These losses were inevitable, but more stinging in a time when the media is suddenly obsessed with sightings of so-called "clowns" frightening people, as if these idiots were the real deal. Dressing up as an astronaut wouldn't get me on the space shuttle, but a costume, make-up, and fright wig somehow make me a clown.
The craze started here in the United States, spread to England, and is apparently headed for the rest of Europe. It is not only damaging the image of clown performers, but costing them gigs as well.
But I haven't bothered to write this, and won't. The media is the media, and they will take this and run with it until it runs its course. Which it will. It's a fad, and even its shallow-minded perpetrators will soon grow tired of it. The good news is that true clowns, who value and delight in the tradition of Dimitri, Fo, and Etaix, will honor these grand fools by continuing to do their good work tomorrow, next year, and centuries from now.
Here's an à propos discovery I'd like to share with you. As some of you may know, I am working on a revised and expanded version of my book, Clowns. I'm not updating it, which is why I think of it as Clowns: Volume 1, but but but I know a lot more than I did forty years ago, when it was first published (Nov. 1, 1976!), so some sections are being significantly improved. One of them is the very beginning of the book, which starts with the clowning traditions of the native American cultures of the U.S. southwest, especially the Hopi peoples. What I am emphasizing more this time around is that the clown is a central part of the Hopi creation stories; the clown is there from the very beginning, is part of the fabric of life.
For the Hopi, in the beginning was The Emergence, and it was the clowns who led humans from the underworld to a higher level of existence. It was the clowns because they were the ones who could cross borders and teach lessons. And this is not just some myth gathering dust in the archives; rather, versions of it are re-enacted time and again in countless Pueblo ceremonies. Which is why this wonderful sculpture, The Emergence (1989), by Hopi artist Roxanne Swentzell, will be the first illustration in the new edition of my book.
But that's not the discovery, this is:
And here are some more reasons to remain positive. Those performance traditions that we group under such labels as clown, circus, vaudeville, physical comedy, etc. —and which are repeatedly pronounced dead— are actually becoming a more widespread part of our culture. Clown training and performance is everywhere, with hundreds of times more practitioners than half a century ago. Clowns are in circuses and hospitals; in the theatre, in the street, and in refugee camps. Circus training is no longer just a family tradition. There are professional schools everywhere, especially in France and Australia. Circus education that's not just for those with career goals is now contributing to positive youth development throughout the world. Social circuses —yes, I'm thinking of you, Circus Harmony— are doing amazing things to bring people and cultures together. There may be no formal vaudeville circuit, but countless individuals have embraced the variety arts as a means of self-expression, of sharing what they do best and what they love... and the staggering variety is a wonder to behold.
Likewise impressive are all the self-taught enthusiasts who do it for fun and only occasionally for profit. Think of all the slackliners executing incredible tricks between two trees. Or all the excellent jugglers who juggle because they love juggling. All the subway acrobats doing amazing hat moves with baseball caps. All the bartenders learning flair juggling to impress their customers. All the trick cyclists and parkour practitioners.... Clown and circus have indeed arrived, they just take different shapes and forms.
And this just today, which gave me a chuckle: a NY Times article on a new craze for bottle flipping, which is flipping a bottle so it lands upright on its own. (Depressingly, the last line in the article quotes the mother of an avid bottle flipper saying, well, at least he's not dressing up as a scary clown —as if these were somehow either-or choices.)
Here's the short video they share, but you can find more on YouTube.
And why do I chuckle? Because in 1973, as an NYU grad student and TDR Assistant Editor, I co-edited a special popular entertainments edition of The Drama Review, and had to fight to use this Diane L. Goodman photo on the cover. We had seen this guy at a carnival in Ypsilanti, Michigan earlier that year. I knew what he was doing with that bottle, but my TDR colleagues didn't think it was clear enough. Maybe they were right... or maybe I was just 43 years ahead of my time!
So my conclusion is: Don't panic! Try to take the long-range view. This crap shall pass (so to speak) and the good shall endure. Meanwhile, here's my recent tribute to Dimitri, and a tribute to Pierre Etaix that I wrote back in 2010. I subsequently got to meet Etaix in Paris and he was a very sweet man. Such an honor. And in 1990, I was likewise honored to attend rehearsals at the Comédie Française for Dario Fo's production of two Molière plays. I wrote an article about it for Yale Theater, which I will share with you in a future post.
To be continued... so keep on doing what you're doing!