Monday, December 7, 2009

Chapter 1 — Supplementary Material

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Hmm... Fools, Natural and Artificial... what a topic!

This was my opening chapter, though actually written towards the end. In it I tried to bring together manifestations of the clown spirit in a wide range of contexts, though with an emphasis on cultures variously labeled as primitive, indigenous, non-literate or non-technological. The argument is that if the Clown Spirit emerges spontaneously amongst these isolated peoples, separated as they are by time and geography, then this spirit must speak to something deep in human nature. Its appearance in more than a few creation myths perhaps offers the strongest proof.

It's great stuff, though the problem is that to do it justice you need to be a seasoned anthropologist, which I'm not, despite several visits to the American Museum of Natural History before the age of twelve. It's one thing to put together a reasonable narrative about the evolution of the tramp clown figure, and quite another to chart a vaguely defined clown impulse through all of recorded time, especially since it forces you to have to define exactly what it is you mean by "clown" in the first place. So I feel like I'm on shaky ground here, academically speaking, but nevertheless on the right track. Help and suggestions are certainly in order!

Since I started the book by writing about the dances of the Hopi people, and go on to also discuss the Navajo, the Zuni, the Yaqui, the Crow, the Cheyenne, and even Sri Lankan demon plays, I have of course been curious and hopeful that, living in the YouTube generation where everything is supposedly online, some choice ethnographic film might surface showing clown figures in performance, more or less in their native authenticity, uncorrupted by the white man pointing a camera at them. I'm just beginning a serious search, but in the meantime, here's some stuff...

Creation Myths
Clown figures do figure prominently in many creation myths, though it's usually more the clown as trickster than it is the clown as bumbler. The standard text on this when I was writing my book seemed to be Paul Radin's The Trickster (1956), but since then at least three other books of note have come along, all of which I'm trying to find time for.

First up is Barbara Sproul's 1979 collection, Primal Myths, an anthology of well over one hundred creation myths from throughout the world. Yes, Genesis is included. Only some of the texts touch on trickster figures, but the scope is impressive, and Sproul's intelligent and very readable 30-page introduction to the subject is a great way for the layman to understand how these stories function within a society.

Apparently along similar lines is Kimberley Christen's and Sam Gill's Clowns and Tricksters, though I haven't gotten my hands on it yet. Subtitled "An Encyclopedia of Tradition and Culture," it would seem to be a valuable resource in this area. According to the review in Library Journal, the authors have "created a reference to tricksters and clowns, figures found in cultures and myths worldwide but whose characteristics differ according to the culture in which they originate. The work lists 185 cultures by geographical area, followed by a main section consisting of 194 alphabetically arranged entries related to tricksters and clowns; the entries, which are heavily cross-referenced, cite the name of the character with its culture or country of origin followed by stories or other information. The entries conclude with bibliographic citations, and there is a comprehensive bibliography as well. The scope of this work is vast, covering clowns and tricksters from the ancient world to the present and including some references to cultures that no longer exist as well as material from current popular culture. As the introduction states: 'This volume is meant as a general introduction to both the characters and the people who see the world through their eyes.' It succeeds admirably."

For an even broader perspective on the trickster spirit, there's Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World (1998), which I am currently reading. Hyde is also the author of The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, and has been praised to the skies by David Foster Wallace as "one of our true superstars of non-fiction." Hyde's real subject is "trickster consciousness,'' which he traces across a broad spectrum, from dozens of folklore myths through the work of such modern artists as Marcel Duchamp, Allen Ginsberg, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

The Feast of Fools
The title of the chapter, "Fools, Natural & Artificial," hearkens back to the middle ages and points to the distinction (or confusion) between those performers who acted the role of the fool for fun and profit, and those who were kept on by the rich and powerful, who found their very real physical and mental deformities amusing.

While this practice seems to have somewhat died out, I would take this opportunity to draw your attention to a NYC-based theatre company I'm fond of that has done a lot of exploration based on the Feast of Fools and the Fool's Mass. They are Dzieci Theatre, whose roots are in the teachings of Jerzy Grotowski, but whose explorations have included not only the fool's mass, but burlesque and circus as well. I want to cover more of their work at a later date, but meanwhile here's a pdf of a full-length article about their work from Ecumenica:


If you're in the New York area, be sure to check out one of the December 2009 performances of their Fool's Mass, which are listed here.

The medieval jester who, like Lear's fool, could speak truth to power has no doubt been romanticized. I suspect it was not all that common, and that many a "jester" had to shut up or at least tone down their criticism to keep their head attached to their neck. Even in our day and age, freedom of speech is not all it's made out to be, given the control of the media usually exercised by the rich and powerful inisde or outside the government. That being said, here are two modern examples of comics taking on the powers that be...

Will Rogers
The political humor of Will Rogers (1879–1935) seems pretty tame today, yet in his heyday as a star of film and the vaudeville stage, he was unique in his folksy ability to say some pretty nasty things about politicians without having everyone hate him; kind of a lovable Bill Maher. Here's a clip of Lance Brown as Will Rogers:

Stephen Colbert

For me, the most significant moment in modern comedy was Stephen Colbert tearing apart George W. Bush to his face at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. The character he plays on The Colbert Show is very much a jester, as he pretends to espouse a set of views while ripping them to shreds through exaggeration and the recital of inconvenient facts. When I saw the show being taped live, Colbert chatted with the audience beforehand and wanted to make sure they really understood that he was playing a character. (Hey, you never know who's going to wander in off of West 54th Street.) At the correspondents' dinner he destroys Bush by praising him, kind of like Mark Antony praising Caesar, only a lot funnier. It's in three parts...

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