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Published by: towsen on Jul 08, 2011
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“And let those that play your clowns speak no morethan is set down for them,” admonished Hamlet inhis advice to the actors, “for there be of them thatwill themselves laugh to set on some quantity of  barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary questions of the play be then to be considered. That’s villanous, and shows a mostpitiful ambition in the Fool that uses it.”Hamlet’s defense of the dramatic art against thecomic intrusions of the clowns no doubt reflects thesentiments of many playwrights. Throughout thehistory of the theater, the clown has insisted on beinghis own boss, placing far more trust in the art of improvisation than in the words of any author.The clown is found in most forms of theater — inOriental dance-dramas as well as dark Shakespearean tragedies. Performing for money infront of a new audience every night, the theaterclown may be denied the clear social function of the court jester or the ritual buffoon, yet hisrelationship with the spectators is still remarkablydirect. Often he will step out of the play andcomment upon it, appearing to be as much a partof the audience as of the drama. The theater clown is a popular comic actor, buthe is also a fool who is free to ignore all dramatic conventions while at the sametime taking part in the story on stage.
— Chapter Two —
The Clown to the Stage
©1976, John Towsen
Jean-Gaspard Deburau, the Pierrot of theThéâtre des Funambules. Courtesy of theTheatre Collection, New York Public Li-brary at Lincoln Center. Astor, Lenox, andTilden Foundations.
Asian Theatre Clowns
One of the world’s most ancient forms of theater is the Sanskrit drama of India.The plays are essentially dramatizations of episodes from the classic Hindu epics,the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and most of the dialogue is written inSanskrit, the learned language of the gods and kings. There are no clowns in theoriginal epics, but when these religious stories are performed on stage, a lion’sshare of the action is turned over to the clown-servant, Vidusaka, whose namemeans “one given to abuse.” In many Sanskrit dramas, in fact, it seemsincongruous for the play’s spiritual hero to have chosen a buffoon like Vidusakaas his servant and confidant. The Sanskrit playwrights, however, must have beenaware of the clown’s popularity with audiences.Vidusaka is characteristically a bald dwarf, with projecting teeth and red eyes.He speaks Prakrit, the everyday dialect of women and of the lower classes, andconsequently is often needed to explain the action to the many spectatorsunfamiliar with Sanskrit. The Natyasastra, a classic Hindu treatise on drama,describes Vidusaka as being of the highest caste, yet “ludicrous alike in dress,speech, and behavior.” Although loyal to his master, Vidusaka is gluttonous,clumsy, and easily duped. He is known for his feeble attempts at wit and humor,and in any verbal sparring he invariably comes off second best. His own personal brand of happiness might be summed up by one of his favorite songs: “Blessedthose that are drunk with drink, blessed those that are soaked with drink; blessedthose that are washed with drink, blessed those that are choked with drink.” (1)Vidusaka is often seen in the company of another comic character, Vita, a ratherwitty parasite hired primarily for the amusement of his patron, much like a jesterat court. This comic juxtaposition of a clever rogue (Vita) and a slow-witted buffoon (Vidusaka) appears in most clowning. We can discover similar comedyteams in Chinese and Balinese drama, in the comic theater of the West, and insuch modern film equivalents as Abbott and Costello.In the texts of these Sanskrit dramas, the clown’s role may be quite small, butin the actual performance — where elements of mime and improvisation playsuch a large role — his relative importance is likely to be magnified. Episodesthat do not read well can become hilarious when performed by a talented clown.This is just as true of other forms of Asian drama. In one Chinese play
for example, a drunken-servant scene originally intended to last a fewminutes at most is often enriched and expanded by the clown into a half hour of nonstop comedy.
In Chinese theater, the clown, or
role,is one of four basic character types. Althoughthe
is formally considered to have thelowest rank of the four, in actual performancehe plays a far more significant role. There iseven a popular legend that the Tang emperorhimself used to play the
role, which mayexplain the old tradition forbidding the otheractors from applying makeup before theclown has first dabbed some white onto hisface.As was true of Sanskrit drama, the clownin the Chinese theater traditionally has beenthe only actor to speak in colloquial idiom, andoften the patter includes ribald jests andtopical allusions not found in the original text.In terms of acting, the Chinese clowns aresubdivided into two types, the
wen ch’ou,
whodisplay considerable verbal wit, and the
who are noted for their skillfulacrobatics. The clown’s makeup usuallyconsists of a few black marks and a symmetrical white patch around the eyesand nose, which will vary in size according to the specific character portrayed— servant, go-between, or military officer, for example.It was in the regional theaters of China that the clown became the real hero of the play. Rural audiences apparently identified more readily with the clown’sirreverent humor and use of local idiom than did the more sophisticated courtaudiences of Peking. The provincial clown also could afford to be more daringpolitically than his urban counterpart, precisely because he was removed fromthe center of power. In Peking Opera, for example, the emperor usually wasplayed by an actor of elderly hero roles, whereas in the provincial theater of far-off Szechuan he was more likely to be portrayed as a clown.In the Szechuan theater, in fact, many characters were seen as clowns. The roleof the emperor would fall into one of the most popular categories, that of theclown-dignitary. Usually the clown mimicked the dry elocution and stiltedgestures of a bombastic (and often evil) scholar, ruler, or aristocrat. The dignitarywas sometimes even presented as a puppet, or performed by a dwarf-clown; the“dwarf” was often a normal-sized actor who moved about in a squatting position.
Chinese clown as storyteller. Photograph from A.C.Scott,
The Theatre in Asia,
by permission of Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

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