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Friday, 13 July 2012


'Pando's Box' (Robert Owen)

I've always been fascinated by clowns, jesters, and their predecessors, the characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte, so accompany me now as I explore the colourful history and evolution of these most enigmatic of entertainment figures.

Full-face Harlequin mask (Dr Karl Shuker)

"Be a clown! Be a clown! Be a clown!" So sang Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in the Cole Porter film musical ‘The Pirate’, and for countless generations that is precisely what all manner of talented circus performers throughout the world have indeed been – and continue to be, to this very day. But if anyone assumes that being a clown simply means donning white face paint and baggy clothes, and throwing buckets of water over other clowns, think again. Paradoxically, clowning is actually a very serious business, with a complex history and array of intricate, specified traditions and customs.


Comedy figures approximating in various ways to clowns have featured since the earliest of times in most civilisations (from the archetypal jokers performing in ancient Egypt c.3500 years ago, and tricksters in native American lore, to the Kabuki theatre of Japan - to name but three examples). However, the familiar Western circus clown originated for the most part in Italy’s celebrated Commedia dell’Arte theatre. Attaining the height of its popularity during the 16th and 17th Centuries, this was closely linked to pantomime, which in turn influenced the occurrence of clowning in circuses, and contained certain characters that would give rise to the major circus clown types of the present day. Chief among these characters were Harlequin (aka Arlecchino) and Pierrot.

A Harlequin doll (Dr Karl Shuker)

Traditionally, Harlequin was a nimble, acrobatic, often quick-witted trickster figure, usually tall and slender, and epitomised by his motley costume of brightly-hued, contrasting patchwork, but he subsequently transformed into a more romantic, and sometimes even quite serious, character.

Harlequin at the Pantomime Theatre in Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark (Chris Brown/Wikipedia)

Moreover, he frequently carried a special kind of cane composed of two sticks that made an exaggerated slapping sound when clapped together – from which the modern-day clown-related term ‘slapstick’ is derived.

'Pierrot and Harlequin' (Vasily Nesterenko)

Conversely, Pierrot was originally a slower-witted, bumbling fool, usually dressed predominantly in white, with an elaborate neck ruff and sometimes a tall pointed hat, but adorned with black coat buttons and other black accessories.

Pierrot (source unknown to me)

Again, however, his role gradually changed, until he eventually became the precursor of the contemporary ‘sad clown’ figure, laughing on the outside but crying on the inside.

A Pierrot doll (Dr Karl Shuker)

Also worth mentioning here is a third Commedia dell’Arte character, Punchinello or Pulcinella, who eventually transformed into the comical (if violent) Mr Punch, as still seen today in seaside Punch and Judy shows.

Punch and Judy show at Islington, London (Jonathan Lucas/Wikipedia)


Harlequin and Pierrot were ancestral to two of the three principal types of modern-day circus clown – namely, the whiteface (or white) clown, and the auguste (or red) clown, which frequently play off one another as duos in circus ring performances. The whiteface clown is basically the straight man or stooge, usually a figure of high standing, serious to the point of being pompous or mercurial in attitude, and supposedly quite intelligent (at least in his own opinion!), thereby borrowing some of Harlequin’s traits. In contrast, the auguste (named from the German slang for a bumbling fool) is the comedian, a figure of lower social status, and far less intelligent, more like Pierrot, who inevitably creates confusion and mayhem when attempting to carry out the whiteface’s instructions, with hilarious results. These clown types are instantly distinguished not only by their behaviour but also by their visual appearance, because each type has its own, clearly-defined costume and make-up.

A selection of clown and Pierrot dolls (Dr Karl Shuker)

As the name suggests, the whiteface clown’s most recognisable feature is the white make-up that completely covers his face and neck, plus the well-fitting but extremely extravagant costume that he wears, often brightly spangled or otherwise decorated, like his Harlequin precursor (though his white face, pointed hat, and neck ruff owe more to Pierrot). Also like Harlequin, he is generally taller and thinner than the auguste.

A block of Canadian postage stamps from 1998 depicting two whiteface clowns and two auguste clowns (Dr Karl Shuker)

Conversely, the shorter, fatter auguste is famous for his ‘typical’ clown make-up, in which the mouth and eyes of his otherwise predominantly red face are highlighted and greatly enlarged with white, his nose is false and extra-large, his hair is generally a garishly-hued wig, and his clothes are usually grotesquely out of proportion, with enormous shoes, long flapping sleeves, and baggy patched trousers, often with huge suspenders. This now-traditional clown outfit’s creation owes much to Tom Belling, an American circus rider in Circus Renz during the 1860s who, it is said, devised it as a joke, but attracted such hilarity when wearing it that he gave up his riding career and became a clown there instead.

An auguste clown (Wikipedia)

As for the highly detailed facial make-up worn by clowns, especially augustes: not only does each performer have his own unique make-up design, but if he wishes to join Clowns International (believed to be the world’s oldest clown society), he must register it there officially. He does this in a remarkable manner - by painting an accurate representation of it on an eggshell, and then formally lodging his shell in the society’s ‘Egg Gallery’.

Joseph Grimaldi

This unique form of clown face copyright was devised by none other than Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), perhaps the most famous clown of all time. Indeed, even his name, Joey, has become a recognised soubriquet for clowns in general, but especially whitefaces. This is the type that Grimaldi popularised and portrayed as an energetic Harlequin-derived character throughout his immensely successful career on stage as an English pantomime clown.

Gibraltar postage stamp from 2002 depicting Joseph Grimaldi as a pantomime whiteface clown (Dr Karl Shuker)


The tradition of whiteface and auguste clown types in the circus has also been widely emulated by comedy duos in the cinema and television. There, the auguste has been represented by the likes of Stan Laurel, Lou Costello, and Eric Morecambe, and the whiteface represented by Oliver Hardy, Bud Abbott, and Ernie Wise.

Laurel and Hardy (Wikipedia)

Less common than the whiteface and the auguste is a third type of circus clown, the contra-auguste, who acts as a kind of intermediary between the other two. Perhaps the best example of a film trio representing in basic role and behaviour all three clown types is the Marx Brothers – with Harpo as the auguste, Chico as the contra-auguste, and Groucho as the whiteface.

The Marx Brothers

In early days, clowns often included a good deal of verbal humour in their performances, but much of this was subsequently curtailed in favour of ever more complex and exaggerated visual comedy. One modern-day clown-inspired figure that pursued this visual approach to its greatest extreme was France’s premier mime artist, Marcel Marceau (1923-2007). His famous whiteface creation, Bip, acted out wonderfully elaborate, often hysterically funny scenes in a somewhat surreal, almost cartoon-like manner but without uttering a single word.

Marcel Marceau as Bip


A fourth type of circus clown is the character clown, who adopts a very specific, usually job-related role, such as a baker, butcher, policeman, etc. One very popular character clown role is the tramp – so popular, in fact, that nowadays this role is normally categorised as a separate clown type in its own right, discrete from the character clown.

As with the whiteface and auguste, the tramp type of circus clown has inspired various big and small screen equivalents, and is epitomised there by the immortal ‘Little Tramp’ character created by Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977). In an interesting career reversal, after he had largely retired from films, Buster Keaton (1895-1966), one of Chaplin’s silent screen contemporaries and another adept populariser of hoboesque underdog characters, actually spent some time performing as a circus clown.

Charlie Chaplin in his 'Little Tramp' persona

The most notable circus clown who performed as a tramp clown was Emmett Kelly (1898-1979). Appearing for over a decade at the celebrated Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and also at the Bertram Mills Circus, he created the world-famous character Weary Willie - a tragic little hobo clown inspired by the downtrodden real-life tramps of the American Depression era.


Emmett Kelly’s success confirms that although circus clowns have generally attracted rather less fame, at least outside the circus world, than their movie and TV counterparts have done, some have nonetheless gained national and even international acclaim. Perhaps the most celebrated circus clown of all time was Latvia’s Nicolai Poliakoff (1900-1974), who became globally famous during the mid-20th Century as Coco the Clown. After establishing his own circus in Russia, he later fled to Berlin and thence to England in order to escape from the Russian Revolution. In England, he appeared as a famously immense-footed, trick-bewigged auguste for many years afterwards at the Bertram Mills Circus, receiving more custard pies in the face and drenches from buckets of water than possibly any other clown in history!

Gibraltar postage stamp from 2002 depicting Coco the Clown

Britain’s most famous contemporary auguste clown was unquestionably Italian-born Charlie Cairoli (1910-1980), who spent much of his career performing to enormous acclaim at the Blackpool Tower Circus, He appeared in no less than 40 consecutive summer seasons there (a world record for the most performances at the same venue), he was also an extremely accomplished musician on numerous instruments, and he ultimately became the most famous clown on British television.

Gibraltar postage stamp from 2002 depicting Charlie Cairoli

Circus star and vaudeville actor Pinto Colvig (1892-1967) was responsible for creating (and also performing as) Bozo - American television’s most famous circus clown. Bozo received adulation from generations of children, but especially during the 1960s, and he even became a mascot for Capitol Records. Interestingly, Colvig was equally famous as the original voice of one of Walt Disney’s most beloved cartoon characters, Goofy.

Another key figure in the history of clowns and clowning was Swiss-born Charles Adrien Wettach (1880-1959), who, as Grock, the ‘King of the Clowns’, was at one time the world’s highest paid entertainer.

Gibraltar postage stamp from 2002 depicting Grock (Dr Karl Shuker)

Perhaps the most famous family of circus clowns was the Trio Fratellini, consisting of three brothers who elevated the art of Parisian circus clowning to hitherto unimaginable levels of excellence during the first half of the 20th Century. Combining effortless timing, exquisite costumes, and superb musicianship, they produced perfectly-crafted performances that dazzled and delighted audiences wherever they appeared.

The Trio Fratellini

And in more recent times, an increasing number of female clowns have successfully appeared in circuses, opening up what had traditionally been a male-dominated profession.


Quite different in appearance and attitude from circus clowns but closely linked to them in ancestry, and equally adept at inducing laughter from their audiences, were court jesters and fools. Jesters traditionally comprised two fundamentally different types.

An unusual full-face jester mask (Kim Newberg)

Also called fools, natural jesters were often – tragically - individuals who were incapacitated mentally, physically, or both, and were often maintained at royal courts throughout Europe during medieval and Renaissance times as figures of fun. Licensed or professional jesters, conversely, were, as their name indicates, hired specifically to act as buffoons but with a quick wit and sharp tongue. Consequently, their duties usually centred upon fulfilling the decidedly tricky role of being witty enough to entertain and amuse their aristocratic employers but without becoming sufficiently controversial or insulting to embarrass them! Needless to say, should they fail in this onerous task, they may well find themselves losing not only their job but also their life!

A flamboyantly-garbed jester figurine from Belgium (Dr Karl Shuker)

Although a jester’s costume was sometimes quite ordinary, more often than not it was very distinctive and exotic in form, often a multicoloured motley reminiscent of Harlequin’s – which is little wonder, as the latter Commedia dell’Arte character was derived in no small way from the image and behaviour of traditional court jesters. This costume was normally topped off by a characteristic tricorned cap bearing a small tinkling bell at the tip of each of its three horns. Many jesters also carried an ornate tassled staff or false mace, which down through the centuries eventually became Harlequin’s slapstick.

A court jester (and princess) on the cover of the magazine La Vie Parisienne for 27 September 1924

When England’s ruling monarch Charles I was dethroned and executed in 1649, and the country was then ruled by the austere, humourless Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, jesters swiftly fell out of favour. And even after the monarchy was restored just over a decade later when Charles II ascended to the throne, they never regained their former popularity, and largely vanished from court life thereafter. The time for jesting and jollity, it seemed, had passed (though as recently as the 20th Century, jesters were still employed by the Bowes-Lyons, the family of the late Queen Mother).

Danny Kaye as Giacomo, the court jester - in the 1956 film musical of the same title (Wikipedia)

Today, court jesters may be long gone, but circus-based jesters and clowns remain as popular as ever (coulrophobics or clown fearers notwithstanding!), as epitomised by their dazzling, exotic appearances in the sumptuous extravaganzas staged by the Cirque du Soleil, for instance.

Saltimbanco, one of Cirque du Soleil's spectacular shows (Cirque du Soleil)

Even so, just like everything else in the modern-day world, nothing is as simple and straightforward as it used to be. Nowadays, prospective circus clowns attend special clown-training colleges as student clowns, studying such subjects as slapstick, costume, mime, juggling, and even unicycling. One such college was opened in 1968 by the Ringling Circus; and during its first decade alone, over 40,000 people had applied to enrol on its seven-week course, with more than 600 fully-qualified circus clowns graduating.

Clearly, therefore, and irrespective of what their persona and outward image might otherwise suggest, being clowns in this day and age is certainly no laughing matter!

A selection of clown and jester dolls (Dr Karl Shuker)