reaching to the moon, Auguste would sit in contemplation, his smile fixed, his thoughts far away. This simulation of ecstasy, which he had brought to perfection, always impressed the audience as the summation of the incongruous... Never had a buffoon thought to depict the miracle of ascension.

Clowns are always engaged in some kind of dialogue with the incongruous — usually with the central incongruity of our being: the fact of death and its amplification at the hands of the self-consciousness with which we are all cursed and blessed. 'The clown is so close to death,' Charles Chaplin told his biographer Robert Payne (The Great Charlie, 1952), 'that only a knife-edge separates him from it, and sometimes he goes over the border, but he always returns again. So in a way he is spirit — not real. And because he is always returning, that gives us comfort. We know he cannot die, and that's the best thing about him.' Whereas aerialists scoff lightly and gracefully at death as they go about their lofty, death-defying work, and animal trainers (the psychiatrists of the Freudian circus) drive their wild id-creatures into a corner and make them behave, only the clowns effect a porous, inter-penetrational relationship with death, slipping on death's banana peel, getting squirted in the eye by death's seltzer bottle, sidling up to cataclysm and somersaulting away from it again. Thus the clown's grandeur, his pathos, his absurdity.

Sadness-unto-death clings to him the way he clings to life. The great Oleg Popov, star clown with the Moscow State Circus (his puckish, rather carnivorous Zero Mostel-like grin shines down into my study like a beacon from a cherished autographed photo), once insisted that 'the chief thing for every circus artist... is the high dignity of man which must be shown in the ring of any modern circus.' Like everyone in Samuel Beckett, the thing is to get on. Canio, in Leoncavallo's opera I Pagliacci, must continue to make his audience laugh even though his Nedda (his Columbine) is in the arms not of his friend Harlequin but, worse, one of the paying customers. 'Bah,se' tu forse un uom!' sings Canio at the end of Act 1. 'Tu se' Pagliaccio! Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina. La gente paga e rider vuole qua. [Bah! You are not a man! You are the clown! Put on the costume, the powder and paint: The people pay and want to laugh...']

So the clown smiles though his heart is breaking. Like the Jongleur de Dieu, the tumbler-for-God, who turned head over heels and balanced upside down before the image of the Blessed Virgin, the clown is — like the rest of us— an accumulation of contradictions. The most potent of these is his vitality in the face of failure and death. The poignancy of the clown's double sentience, his life-sentience, releases all around him a fragrance of the elegiac. To peruse any history of clowns is to hear their fates tolling like bells: the famous Belgian clown, Little Walter, died in poverty; Marceline shot himself; Pappy, the dwarf Hungarian clown hanged himself; the Russian clown Gabriel leapt in front of a train; Sabatini — The Great Sabatini — died forgotten; Coco, a Latvian clown, died in a caravan accident. And of course there's Chuckles the Clown of the Mary Tyler Moore Show who died, you may recall, when an elephant sat on him. On the other hand, Frank Foster, a famous Ringmaster in his day, a realist, a bottom-line-man, unsentimental and out of patience with the tragic axis running through all clowns once wrote '... although I have once seen an acrobat fall, I have never — and I know many artists — encountered that intolerable bore, The Clown with a Broken Heart.'

But then Frank Foster was that rigid, formal, bureaucratic, pitiless outsider, a Ringmaster. What could he know?

BorderCrossings, Vol. 13 #4, Fall 1994.

Text: © Gary Michael Dault. All rights reserved.

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