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clown

clown The word comes from Low German, and originally described the peasant through uncomplimentary association with the soil that he tilled. ‘Clown’ meant ‘clod, clot, lump’, with more acerbic overtones of ‘clumsy, loutish, lumpish fellow’ and a female ‘hoyden or lusty bouncing girl’. A clown was someone with rude manners, undisciplined physicality, and an inability to control appetites or impulses. The uncivilized nature of such a rustic stereotype was sometimes symbolized by wild acrobatic dancing, as in Chaucer's Hous of Fame:Tho come ther leapynge in a route
And gunne choppen al aboute
Every man upon the crowne
That al the halle gan to sowne
and in the Scots poem, ‘Cocklebie Sow’:Thay movit in thair mad muting …
For merrit was thair menstralis …
For thay hard speik of men gud
And small thairof vndirstud
Bot hurlit furth vpoun heid


Despite moral disapproval, which until the sixteenth century led to the more common title of ‘fool’, their energetic antics were popular and the clown was a box-office draw when professional theatres began in 1576. One clown, William Kemp, danced his way, in nine days, from London to Norwich in 1600, probably to rebuild his fame after being sacked from Shakespeare's Company for speaking more than was set down for him. (See Hamlet III.ii.45–7.) In Shakespeare's and Jonson's plays, the term ‘clown’ is often pejorative.

Clowning became more fashionable in the mid seventeenth century when interest in spectacle superceded that for dialogue. Added to the traditional features of clown behaviour — slapstick, rude gestures, and physical distortions — performers vied for success through energetic novelties. The Dutchman, Brederode, mentioned the lusty spring, the spinning, twirling, and turning of English comic dancers. The rope dancer, Jacob Hall, sometimes played straight, turning somersaults on a rope suspended over naked rapiers; as in circuses today the threat that his agility might end in disaster gave vicarious excitement. But sometimes he added an element of clown's satire on his spectators' motives, by suspending the rope over their heads; presumably they rose to the challenge.

After two centuries of being fashionable, physical comedy became respectable in the 1790s through the ‘total clowning’ of Joseph Grimaldi, which he claimed had resulted in every bone in his body having been broken during his professional life. After his early retirement it was regretted thatGone is the stride, four steps across the stage
Gone is the light vault o'er a turnpike gate.


Grimaldi astonished his audiences by his ability to make seemingly impossible physical movements. Comic innovation around 1800 also included a satiric reflection of the brutal physicality in the humour of Regency society bucks. Stage directions to Thomas Dibdin's Harlequin Hoax read:
To meet Columbine at the street door Harlequin throws himself out of a window and is caught with his head in a lamp iron; the lamplighter pours a gallon of oil down his throat … and sticks a lighted wick in his mouth, and a set of drunken bucks, having no better business on earth than to break lamps, knock his nob to shivers.

By a strange coincidence, Tom and Jerry were the names given to two such Regency buffoons in Pierce Egan's Life in London.

To a certain extent pantomime curbed the clown's physical expressiveness by pinning him down again with dialogue, but in silent pictures, where the only communication was through action, various comic techniques emerged. Chaplin reversed the brutalized humour Grimaldi lived with through the success of the little tramp in overcoming bullies with intelligent agility. And in Modern Times his athleticism was put to the test inside a machine adversary. But the greatest accolade for acrobatics, invention, and physical courage has to go to Harold Lloyd — ‘king of daredevil comedy’ — with his clownish climb up the skyscraper in Safety Last. This did involve a safety platform out of sight of the camera, but far enough below to make the use of it itself a hazard. During one ‘take’ Lloyd thought he might slip, so chose to fall deliberately so as to be able to aim for the centre and avoid bouncing off into the real void below. Despite the invitation to total trickery which filming allows, Safety Last retained a fair proportion of the traditional combination: clowning with risk-taking, particularly in the shots of Lloyd hanging off the clock face.

Circuses which excelled in this in the 1980s and 1990s were Circus Oz and Archaeos. Their acts included sitting and eating upside down on the theatre ceiling, sliding head first down a pole and coming to a halt inches before crashing into the floor, and playing with power machines. As the Circus owner, Signor Truzi, said to Coco the Clown, every clown has first to be an acrobat, then a trapeze artist and a tumbler; he must be able to do everything, and then he can think about being a clown. Such daring is partly in order to be noticed, but the great clown's ability to act out situations which combine comedy with danger are also a way of satirizing the most extreme and ludicrous possibilities thrown up by the society he lives in. The professional's talent in the twentieth century has been to appear incompetent in the face of overwhelming odds but to overcome these by the character's persistence and the performer's physical abilities.

Have we yet to see an astronaut variety?

Sandra Billington

Bibliography

Baskervill, C. R. (1965). The Elizabethan Jig. University of Chicago Press, New York.
Dardis, T. (1983). Harold Lloyd, the man on the clock. Viking Penguin, New York.
Findlater, R. (1955). Grimaldi King of Clowns. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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Clowns

114. Clowns

  1. Bardolph coney-catching rascal; follower of Falstaff. [Br. Lit.: Merry Wives of Windsor ]
  2. Bertoldo medieval jester, butt, and buffoon. [Ital. Folklore: Walsh Classical, 5455]
  3. Dagonet fool at the court of King Arthur, who knighted him. [Br. Lit.: Barnhart, 303]
  4. Feste playful fool. [Br. Lit.: Twelfth Night ]
  5. Geddes jester in the court of Mary Queen of Scots. [Scot. Hist.: Brewer Handbook, 380]
  6. Gobbo, Launcelot a wit-snapper, a merry devil. [Br. Lit.: Merchant of Venice ]
  7. harlequin comic character in commedia dellarte; dressed in multicolored tights in a diamond-shaped pattern. [Ital. Drama: NCE, 1194]
  8. Hop-Frog deformed dwarf ; court fool. [Am. Lit.: Hop-Frog in Portable Poe, 317329]
  9. Jocus Cupids companion and fool. [Rom. Lit.: Psychomachia ]
  10. Joey after Joseph Grimaldi, famous 19th-century clown. [Am. Hist.: Espy, 45]
  11. Jupe a clown in Slearys circus. [Br. Lit.: Hard Times ]
  12. Kelly, Emmett (18971979) foremost silent, sad-faced circus clown. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 83]
  13. McDonald, Ronald hamburger chains Pied Piper. [Am. Culture: Grinding ]
  14. Merry-Andrew Andrew Borde, Henry VIIIs> physician. [Br. Hist.: Wheeler, 241]
  15. Pagliacci clown Canio stabs his unfaithful wife and her lover. [Ital. Opera: Osborne Opera, 233]
  16. Patch court fool of Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII. [Br. Hist.: Brewer Handbook, 380]
  17. Touchstone a motley-mined, roynish court jester. [Br. Lit.: As You Like It ]
  18. Yorick jester in the court of Denmark. [Br. Lit.: Hamlet ]

Clumsiness (See AWKWARDNESS, INEPTITUDE.)

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clown

clown, a comic character usually distinguished by garish makeup and costume whose antics are both humorously clumsy and acrobatic. The clown employs a broad, physical style of humor that is wordless or not as self-consciously verbal as the traditional fool or jester. Clownish figures appear in the farces and mimes of ancient Greece and Rome as foils to more serious characters. Probably the most famous clown, the arlecchino, or harlequin, grew out of the Italian commedia dell'arte in the late Middle Ages. The acrobatic harlequin wore a mask and carried a slapstick, which he repeatedly employed on other characters. One of these, the bald-headed, white-faced French character, Pierrot, had by the 19th-century developed into the now classic lovesick, melancholic clown. The modern clown's costume developed in Germany and England during the 18th-century with the evolution of such popular characters as Pickelherring, whose costume included oversized shoes, waistcoats, hats, and giant ruffs around his neck. One of the first circus clowns, established by Joseph Grimaldi in the early 1800s, was the "Jocy" character, a comically self-serving clown who alternated between arrogant gloating and cringing cowardice. Hard economic times, as during the Great Depression, made popular the hobo clown, best exemplified by Emmett Kelly. By that time, however, motion pictures, especially the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, began to supplant the live clown acts, relegating clowning to a circus sideshow entertainment.

See H. Sobol, Clowns (1982); C. Gaskin, A Day in the Life of a Circus Clown (1987).

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clown

clown / kloun/ • n. 1. a comic entertainer, esp. one in a circus, wearing a traditional costume and exaggerated makeup. ∎  a comical, silly, playful person: I was always the class clown. ∎  a foolish or incompetent person. 2. archaic an unsophisticated country person; a rustic. • v. [intr.] behave in a comical way; act playfully: Harvey clowned around pretending to be a dog. DERIVATIVES: clown·ish adj. clown·ish·ly adv. clown·ish·ness n.

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clown

clown rustic, ill-bred man; fool or buffoon, esp. on the stage. XVI. perh. of LG. orig.; cf. NFris. klönne, klünne clumsy fellow, klünj clod, lump, and the like.

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clown

clownbrown, Browne, clown, crown, down, downtown, drown, frown, gown, low-down, noun, renown, run-down, town, upside-down, uptown •crackdown • clampdown • Ashdown •markdown • letdown • meltdown •breakdown, shakedown, takedown •kick-down • thistledown • sit-down •climbdown • countdown •Southdown •godown, hoedown, showdown, slowdown •put-down • touchdown • tumbledown •comedown •rundown, sundown •shutdown • eiderdown • nightgown •pronoun • Jamestown • Freetown •midtown • Bridgetown • Kingstown •shanty town • Georgetown • Motown •hometown • toytown • Newtown •Charlottetown • Chinatown

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