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5 — Knockabouts & Cascadeurs

Buster Keaton’s deadpan expression is more familiar to us than any clown face, the Marx
Brothers are still popular long after the HanIon-Lees have been forgotten, and Charlie Chaplin
is better known than Joseph Grimaldi. The miracle of motion pictures makes this possible, if not
inevitable. But Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers, all great clowns, drew freely upon a rich
and fascinating heritage of knockabout comedy that had been developed by the clown over the
centuries and refined in the circuses and pantomime theatres of the 1800s.


It was in the harlequinade, the long chase scene that concluded most nineteenth-century English
pantomimes (1), that this kind of rough-and tumble comedy became an obsession and an art form. In
those days, pantomimes were divided into two parts, the opening — a fairy tale in dance, dialogue,
and song — and the madcap harlequinade. The two halves were linked by a transformation scene
in which a benevolent agent such as Mother Goose or a Fairy Queen miraculously changed the
characters of the opening into such stock types as Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, and Clown.
The plot shared by both parts usually centered around the romance between two young lovers (later
Harlequin and Columbine) who were determined to be united, the opposition of the girl’s father
(later Pantaloon) notwithstanding. The inevitable result was a long chase scene with Pantaloon
and his not-so-loyal servant, Clown, in hot pursuit of Harlequin and Columbine. It was as if a
performance of Cinderella suddenly turned into a Keystone Cops comedy.
The harlequinade began with the Clown’s traditional boisterous greeting, “Hello, here we are
again” — a sure signal of the delights to come. The chase scene that followed was merely an
excuse for a long succession of practical jokes and for dizzying displays of acrobatic agility.
The actors danced on stilts, walked on barrels, suffered jarring pratfalls, and performed tricks of
contortion (often disguised as animals), feats of strength, and daring leaps.

Because they were performed on stage rather than in a circus ring, these pantomimes took full
advantage of a wide assortment of trapdoors and elaborate trickwork. Nothing was ever what
it seemed to be: illusions from stage magic became valuable comic tools; scenery could be
transformed instantaneously into something quite different; objects literally took on a life of their
own; and Clowns and Harlequins miraculously appeared and disappeared through undetectable
gaps in the floor and walls. There was even a standard joke that some performers never met, for
while one was going up to the stage, the other was coming down.

French poet Theodore de Banville wrote in 1880 that...

“...between the adjective “possible” and the adjective “impossible” the English pantomimist
has made his choice: he has chosen the adjective “impossible.” He lives in the impossible; if it
is impossible, he does it. He hides where it is impossible to hide, he passes through openings that
are smaller than his body, he stands on supports that are too weak to support his weight; while
being closely observed, he executes movements that are
absolutely undetectable, he balances on an umbrella, he
curls up inside a guitar case without it bothering him in
the least, and throughout, he flees, he escapes, he leaps,
he flies through the air. And what drives him on? The
remembrance of having been a bird, the regret of no
longer being one, the will to again become one.” (2)

The stage in most pantomime theaters included a

trapdoor known as the “star trap” or, internationally, as
the “English trap.” This trap was usually circular in shape
and consisted of sixteen triangle-like sections of one
and-one-half-inch planking that were so lightly secured
to the surrounding floor that the least bit of pressure
from below forced them open. Underneath it (in the area
below the stage) was a platform on pulleys, designed
rather like an elevator, that could catapult a performer
through the stage floor faster than the eye could see.
When the counterweights attached to the platform were
released, the performer — sometimes Clown, but more
often a supernatural sprite — was shot through the trap
to appear suddenly as if out of nowhere. The performer
The star trap in action. Drawing from Georges
had to remain poised, for any sudden movement could Moynet, Trucs et Decors.
result in a grave accident.
Similar to this was the “vampire trap,” said to have first been seen in 1820 in James Planché’s
melodrama, The Vampyre; or, the Bride of the Isles. It was a segmented trapdoor on spring
hinges, usually consisting of two spring leaves, which assumed its original configuration after the
performer had passed through it, thus enabling him to enter or exit through what seemed to be
a solid surface. These vampire traps were frequently placed in flats and drops so that Harlequin
could escape his would-be captors by leaping through a “solid” clock or mirror. In John Fairburn’s
description of Harlequin and Mother Goose, for example:

A bustle ensues, they [Clown and Pantaloon] endeavor to secure Harlequin, who eludes their
grasp, and leaps through the face of the clock, which immediately represents a sportsman with his
gun cock’d, the Clown opens the clock door, and a Harlequin appears as a pendulum, the Clown
saying shoot, present, fire, the sportsman lets off his piece, and the Clown falls down, during
which period Columbine and Harlequin escape, (who had previously entered through the panel).
Pantaloon and the Clown run off in pursuit.

Tom Ellar in the role of Harlequin leaps through a mirror. Courtesy of the Milner Library, Illinois State University.

As another pantomime succinctly put it, “Aristotle in book concerning entertainments has laid it
down as a principal rule that Harlequin is always to escape.”

These leaps and falls were not without their dangers. An acrobatic Clown by the name of Bradbury,
whose fearless jumps included one from the flies down to the stage, wore protective pads on
his head, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, and heels. Leaping through trapdoors was especially
difficult. The performer’s trajectory had to be exact; otherwise, he might crash into the scenery
instead of disappearing through the appropriate flap. This took considerable training. First of all,
he had to be remarkably adept at high, diving forward rolls. The process of diving through the trap
was a unique experience, something he could practice only by doing. He had to be certain that
his body remained elongated until had cleared the trap. If out of instinct he drew in his knees, he
would bruise them badly against the bottom of the opening. Once through the trap, his hands had
to be ready to take his weight as he tucked into a forward roll.

Harlequin dives through a trapdoor in the wall. Courtesy of Raymond Mander & Joe Mitchenson, from their book
Pantomime (Peter Davies, 1973)

The dangers were multiplied when Harlequin, perhaps with a boost from a concealed springboard,
catapulted through a trap-door located somewhat higher off the ground. In such cases, stagehands
had to be positioned in the wings, like firemen below a burning building, to catch the leaping actor
in a blanket. The stagehands expected to be tipped for their services, and it was unwise to ignore
their demands. When Tom Ellar, the famous Harlequin, did just that, his leap through the clock
resulted in an unpleasant surprise. There was no one there to catch him and he was lucky to escape
with only a broken hand.

This formula for comedy based on wild chase scenes through trapdoors and other kinds of trick
scenery can be seen in Buster Keaton’s silent films, The High Sign (1920) and The Haunted House
(1921), as well as in a later sound film conceived in much the same vein, the Marx Brothers’ The
Big Store (1941). Keaton, who grew up in vaudeville as part of his family’s knockabout comedy
act, made considerable use of trapdoors or their equivalent in many of his other films as well. In
his hilarious two-reeler, The Goat (1921) — itself basically just one long chase scene — Keaton
escapes from a locked room by leaping from a chair to a kitchen table to the shoulders of his
pursuer, and from there straight out the window above the door; we may assume that Keaton, too,
had someone (or something) there to catch him.

In Sherlock Junior (1924), Keaton becomes the ultimate quick-change artist. Trapped in a house
by the villains, he escapes by diving through a window in which he had previously placed a
circular box containing a woman’s dress and bonnet. As he leaps out the window, the outfit wraps
around him and when the villains run out after him, all they find is a little old lady. This same idea
has often been used in the circus: the acrobat, perhaps an equestrian or a trampolinist, somersaults
through a hoop, diving into a new set of clothes.

The American comic actor James Powers, at one time a performer with the Vokes family pantomime
troupe, claimed to have originated this trick in a production of Dreams, or Fun in a Photograph
Gallery (1880). Playing the photographer’s assistant, he walked on stage carrying two bandboxes
that were said to contain the wardrobe of a female client. He placed one box at his feet and held
the other in front of him in both hands. After a disagreement, his boss slapped him on the back of
his neck:

I put one foot through the cover of the bandbox that was on the floor, and it stuck to it; I turned
a forward somersault, still holding the other bandbox in my hands, and alighted in a sitting
position clothed in the country woman’s dress and hat with a fan in my hand; at the same time the
bandbox that was on my foot catapulted over my head into the audience, showering the people
with confetti; fanning myself, I walked like a lady to the stairway and, diving head foremost,
disappeared down the stairs.

According to Powers, the trick made him an instant hit. He performed it to wide acclaim in America,
England, and Scotland, and an Edinburgh critic even remarked that “it surpassed anything given
by our best pantomimists.” (3) 
Another pantomime specialty borrowed by Keaton was animal
impersonation. The animal impersonator (the “nondescript” or “What is it?” as he was called)
was usually a contortionist masquerading as a frog, a snake, or an ape. As a theatrical tradition,
it predated English pantomime: as early as 1701, Sadler’s Wells featured a monkey-man, and no
doubt he was not the first in this line of business. Often child actors played the animal roles. The
great Joseph Grimaldi began his career in this “skinwork,” dressing up as various bears, cats, and
monkeys. Legend has it that on one occasion (in 1782), he was being swung around the stage on
a chain by his father when the chain broke, hurling young Grimaldi into the pit. A similar mishap
befell young Buster Keaton while performing in New Haven in 1903, when his father deliberately
threw him at some rowdy college boys in the front row.

A craze for simian portrayals swept Europe after the first performances of the great French comic
dancer, Mazurier (1793-1828), in Jocko, or the Monkey of Brazil in Paris in 1825. Within weeks
after Mazurier’s debut as the noble ape who meets a tragic end, fairground acrobats were mounting
their own adaptations of Jocko. Mazurier brought the show to London later the same year, and
the Ravel pantomime troupe introduced it to the United States in 1832. Versions of it continued to
be performed for several decades, some featuring such celebrated monkey-men as Gouffé, Jules
Perrot, and Edward Klischnigg (1813-1877), whose name has come to mean a front-bending
contortionist in circus parlance. (4) In the twentieth century, we need look no farther than Keaton’s
The Playhouse (1921) for an example of just how entertaining such an imitation can be.

Monkey postures executed by Edward Klischnigg. Courtesy of Marian Hannah Winter, from her book
The Theater of Marvels (New York: Blom, 1964).

Some idea of the acrobatics involved in portraying an ape can be gleaned from Charles Dibdin’s
description of Gouffé’s audition for a position in pantomime:

He ran or flew up the painter’s frame to the ceiling with the rapidity, and ease, of a cat, proceeded
in the same manner along the framework, jumped, heedless of the height, onto the floor, and then
sprang up some machinery on the opposite side; and sprang from one place to another with the
most astonishing agility. I ordered a scene exhibiting rocks and trees to be placed on the stage,
and he ran along the mere moldings of the auditory, up and down the pillars of the boxes, and the
pilasters of the proscenium. (5)
In the harlequinade, all of this related acrobatic work went hand in hand with the rough-and-tumble
violence of slapstick comedy. Mastery of the fake blow and the relatively painless pratfall were
essential to the harlequinade characters as they are to today’s movie stuntmen. The art of the swift
kick in the pants was likewise eagerly cultivated. Butter was generously used by Clown to grease
the path of shopkeepers, policemen, and Pantaloon, encouraging slipping and sliding and yet a
few more pratfalls. The slapstick itself, which had been introduced to England by seventeenth-
century Arlecchinos, was “improved” by inserting gun powder between the two sticks to add
to the noise. To vary the arsenal somewhat, another comic weapon was popularized: Clown’s
red-hot poker. Sneaking around the stage and indicating his intended victim, Clown would ask
the audience, “Shall I?” When they gleefully shouted back, “Yes!”, the poker was firmly applied
to the seat of the innocent victim’s pants. The pain was minor in comparison to what Clown felt
when, later in the show, he accidentally sat down on the poker.

A standard decapitation effect.

This knockabout business was the duty of all the principal harlequinade characters, including the
elderly Pantaloon, who was a frequent victim of the Clown’s blows. Even Joseph Grimaldi, who
was considered by his contemporaries to be a rather non-acrobatic Clown, was an excellent stage
swordsman and choreographer of mock fights, and well accustomed to being knocked about. “It
is absolutely surprising,” wrote a London Times critic, “that any human head or hide can resist
the rough trials which he volunteers. Serious tumbles from serious heights, innumerable kicks,
and incessant beatings come on him as matters of common occurrence, and leave him every night
fresh and free for the next night’s flagellation.”
Much of the harlequinade violence depended upon special effects. With one’s real head hidden
beneath a coat at what appeared to be chest level, an artificial head could be worn and used for a
comical decapitation effect. Clown boldly swings his sword, and the man’s head falls off and rolls
through a trapdoor. Clown says, “Oh, I beg your pardon,” and a real head resembling the artificial
one pops through the stage floor to ask, “Where’s my body?” In another old scene, wrote a theatre
critic, “Clown was mangled flat as a flounder, but we were relieved by his appearing down the
chimney immediately afterwards in his natural shape just as if nothing had happened.” This same
illusion reappears in a Byrne Brothers pantomime of the 1890s.

With these grotesque effects, the harlequinade approached a surreal level of comic violence
perhaps surpassed in our own day only by such cartoons as The Road Runner. Film animation
makes everything possible: its cartoon figures are the victims of multiple explosions, violent
crashes, and the power of onrushing steamrollers — and yet survive all these mishaps in one
piece. In the harlequinade, however, many of these illusions were created a few feet from the eyes
of a live audience by means of stage magic techniques and complex trickwork.


The external technique of the harlequinade would not prove so amusing without the comic talents
of the pantomime actors. It was fortunate and probably no accident that the perfecting of acrobatic
trickwork technique coincided with the golden age of pantomime Clowns and Harlequins. The
greatest of English pantomime’s many comic geniuses was of course Joseph Grimaldi 1778-
1837). (6) Grimaldi was to pantomime comedy what Keaton and Chaplin were to be to silent film
comedy, the genius in whose lands “low” comedy became art.

His father was the Italian dancing master and pantomimist, Giuseppi Grimaldi (died 1788), a
stern and sour old showman who had learned his trade the hard way in the fairground theaters of
Europe. It was his firm decision that Joey was to enter show business, and so on Easter Monday,
1781, well before his third birthday, Joseph Grimaldi made his stage debut in a dance at Sadler’s
Wells, London’s famous variety theater.

On the same bill with young Grimaldi were two performers who played important roles in the
early circus, Alexandre Placide (“Signor Placido”) and Billy Saunders. Placide, the rope dancer
and tumbler whose troupe enlivened the first American circus, soon became a good friend of
the Grimaldis. Saunders, who was to become a celebrated clown at Astley’s, was the star of that
evening’s entertainment: He balanced on a swaying slack wire as he executed a headstand on a
drinking glass, balanced a long horn on his lips while playing a minuet without the use of his
hands, and performed continuous back somersaults while fireworks shot from different parts of
his body.

Despite his early exposure to circus performers and his father’s brief tenure as ballet master
at the Royal Circus, Grimaldi never performed in a circus ring. Instead, he spent his life in
pantomime, most evenings actually performing in full-length pantomimes at not one but two
London theaters. He became so highly
thought of that no less a writer than
Charles Dickens took it upon himself
to edit the Clown’s Memoirs (1838).
It was the great Grimaldi who gave
clowns their most enduring nickname,
“Joey.” It was Grimaldi who enriched
the comic business of the harlequinade
to such an extent that it soon dominated
the pantomime, in the process creating
numerous tricks and gags still seen in
today’s circus. And it was Grimaldi who
had the most to do with the development
of the pantomime character of Clown.

In the commedia dell’arte, Harlequin and

Columbine had been comic servants and
the roles of the lovers were assigned to
other characters. In English pantomime,
Harlequin and Columbine became
the young lovers; the obvious need
for a new comic servant was filled by
Clown. This role first became common
in pantomimes in the late 1770s, but
it was to be far more prominent in the
first quarter of the following century,
beginning with Grimaldi’s performance Joseph Grimaldi: “Sir, I’ll just trouble you with a line.”
as Clown in Thomas Dibdin’s popular
1806 pantomime, Harlequin and Mother Goose.

In earlier pantomimes, the Clown had been a rustic buffoon, sometimes known as Clodpole,
Clodpate, or John Trot. Later Clown became Pantaloon’s servant, giving up his country ways
and developing a cunning mind to go with his many new vices. Like other comic servants, he did
not always serve his master well: He was essentially a free agent, wreaking havoc wherever he
ventured. With his loud voice, comic songs, garish attire, and unpredictable behavior, he was far
more of a comic trickster than the romantic and magical Harlequin.

Grimaldi’s Clown was a delightfully roguish character, a cross between the puppet Punch and
film comedian Harpo Marx, for on stage he was “a thief, a coward — a most detestable coward,
cruel, treacherous, unmanly, ungenerous, greedy, and the truth was not in him.” Although in real
life stealing a loaf of bread might land a starving Englishman in jail for quite a spell, Clown
on stage simply could not resist a chance to commit petty theft, especially when it came to his
two favorite foods, sausages and pies. Yet, according to another commentator, “you forgave the
larceny for the humour with which it was perpetrated.”
Grimaldi painted his face white, as did the French Pierrot, but he also added substantial color to
the mouth, cheeks, and eyebrows. Most pronounced were the cheeks, which were bedecked with
large red triangles, giving his face a far wilder expression than that of the enfariné (flour-covered)
Pierrot. Some said Grimaldi wanted to look like an Indian “savage” on the warpath, while others
maintained the red triangles were there to give the notion of a greedy boy, who had smeared
himself with jam while robbing a cupboard. Perhaps Grimaldi’s biographer, Richard Findlater, is
most accurate when he suggests that Grimaldi chose that design simply because he liked the way
it looked in the mirror.

Grimaldi’s costume varied considerably, especially when he was out to satirize the latest in fashion.
His standard outfit consisted of an ornamented red shirt, cut away at the chest and waist to reveal
another shirt underneath, blue-and-white-striped breeches that did not quite reach his knees, and
a blue-crested wig. But sometimes he wore the more traditional ruffled baggy pantaloons (usually
striped or polka-dotted), with the large pockets that were so essential to the Clown’s career as a

For the next half century, most British

clowns followed closely in the Grimaldi
image, once again disproving the cliche’
that clowns never steal one another’s
makeup. According to Charles Dibdin,
“...the present mode of dressing Clowns
and painting their faces was then
invented by Mr. Grimaldi who, in every
respect, founded a New School for

Many clowns, such as John Ducrow

(chapter 3), copied Grimaldi’s makeup
quite carefully. Others made only slight
changes: Tom Matthews, a student of
Grimaldi’s, merely added a diamond-
shaped design to his forehead to
complement the red triangles on his

Grimaldi infused the role of Clown

with his full comic genius, which,
unfortunately, could not be duplicated
as readily as could his appearance. His Grimaldi’s Clown gives into gluttony.
sense of timing, his talent for mimicry,
his marvelously expressive face, his imaginative byplay, and his overall comic sensibility were
uniquely Grimaldi’s. His fans left many glowing tributes, such as the following, from which we
can derive some sense of Grimaldi as a performer:
Acting and clowning have been dis-associated so long, that Grimaldi is almost beyond the
comprehension of the present generation of playgoers. He was a great actor, who could extort
tears in serious pantomime, and yet justify Kemble introducing him as the first low comedian in
the country. Theodore Hook styled him the Garrick of clowns; and Harley called him the Jupiter
of practical joke, the Michael Angelo of buffoonery, who, if he was grim all day, was sure to make
folk chuckle at night. Joe never attempted any dangerous feats, and never padded in his life; he
was no jumper, but a living embodiment of quiet fun. His pantomime was such that you could fancy
he would have been the
Pulcinello of the Italians,
the Arlequin of the
French — that he could
have returned a smart
repartee upon Carlin. His
motions, eccentric as they
were, were evidently not
a mere lesson from the
gymnasium; there was a
will, a mind overflowing
with, nay, living upon
fun, real fun. Nobody
ever saw a practical joke
of Grimaldi’s misfire. A
common repeater of tricks
might be out; but he who
entered heart and soul
into the mischief afloat,
and enjoyed it as much
as the youngest of his
spectators, could never
be at a loss. If he was,
now and then, allowed
to speak a word or two, George Cruikshank print of Grimaldi stealing. Courtesy of the Milner Library, Illinois
they never came out as State University.
having been set down for
him. Everybody thought they were the positive ebullitions of the wild frolic spirit which broke
out of him. He was a master of grimace; and whether he was robbing a pieman, opening an
oyster, affecting the polite, riding a giant cart-horse, imitating a sweep, grasping a red-hot poker,
devouring a pudding, picking a pocket, beating a watchman, sneezing, snuffing, courting, or
nursing a child, he was so extravagantly natural, that the most saturnine looker-on acknowledged
his sway; and neither the wise, the proud, the fair, the young, nor the old were ashamed to laugh
till tears coursed down their cheeks at Joe and his comicalities. (7)
Grimaldi burlesquing the latest in fashion as My Lord Humpty Dandy in the pantomime Harlequin Munchausen (1818).
Courtesy of the Milner Library, Illinois State University.
Grimaldi had little use for words. His expression was in his face and body. Even his nose, according
to another pantomime buff, “was a vivacious excrescence capable of exhibiting disdain, fear, anger,
even joy. We think we see him now screwing it on one side; his eyes, nearly closed, but twinkling
forth his rapture; and his tongue a little extended in the fullness of his enjoyment; his chin had
a power of lowering, we will not say to what button of his waistcoat, but certainly the drop was
an alarming one. It always appeared to us that Grimaldi moved his ears; and this, anatomically
speaking, is not an impossibility. Speech would have been thrown away in his performance of
Clown: every limb of him had a language.” (8)

The pantomime comedian used few words also because, up until the early nineteenth century,
licensing laws had stipulated that he could sing but not speak. In the Mother Goose harlequinade,
for example, the basic action was explained by a system of placards, much like the titles in silent
films. When he needed to talk, he could always get away with singing or chanting his lines to
musical accompaniment. The first spoken opening was given in 1814, but, even so, dialogue did
not become common in pantomime until much later in the century.

Grimaldi was, however, known for his comic songs, especially “Hot Codlins” and “Typitywitchet:
or Pantomimical Paroxysms.” Charles Dibdin, who wrote many of Grimaldi’s songs, modestly
commented that “. . . those who never
heard him cannot be made to understand
how words so utterly destitute of humour
could have been rendered effective.” His
ballad about the tipsy woman who sold
codlins (taffy apples) was demanded
of all pantomime Clowns long after
Grimaldi’s death:

A little old woman her living got

By selling codlins, hot, hot, hot;

And this little woman, who codlins sold,

Tho’ her codlins were hot, she felt
herself cold.

So to keep herself warm, she thought it
no sin

To fetch for herself, a quartern of ...

...and here the gallery would holler “gin!”

whereupon Grimaldi would cry, “Oh, for
shame! “ (9)

Grimaldi’s Clown derived just as much George Cruikshank drawing of Grimaldi’s Hussar burlesque, showing
fun from gadgets and machinery. (10) the clown feeding Napoleon to the Russian bear. Reproduced from
Harlequin and the Red Dwarf (1812), courtesy of the Milner Library,
Thanks to a lifetime in pantomime, Illinois State University.
Grimaldi was well versed in trickwork
and was himself the designer of many effective “tricks of construction.” In these transformations,
something new and unexpected was created out of something quite ordinary, usually with satirical
overtones, such as changing a lobster into a soldier by boiling it. Another military satire had as
its basis the extravagant finery of Hussar officers, a style of dress affected by England’s ruling
Prince Regent. Two black coal scuttles became Grimaldi’s boots, with real horseshoes on his
heels; jack chains and large brass dishes were spurs, rendering his legs as cluttered and clattering
as the original; a white bearskin became his cloak, a muff his cap, and a black tippet served as
sideburns, beard, and mustache.

Ridiculous combinations of objects could become animated in Grimaldi’s hands; he could create
a living (and belligerent) vegetable man out of a pile of turnips and carrots. Or he might thrust
a mop handle through a wheel of cheese, place each end of the stick into the hands of a prone
Pantaloon, pile additional cheeses on the man’s back and wheel him off by his ankles as though
he were a wheelbarrow.

Many of these inventions found their way into the circus (and cartoons) as sight gags. Grimaldi’s
“New American Anticipating Machine,” often seen today as the hot dog machine, is the most
common example. Clown steals a dog from an unsuspecting gentleman, stuffs the pooch into the
machine, cranks the handle, and pulls out a long row of sausages. When the owner returns and
whistles for his dog, the sausages wag just like a real dog’s tail.

Grimaldi’s influence was felt in so many ways, but his own career ended rather early in life, for
the many years of performing in two pantomimes a night inevitably took their toll. In 1823, at
the age of forty-four, physical debility compelled him to abandon his stage career. His farewell to
the world of pantomime was delivered from the stage of Drury Lane at a benefit given for him in
1828. Grimaldi had a speech written for him especially for the occasion, but instead he discarded
it and spoke his own words:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I appear before you for the last time. I need not assure you of the sad regret
with which I say it; but sickness and infirmity have come upon me, and I can no longer wear the
motley! Four years ago I jumped my last jump, filched my last custard, and ate my last sausage. I
cannot describe the pleasure I felt on once more assuming my cap and bells tonight — that dress
in which I have so often been made happy in your applause; and as I stripped them off, I fancied
that they seemed to cleave to me. I am not so rich a man as I was when I was basking in your
favor formerly, for then I had always a fowl in one pocket and sauce for it in the other. [Laughter
and applause from the audience.] I thank you for the benevolence which has brought you here to
assist your old and faithful servant in his premature decline. Eight and-forty years have not yet
passed over my head, and I am sinking fast. I now stand worse on my legs than I used to do on
my head. But I suppose I am paying the penalty of the cause I pursued all my life; my desire and
anxiety to merit your favour has excited me to more exertion than my constitution would bear,
and, like vaulting ambition, I have overleaped myself. Ladies and Gentlemen, I must hasten to bid
you farewell; but the pain I feel in doing so is assuaged by seeing before me a disproof of the old
adage, that favourites have no friends. Ladies and Gentlemen, may you and yours ever enjoy the
blessings of health is the fervent prayer of Joseph Grimaldi — Farewell! farewell!”
Grimaldi’s strong presence continued to be felt long after his death in 1837. In fact, his enviable
reputation was in some ways an obstacle for later pantomime Clowns — E. J. Parsloe, Southby,
Harry Paulo, Richard Flexmore (son-in-law of Auriol), Harry Boleno, Jefferini, Harry Payne,
Wieland, George Lupino, and Whimsical WaIker were the most famous — for these talented
comedians always suffered in comparison with the great Grimaldi. Despite their contributions to
the role, the importance of the Clown declined and the harlequinade gradually disappeared from
English pantomime. By the 1880s, the harlequinade was a thing of the past, routed by outside
elements such as music hall turns, scenic panoramas, and lavish spectacles.

The same pattern occurred in the United States. English pantomime was first brought to America
in 1831 when Parsloe staged Harlequin and Mother Goose in New York City, but it met with a
cool reception and lasted only four performances. The English brand of pantomime did not really
become popular until George Fox’s 1868 pantomime, Humpty Dumpty, which, counting its two
major revivals, ran for over 1,200 performances in New York alone.

George L. Fox (1825-1877) was the pantomime Clown hailed by many as America’s answer
to Grimaldi. His makeup was closer to the French Pierrot, however, and he relied far more on
facial expression than on any ability as a tumbler. In his personal life, he was a quiet man, very
much an introvert. By the age of fifty, his irrational and sometimes violent behavior resulted in
his being removed from the stage and placed in
an insane asylum. He died two years later. After
his death, others revived the Humpty Dumpty
vehicle, with Tony Denier, George H. Adams,
and George Melville all enjoying success in
the role of Clown. (12) As in England, however,
pantomime was infiltrated by variety acts and
lavish spectacles. With the advent of vaudeville,
the form all but disappeared.

The British Clown was to have a far more

dramatic effect in France, shocking Parisian
audiences with his violent brand of comedy.
Here the knockabout clown became known as
a clown sauteur (leaping clown) or a cascadeur
(cascade = fall); today cascadeur is the French
word for a movie stunt man.

The British Clown’s invasion of Paris began

in 1819, when Andrew Ducrow brought three
English pantomimists, Garthwaeth, Derwin,
and Blanchard, to the French capital, where
their “eccentric talents worked wonders” in
The Magic Tomb, a pantomime that shared the Tom Matthews, a protegé of Grimaldi’s.

bill with Ducrow’s equestrian performances. In

the 1820s, the Laurent Brothers, whose father had been brought to London by Astley, returned
to Paris and became a fixture at the Théâtre des Funambules, where the older Laurent played
a robust and very British Harlequin to the ethereal and very French Pierrot of Jean-Gaspard
Deburau; in Jack l’Orang-Outang, Laurent played the ape. Laurent also served as stage manager
and in 1827 produced a long-running pantomime conceived in the English style, The Angry Bull.
By importing the trickwork and contraptions of English pantomime, he earned the nickname
l’homme truc — the trickster.

Parsloe, Ellar, Southby, and Blanchard also played Paris in the 1820s, but these visits slackened
in the 1830s, perhaps due to increasing job opportunities on the London stage. In the 1840s, Tom
Matthews imported entire pantomimes to Paris, complete with all the elaborate stage effects.
When he returned in 1853, French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote of his visit that “no doubt few
will recall for few people seemed to care for that type of entertainment and the poor English
pantomimists received a very poor welcome among us.” (13) This did not stop Baudelaire from
writing at length about the English clown and, despite his evaluation of Matthew’s reception, the
clown anglais soon caught on in France. Many British clowns established permanent residence
there, setting the stage for the introduction of slapstick comedy into the French circus.


The first circus clowns were quite acrobatic, but most of their tumbling
was done off the back of a horse. The wide range of acts we now
associate with the circus did not actually become a major part of the
program until the mid-nineteenth century. The first real headway into
the horse’s domination of the circus was made by a French circus
comic known as the grotesque, a tumbler whose comic improvisations
embellished what was basically a display of acrobatic skill.

The first to adopt the name grotesque was apparently Henri-Joseph

Antoine Gaertner, who first appeared at Franconi’s in 1823. Of German
descent, Gaertner was a tumbler, juggler, comic actor, and equestrian,
but little if anything is known about his performances. The same could
be said of his contemporary, Jean Gontard, who filled in between the
acts at Franconi’s during the 1820s. Although Gontard was popular
enough to be brought to Astley’s in 1838, where he was billed as “the
first French Grotesque and Celebrated Buffoon,” his fame was eclipsed
by the most popular grotesque of them all, Jean-Baptiste Auriol (1806-
1881). French grotesque Henri-
Joseph-Antoine Gaertner.
Reproduced from Cirque dans
Theophile Gautier described Auriol’s art as “encyclopedic,” for he l’Univers, courtesy of the Bib-
was a juggler, tumbler, equilibrist, rope dancer, and equestrian, as well liothèque de l’Arsenal, Paris.
as a grotesque comedian. His initial appearance in the French circus
was, according to the anonymous author of Le Cirque Franconi, “a
complete revolution, and he was an immediate success ... he displayed remarkable agility and the
fascinated spectators did not know what to admire most, his balancing feats, accomplished with
such precision and gentleness, his audacious leaps, or his tumbling — so nimble, so gay, and at
the same time so daring.” (14)

Much of what Auriol did was derived from the repertoire of itinerant acrobats, for his upbringing
was strongly rooted in the tradition of the jongleur. His parents were both rope dancers who
traveled the roads of Europe with their own family troupe, and he joined them as a performer at
the age of eight. He first appeared at the Cirque Olympique in 1835, and by 1847 was popular
enough to command a salary of 2,000 francs a month at a time when the average French worker
earned fewer than 100 francs in the same period. His phenomenal success in a wide variety of acts
helped put acrobatics on an almost even par with equestrianism for the first time in the circus. He
was, in the words of one nineteenth-century circus historian, “the great provider.”

Auriol was known for his ability to leap enormous distances and to balance in incredibly precarious
positions, and his early training on the rope no doubt enabled him to execute some of the most
difficult balancing feats ever performed. He could run along the tops of a row of bottles without
knocking them over and then balance in a free headstand atop the last bottle while playing the
trumpet. He could balance on an unsupported ladder or scale walls “like a fly.” With the help of
a tremplin (springboard), Auriol leaped over eight mounted horses or over twenty four soIdiers

Auriol at Cirque Champs Elysées jumping over eight horses and performing a wide variety of balacing feats. Courtesy of the
Theatre Collection, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
with fixed bayonets. He was one of the few acrobats of his time who could safely execute a double
back somersault, and he could just as easily somersault out of and back into his slippers. His
ability to seemingly defy gravity earned him the nickname ‘Homme Oiseau” (The Birdman) and
inspired the riddle, “What is lighter than a feather?” “Dust.” “Than dust?” “The wind.” “Than the
wind?” “Auriol.”

Auriol worked his many talents into at least fifteen separate routines. Although there are few
surviving descriptions, many of the titles suggest a strong clown element in his performances:
The Clown and his Grandmother, The Clown Juggler, The Metamorphosis of the Clown, The
Two Clowns, and The Clown’s Prestidigitation are obvious examples. In other routines, comedy
was apparently a footnote to his acrobatic feats. In his popular Chairs, for example, he executed
a series of remarkable balancing feats on top of chairs. When the audience demanded an encore,
he would reappear with a single chair and place it in the center of the ring. He would then go
through several preparatory motions, repeatedly adjusting the position of the chair by an inch or
two until he was sure it was just right. Satisfied that all was perfect, he signaled the orchestra to
stop playing. Retreating to the performers’ entrance, Auriol made a run toward the chair . . . only
to pick it up and carry it off.

Auriol was the rage of Paris for more than twenty years, and as he grew older his clowning took
precedence over his daring acrobatics. In 1857, he demonstrated further histrionic talent in the
role of Jocko in the familiar Jocko, or the Monkey of Brazil. But after the British acrobatic clowns
began performing in Parisian circuses in the 1850s, the famous grotesque seemed somewhat out
of fashion.


The mid-nineteenth century saw the center of the circus world shift from England to the Continent,
in particular to Paris, where the construction of permanent circus buildings encouraged the French
to take the circus more seriously as an art form. Success in Paris was a big boost for any clown
act, and although few of the great clowns have been French, most have been associated with
such famous Parisian circuses as the Olympique, the Medrano, and the Cirque d’Hiver. One
circus historian, writing in 1889, calculated that out of twenty clowns, one would find fifteen
Englishmen, two Spaniards, one Italian, one Frenchman, and one other nationality. In his 1879
autobiography, Charles Keith, “the roving English clown,” explained exactly why he and his
fellow professional clowns often elected to perform on the other side of the Channel:

If I am not so widely known in England, my absence has chiefly been caused by not being able to
procure the terms I could easily get abroad. . . . In England there are such a number of clowns or
persons who don the motley, that the supply is much greater than the demand; and as the majority
of English circuses travel daily, a cheap performer will suit as well as a talented one.... On the
Continent, and in a few circuses in England which never go tenting, but erect buildings for a
season in a town, the managers — having to make a lengthened stay, and the public becoming
better judges of talent — are obliged to
engage meritorious artistes, as without
them they would not succeed. (15)

When British clowns began appearing

in Parisian circuses in the 185Os, the
French were quick to realize that they
were confronted with a new type of
circus comedian. According to the
author of Le Cirque Franconi, the clown
was “an innovation imported from
England, a sort of acrobat or, better yet,
a buffoon: a type quite different from
the paillasses and the grotesques of the
old school, and which, nevertheless,
are much superior to him in terms
of suppleness, agility, and what the
English call humour.” The clown, or
sometimes the phonetic claune to the
French, was distinctly British and not to
be confused with the French grotesque,
any more than he would be mistaken
for the German Hanswurst, the Dutch
Pickelherring, or the Spanish gracioso.
Comparisons with the popular Auriol
were inevitable, however. Wrote one

The clowns are the allies of Auriol, but

do not resemble him. The clowns do
everything with heaviness and gravity;
they are grave even in their most
nimble tricks. The clown represents John Price. Photograph from Tristan Rémy, Les Clowns, by permission
of Grasset.
matter pure and simple; he shows off
his muscular force in all its reality;
Auriol, on the other hand, hides it under a thousand ruses and a thousand charming graces.
Auriol can be compared to the light cavalry and the clown to the heavy cavalry.

The domination of the French circus by British clowns began with the appearance of Thomas
Kemp (1819-1855) at the Cirque Olympique in 1853, at a time when Auriol was still a French
favorite. His background was said to have been in pantomime and his physical appearance similar
to Grimaldi’s, and like many of the British clowns, he had his own acrobatic specialties. He was
noted as a fine acrobat and juggler, and his lazzi included spinning a top on his chin, as well as
throwing a peacock feather into the air and catching it in a balance on his nose. While his initial
The Price Brothers. Photograph from Adrian, Ce Rire Qui Vient du Cirque.

The Price Brothers in Dinner at Maxim’s, with John Price in drag. Courtesy of Jacques Garnier.
performances met with only slight acclaim, he soon gained in popularity, only to die in 1855 at
the age of 36, apparently a victim of alcoholism.

After Kemp’s death, his place on the circus bill
was taken by a fellow Briton, James Clement Boswell, who soon gained a degree of fame that
had escaped his precursor. Anatole France wrote that Boswell “definitely established the English
pasquinade in France, which had been implanted by his predecessor Kemp.” In addition to an
act with trained monkeys and dogs, Boswell was an excellent acrobat whose feats included many
daring aerial stunts. One of the most popular was the “broken ladder,” which was very reminiscent
of Auriol’s work. Boswell mounted a single ladder held upright in the air, discarding each rung
as he passed it. Upon reaching the top, he let fall one stile of the ladder and then proceeded to
balance on his head on the remaining stile. It was while performing this routine that Boswell
suffered an apoplexy, which led to his untimely death in 1859 at the age of 39.

Unlike Kemp, who had been described as “merry, alive, alert,” Boswell came to symbolize the
idea of the melancholy British clown, so attractive yet so disturbing to the French. He would, for
example, station himself in front of the star equestrienne as she basked in the audience’s applause.
Icily staring at her in a frightful manner, he would recite from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, telling
the now very nervous equestrienne of “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller
returns.” She understood nothing but continued to smile. Sometimes he would take pleasure in
taunting her by abruptly pulling back the paper hoop just as she was about to somersault through
it, a bizarre look on his face as he emitted a guttural cry accompanied by a nervous hop. She
merely shrugged and assumed he was crazy.

Probably the most innovative British clowns of this period were the Price Brothers: John,
William, Adolphe, and Ferdinand. Like Auriol, they grew up in their family’s acrobatic troupe,
traveling widely as tumblers, rope dancers, and pantomime comedians; their father, Carl James
Price (1801 1865), had played Harlequin to his brother’s Pierrot at Copenhagen’s Tivoli.

 Over a
period of three decades, the Price Brothers were to develop a series of clown acts that have since
become standard. They first appeared in Paris in the 1850s with an act that combined daredevil
acrobatics with the playing of musical instruments. They were tumblers, jugglers, equilibrists,
and musicians, often using all of these skills in a single act. John and William Price were best
known for their Animated Musical Ladders. They could each climb to the top of an unsupported
ladder, maintaining their balance in that position by a very exact rocking motion. Once they were
comfortably balanced, they played what was said to have been a quite professional duet with flute
and violin. In their Flying Violins, the brothers executed incredible leaps and feats of contortion,
at the same time managing to perform tunes on the violin while in the most improbable positions.
In their Musical Kitchen sketch, they used various cooking utensils as musical instruments.

Circus performers like to impress audiences by combining several skills into a single act. Acrobatic
musicianship had been seen long before the Price Brothers developed an entire act around it:
Saunders balanced a horn on his lips and played a tune while swaying on a slack rope; in 1786,
another clown to the rope at Sadler’s Wells, Pietro Bologna, played two flutes through his nose at
the same time (175 years ahead of Rahsaan Roland Kirk).

Historical antecedents likewise exist for the juggling specialties performed by the Price Brothers.
Juggling dates back at least to ancient Egypt, and throughout the ages it has been associated with
itinerant acrobats and rope dancers. However, it did not develop into a specialized art in Europe
until the arrival of a wave of Oriental jugglers in the middle of the nineteenth century. In addition
to their highly developed skill with a larger number and greater variety of objects, these Asiatic
jugglers also introduced many astounding spinning and balancing tricks. Until then, juggling in
the circus had usually been an adjunct to more “important” acts such as trick riding. John Bill
Ricketts, America’s first circus star, juggled two oranges and a fork, catching one orange on the
fork, as he stood on the back of a galloping horse.

The most enduring and perhaps earliest example of clown juggling was the Price Brothers’ famous
sketch, An Evening at Maxim’s. Set in a private dining room of a fancy restaurant, it cast two of
the Price Brothers as comic waiters and the other two as a couple going out to eat; the wife was
played by John Price in drag. The scene became an excuse for the waiters to disrupt the dignified
atmosphere of the restaurant with their eccentric behavior, as they juggled with all the utensils,
plates, and bottles. The chaos was further heightened by introducing elements from their Musical
Kitchen act. As in a harlequinade trick of construction, inanimate objects were transformed into
something quite the opposite of their intended functions.

The Price Brothers tradition was perpetuated by John Price’s four sons (John, Pierre, Franz, and
Tommy), who further enriched the musical eccentric act, which was later adapted by such clowns
as the Conrad Brothers, the Plattier Brothers, and the Arnaut Brothers. An Evening at Maxim’s
was performed by the Hanlon-Lees and Henri Agoust in Le Voyage en Suisse, as well as by
many “salon jugglers.” These were jugglers in formal dress who manipulated such objects as
canes, gloves, top hats, billiard balls, and cue sticks. (The most famous salon juggler was the
German juggler, Michael Kara.) Under the title Dinner at Maxim’s, the act was perpetuated by
the Agoust family, as well as by the Perezoff and Rambler troupes, into vaudeville and music hall.
Elements of it reappear in the film Her Majesty Love (1931), in which W. C. Helds plays an
uncouth ex-vaudevillian whose daughter is about to marry into a wealthy and snobbish family.
Invited by the family to a formal dinner party, Fields mortifies his future in-laws by juggling with
the plates and food.


To perform slapstick comedy in the circus, the clown needed a partner considerably more acrobatic
than most ringmasters. Thus, during the 1850s and 1860s, many circus clowns began to work in
pairs and to evolve short knockabout sketches. Unlike the slapstick comedy of the harlequinade,
these clown scuffles had to be motivated in terms of the here-and-now reality of the ring. Instead
of performing long, drawn-out stories about Harlequin, Columbine, and Pantaloon, situated in a
different time and place, circus slapstick routines evolved out of the growing number of circus
acrobatic acts.

In The Duel Between Two Clowns, for example, an act performed by Boswell and one of the Price
brothers, the clowns attempt to present a simple acrobatic feat, in this case the formation of a
Nineteenth-century circus poster showing the routines of several acrobatic clowns. The clown in the upper-right
corner is called Miousic, a word associated with Boswell. Courtesy of Brooks McNamara.
“two-man high” (a human pyramid with the “topmounter” standing on the “understander’s”
shoulders).(17) Boswell shows Price how to climb onto his shoulders by slapping his knee (“One!”),
hip (“Two!”), and shoulders (“Three!”) to indicate where Price is to step on his way up. Price
mimics Boswell by repeatedly slapping him in the same three places. This angers Boswell and
leads to an initial exchange of blows. When they try again, Price makes a running approach,
plants his feet in Boswell’s back, and knocks him flat on his face.

More slaps and more dirty tricks on Price’s part lead to a new fight, which has to be interrupted
by the ringmaster, who insists that the only honorable solution is a blindfold duel with
pistols. The duel in turn becomes an excuse for revealing the clowns’ cowardice: Price covers only
one eye with the handkerchief while Boswell, not taking any chances, places it over his forehead.
Once the chicanery is detected and the duel carried out, Price is shot dead (he even says so) and
Boswell is given a sack in which to carry him off. The ending provides yet another example of
the clown as quick-change artist: Boswell places Price in the sack, but when he picks it up, the
bottom breaks and there stands a woman dressed in a petticoat, who chases him off with a stick.

The violence of slapstick comedy is made tolerable for the clowns by their ability to “take the
knap” — to fake a blow: as the recipient’s head snaps back at the last moment, he mimes the
reaction to the slap while avoiding the contact. The actual noise is created by either the assailant
hitting his other hand or the victim surreptitiously slapping his hands together at waist level.

Yet there is some question as to how well this technique was grasped, especially in France. In his
history of French music hall, Gustave Fréjaville wrote of a “clown whose left cheek, having been
too often ‘caressed,’ had become as hard as wood and as dry as parchment, and whose left eye
revealed a detached retina caused by the repeated shock of professional cuffing. . . . I felt justified
in stating that the habit of receiving each evening a certain number of blows thrown at random
was not without its disadvantages.” (18) The idea that clown slaps are for real also underlies Leonid
Andreyev’s play set in a French circus, He Who Gets Slapped (1915).

One of the most enduring circus knockabout acts is Dead and Alive, which was performed at
least as early as 1870. It is still seen today in shorter and usually less acrobatic versions, but the
original Dead and Alive sketch was some twenty minutes long, with a nicely constructed plot and
carefully choreographed tandem acrobatics.

The two clowns, Secchi and Alfano, bet five francs to see who can stand on his head longer.
Some clever cheating on Secchi’s part leads to a fight in which a terrific wallop apparently kills
Alfano. When he attempts to remove the body before the police arrive, however, Secchi discovers
it to be more alive than dead: for example, he pulls Alfano’s legs together, the arms spread apart.
Like a marionette come to life, Alfano’s extremities quite irresponsibly impede all of Secchi’s
attempts to gather up the corpse. The movements of the two clowns are coordinated into a surreal
scene in which they fall and somersault over one another, forming acrobatic stunts that are
perfectly motivated by the peculiar circumstances of Alfano’s “death.” Secchi finally succeeds
in removing Alfano from the ring by means of Grimaldi’s wheelbarrow trick of construction:
taking a wheel, Secchi places the ends of the axle in Alfano’s hands and pushes him off like
a wheelbarrow.

Although this kind of knockabout comedy reached a peak of popularity in the
circuses of the 1860s and 1870s, it has remained an important part of the clown’s repertoire ever
since. Today, elements of knockabout comedy continue to appear in many clown entrées as well
as in many three-ring gags (chapter 8 and 9).


By the 1880s, the acrobatic harlequinade had virtually disappeared from English pantomime,
and in the circus the fashion increasingly called for talking clowns (chapter 6). In this same
period, however, the rich tradition of knockabout comedy and scenic trickwork reached new
levels of artistry in the productions of the Hanlon-Lees pantomime troupe. (19) The Hanlon-
Lees and their many imitators (the Leopolds, the Craggs, the Pinauds, Mack and Dixon, and the
Byrne Brothers, among others) constituted a second great age of acrobatic comedy, which was
to transmit the knockabout tradition directly into
vaudeville and silent film comedy. If the Hanlon-
Lees have been somewhat ignored by theater
historians, it is only because their eclectic style did
not conform precisely to the traditional format of
English pantomime. Yet, although they eschewed
the standard transformation scenes and stock
characters, the Hanlon-Lees were closer to the true
spirit of the fertile Grimaldi era than were the gaudy
scenic extravaganzas that passed for pantomime in
the 1880s. Even the British — well accustomed to
rough-and-tumble comedy — admitted that in terms
of sheer technique the Hanlon-Lees had surpassed
anything previously seen.

In France, the Hanlon-Lees created an even greater

sensation. D. L. Murray wrote that the Parisians
viewed them as “the cynic philosophers of the fin-
de-siecle, the unconscious prophets of the crash of
civilization.” Just as the surrealists, a half-century
later, saw the essence of their philosophy embodied
by a modern troupe of clowns, the Marx Brothers, so
the French naturalists, led by Emile Zola, heralded
the Hanlon-Lees for their “cold-blooded analyses”
which “laid bare, with a gesture, a wink, the entire
human beast.” The realistic detail the naturalists Two of the Hanlon Brothers.
sought to impart to literature had a strange parallel in the exacting caricature and mime play of
the Hanlon-Lees. “I wonder,” wrote Zola, “what outburst of indignation would greet a work by
one of us naturalist novelists if we carried our satire of man in conflict with his passions to such
an extreme. We certainly do not go so far in our cold-blooded analyses, yet even now we are
often violently attacked. Obviously truth may be shown but not spoken. Let us therefore all make
pantomimes.” (20)

The Hanlon-Lees were originally the six Hanlon brothers, born in England between 1836 and
1848, but of Irish ancestry. Before the age of ten, the older brothers became students of the
well known acrobat, “Professor” John Lees, under whose tutelage they became extraordinary
tumblers. Lees especially delighted in foot juggling with the Hanlons — an act known as “risley”
after “Professor” Richard Risley Carlisle (1814-1874), the American acrobat who popularized the
act. The troupe made their debut at London’s Theatre Royal Adelphi in December 1846, billed as
“entortilationists.” (In French, entortillage means “twisting, coiling.”) Lees was given full charge
of George, William, and Alfred Hanlon in 1848, embarking with them on a worldwide tour. In
1855, while in Panama, Lees died suddenly of yellow fever. The Hanlons returned to England
and, with their brothers Thomas, Edward, and Frederick, formed a new troupe, calling themselves
the Hanlon-Lees. Their American debut was in 1858 with a circus playing at New York City’s
Niblo’s Gardens. They spent much of the 1860s performing in Europe and the United States,
appropriately billed as the “Hanlon-Lees Transatlantic Combination.”

Having grown up performing as human projectiles in Professor Lees’s risley act, the Hanlon
brothers naturally excelled at throwing themselves about. William Hanlon, for example, performed
back somersaults from the shoulders of one brother to those of another. They likewise perfected a
series of daring pyramids. When Jules Léotard (1838-18707) introduced the flying trapeze to Paris
in 1859, the Hanlons dispatched one of their number to France to take notes on this brand-new
circus act. Soon the HanIons were plastering New York City with the word zampillaërostation,
their own term for the flying trapeze act they premiered at the Academy of Music (in Italian,
zampillare means “to gush, to spring forth”). In their “great act,” as it was billed, “Little Bob,” a
boy acrobat, was thrown from one brother to another on trapezes high above the auditorium. As
he soared through the air, Little Bob “threw somersaults and turned completely around,” as in a
modern flying return act. For obvious safety reasons, the Hanlons designed a net to hang under
the trapezes — perhaps the first time this now-common device had ever been used.

One of their most popular feats was the “perilous ladder,” in which one brother balanced a long
ladder while the others performed acrobatic stunts at the top. It was while performing this feat in
Cincinnati in 1865 that the eldest brother, Thomas, fell and suffered serious head injuries. Bone
splinters in his brain destroyed his sanity, and on April 5, 1868, he intentionally dived headfirst
into an iron stovepipe, smashing his skull and killing himself.

Like Houdini decades later, the Hanlon-Lees recognized the publicity value of exhibiting a few of
their daredevil feats in public. In Baltimore, one of the brothers climbed to the top of a towering
monument. With thousands of spectators watching them from the street below, they performed
dangerous acrobatic stunts on the balcony edge, where the slightest miscalculation would have
sent them plummeting to instant death. After finishing
their act, they sprinkled the crowd with thousands of fake
dollar bills that read, “Go see the Hanlon-Lees!” When
they descended — by way of the stairs — a police officer
tried to arrest George Hanlon for “attempted suicide.”

In Chicago, in 1865, the Hanlon-Lees met the French

juggler Henri Agoust, who soon became an important
member of their troupe, taking the place of the injured
Thomas. In addition to his talents as “the world’s greatest
juggler,” Agoust had experience in ballet, fencing, magic,
and pantomime. Until they met Agoust, the Hanlons had
been performing daredevil acrobatics with a few comical
lazzi thrown in. Agoust persuaded them to turn their full
efforts toward acrobatic comedy, and began by rehearsing
them in two of Deburau’s pantomimes, Harlequin Statue
and Harlequin Skeleton.
Hanlon-Lees piano dive from Moynet’s Trucs et
Decors. Moynet’s explanation is confusing: to
reach that final position, the performer would
In 1867, the troupe began performing a short sketch
actually have to enter the piano with a backward entitled Le Frater de Village, known in English either as
leap or (less likely) execute a half-twist while in The Village Torment or The Village Barber. Columbine’s
the piano.
lover, his romantic intentions thwarted by her unwilling
parents, shows up at her house dressed as a barber. While
Columbine’s family passively eats their dinner, her
frustrated lover does his best to soften their resistance.
Enormous blade in hand, he lathers them from head to
foot and then dunks them in a tub of water. When he
inadvertently slices off a head or two, he is quite careful
to glue them back on. The conclusion is a violent free-
for-all, with even the women receiving a fair share of the
slaps and kicks. Unusual tactics, perhaps, but Columbine’s
father finally consents to give her hand in marriage.

With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870,

Agoust enlisted in the French army and did not rejoin the
Hanlons until 1876. In 1878, the troupe began to devote
itself to the task of developing pantomimes around its
unrivaled acrobatic talents. “We finally decided to unite
them, to let one complement the other,” recounted George
Hanlon. “We envisioned a series of works in which
fantasy, agility, and true realism would play equal roles.”
They even met regularly to discuss their dreams, for in
them they found powerful material for their pantomimes.
With William arranging the scenarios and Alfred the
music, the next two years were spent in Paris creating and performing several incredibly macabre

In Pierrot the Terrible, for example, the sheep’s heads and calves’ tongues in the butcher shop
come alive, humans lose their limbs on the butcher’s block, and even the statue in the park is
arrested for drunkenness. In Apes and Bathers, the Hanlons portrayed monkeys on a day off from
the zoo. In The Duel, the deus ex machina takes the form of a bull that literally devours one of
the Pierrots. In Soirée in Black Tie, a satire of high society set in a Louis XVI drawing room, a
crazed pianist dives into a piano and then comes crashing headfirst out of the frame, just above the
pedals. In Pierrot Coffin-Maker, Pierrot earns a living selling upholstered coffins to people before
they die. When he kills a man for declining to purchase one of his boxes, Pierrot is haunted by the
man’s ghost — dressed in the coffin Pierrot had tried to sell him.

Do Mi Sol Do, which ran for thirteen months, used the format of an orchestra rehearsal, but one
in which the musicians attacked the conductor (played by Agoust) and everything in sight was
smashed to smithereens. Violent assaults and multiple explosions could not faze this conductor,
lost in a Wagnerian mist, as he persisted in expressing the music of his soul. The idea for this
savage parody, interpreted by the French as a satire of contemporary fashions in music, actually
originated in a minstrel show skit depicting the rehearsal of an amateur band; the Hanlons in fact
had performed frequently on the same stage with blackface minstrels in the United States, and in
the early 1860s were themselves the subject of a minstrel parody.


“I do not think that a combination of the wildest ideas of the author of Through the Looking
Glass and Baron Munchausen, with a dash of Sir Boyle Roche’s most highly-flavoured Hibernian
topsy-turvydums and a flavouring of Jules Verne, could give a more confusing effect to the mental
condition of the ordinary every-day human being than has A Trip to Switzerland,” a London critic
wrote in 1880 of the Hanlon-Lees’ most famous production. “I must confess”’ he continued, “that
the ordinary playgoing equilibrium which I generally assume and maintain was shaken to its
roots.” (21)

Le Voyage en Suisse (A Trip to Switzerland) was perhaps one of the most significant productions
in the history of popular entertainment, for in it a wide range of circus techniques, stage magic,
and dazzling scenic trickwork was incorporated into a dramatic context and performed by a group
of the world’s most talented acrobats, jugglers, and clowns. It enjoyed long-running engagements
in Paris in 1879 — where it enthralled Emile Zola — in London in 1880, and in New York City
in 1881.

The story line of Le Voyage en Suisse was a mere vehicle for the unique talents of the Hanlon-Lees.
Its farcical plot and punning dialogue (by Blum and Toché) was commissioned by the Théâtre des
Variétés specifically for the Hanlon-Lees. It was translated and adapted for the London stage by
a Mr. Reece and adapted anew for American audiences by Henry Pettitt.
The carriage overturning in act one of Le Voyage en Suisse. Courtesy of the Theatre Collection, New York Public Library at
Lincoln Center, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

The first act of this “Parisian absurdity” opens (in the English version) in a small town on the
Devonshire coast, where the virtuous Finsbury Parker is about to wed his beloved Julia. The
joyous occasion is interrupted by the arrival of an evil spirit in the person of Matthew Popperton.
In the name of Julia’s legal guardian, Schwindelwitz, he forbids the ceremony and produces a
letter ordering her to accompany him back to Schwindelwitz’s hotel in Switzerland. Furthermore,
the letter stipulates that, should the middle-aged Popperton propose to young Julia en route, she
must accept, or dread the consequences.

A despondent Finsbury is cheered up by the arrival of an old friend, the eccentric baronet, Sir
George Golightly, whose help he enlists in saving Julia. Golightly also promises the aid of his
wild young nephews, Ned and Harry (Edward and George Hanlon), soon due back from the
University of Bonn, accompanied by their French tutor, Monsieur La Chose (Agoust). Arriving
on the same coach, as it turns out, are Popperton’s two servants, Bob and John (Frederick and
William Hanlon).

Everything is set for the entrance of the Hanlon-Lees. Halfway across the stage, their coach is
violently capsized, breaking into hundreds of pieces and splattering the passengers and their
limbs aII over the place. But before the horror can sink in, the Hanlon-Lees come cascading down
from the top of the carriage, landing in comfortable seated positions, facing the footlights in a
faultless line, still calmly smoking their cigars, with one of the brothers on another’s shoulders.

Before the plot can proceed any further, the new visitors plunder the local tavern, with Popperton’s
Popperton and Julia at the Rigi Kulm Hotel.

Gendarme scene in act three of Le Voyage en Suisse.

Juggling scene from the Hanlon-Lees pantomime, Le Voyage en Suisse. Courtesy of the Theatre Collection, New York Public
Library at Lincoln Center, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

servants adding to the chaos by playing all kinds of pranks on their fellow travelers. Especially
praised was a marvelous piece of sleight of hand in which the servants hand a wine bottle back and
forth with such dexterity that it is physically impossible for its owner to detect its whereabouts as
it passes directly under his nose. When it is finally returned to him, the contents have disappeared.

The first act ends with Julia, Popperton, and his two servants embarking for Switzerland. In hot
pursuit are Parker, Monsieur La Chose, Golightly, and Golightly’s two nephews — all devoted to
making Popperton’s trip to Switzerland and his sojourn there so miserable that he will consent to
give up Julia. And in the grand tradition of comic servants, Popperton’s own two valets also join
forces with Parker and company.

When the curtain rises for the second act, the audience sees a cross- section of a Pullman sleeping
car. Underneath are rotating wheels, giving the illusion of a train traveling at full speed. In the
center compartment are Popperton and Julia, while elsewhere in the car are Parker and his many
friends, intent on preventing Popperton from broaching the subject of marriage. In the original
French version,however, Popperton and Julia were already wed and now had to be stopped from
consummating the marriage, perhaps a more comical situation, but one that the English adapter
apparently found too coarse for British tastes. (22)

The ensuing scene in the train compartment becomes a comic nightmare for Popperton. Each
time he is about to pop the question, he is interrupted by the appearance of one of Parker’s
allies — sometimes through the door, sometimes through the ceiling. The servants pound on the
compartment wall, telling a very quiet Popperton not to make so much noise, while Sir George
plays “Don’t Make a Noise” on a huge cornet. Disguised as train conductors and later as customs
inspectors, they find dozens of excuses to intrude. Knowing Popperton’s hatred of tobacco, they
smoke constantly. “Their instantaneous appearances in all places at once,” marveled one critic,
“make one inclined to disbelieve one’s eyes.” One of Popperton’s servants falls to the tracks and
appears to get run over by the onrushing train, only to reappear on the roof. This sustained frenzy
culminates in a scene strikingly similar to that of the overcrowded stateroom in the Marx Brothers
film, A Night at the Opera (1935), as all the passengers on the train pile into Popperton’s tiny

Eventually the anti-Popperton forces run out of stalling tactics. “With a daring eccentricity
peculiar to English baronets” (as one viewer put it), Golightly decides to blow up the train. A
guard is bribed and a few moments later the train actually splits in two on stage, sending the
terrified passengers flying into the air before landing them safely in nearby trees.

The third and final act takes place at the Rigi Kulm, the Swiss hotel run by Julia’s guardian,
Schwindelwitz. Parker and friends appear, now disguised as Alpine tourists and hotel waiters,
still hoping to dissuade Popperton by whatever means necessary. A dinner party for the couple
is disrupted as the waiters drop plates and dishes and scald the guests with hot soup and coffee.
Total confusion reigns once the waiters begin juggling with dishes and food (color plate), as in the
Dinner at Maxim’s juggling act. Oranges and loaves of bread fly through the air, plates are both
spun and juggled, and Agoust at one point juggles three eggs, a knife, and a plate. When one of
the waiters goes into an upstairs room, where dynamite is stored, he accidentally ignites it, which
blows a hole in the floor and sends him crashing down onto the dinner table.

There follows a brilliant drunk scene in which Popperton’s servants experience great difficulty in
trying to light a candle while drinking, with one of them even sticking the lit candle, rather than
the bottle, down the throat of the other.

Soon these same servants are pursued by a gendarme (played by Agoust), who hopes to arrest
them for their complicity in the destruction of the train. A hide-and-seek chase scene over tables
boxes, wardrobes, staircases, and the fireplace proves the servants to be far too clever for the
policeman. “It is the point of the chase,” explained a reviewer, “that though the two are always
hovering round their would-be captor, he could not once have detected their presence. He opens
the door of a cupboard, to which he has tracked one of the men, who is there indeed, but [who]
slips quietly through the legs of his adversary. Some of the leaps and tricks tax the courage as well
as the agility of these excellent mimes, but the absence of perceptible effort is always a source of
pleasure to the spectator.” (23)

Much of this trickwork, such as a closet with double doors that totally baffles the gendarme, was
clearly derived from stage magic. Especially startling was the decapitation effect used in this
same scene. When the gendarme climbs into a box, one of the servants sits on the lid, apparently
Several scenes from Eight Bells by the American pantomime troupe, the Byrne Brothers.

slicing straight through his neck. (Some twenty years earlier, William Hanlon had been the first
person to introduce to the United States a decapitation effect based on mirrors.)

After this brilliant scene, the Hanlon-Lees return to the main story line. Further wreckage of the
hotel, and exposure of Schwindelwitz and Popperton as old swindlers who were merely interested
in Julia’s fortune, enable Finsbury Parker to win back bride, and everything ends happily.

In terms of split-second timing and perfect technique, A Trip to Switzerland was clearly
extraordinary. But the clowning of the Hanlon Lees was said to have been every bit a match for
their acrobatics. “An athlete might accomplish much of the rougher and more practical fun,”
commented another London critic, “but only humourists could succeed in the lighter and more
delicate touches of mute comedy. Gifted with most expressive faces, the Hanlons create laughter
at every look and movement, and at last give us pantomime with a meaning in it. . . . The term
of ‘clowning’ ceases to be a reproach when it is brought to such a pitch of excellence as this.” (24)


In 1881, Le Voyage en Suisse was brought to the United States, though without Agoust, who
in 1886 became the ringmaster of the Nouveau Cirque. (25) Both Albert and Frederick Hanlon
died in 1886, but the tradition was kept alive by the three surviving brothers, George, William,
and Edward. Their Fantasma ran from 1884 to 1890, when it was replaced by Superba. George
Hanlon’s two sons, Will and Fred, who played sprites in the early productions of Fantasma, later
assumed full control of the Hanlon-Lees repertoire and continued to perform Superba until 1911.
The Hanlon Brothers then adapted various scenes from the pantomimes to form a vaudeville act,
Just Phor Phun. They toured their act for the next three decades, and in 1945 could be seen as
clowns with Ringling-Barnum.

The knockabout tradition was also perpetuated by the pantomimes of the Byrne Brothers (James,
Matthew, Andrew, and John), former circus acrobats who obviously borrowed a good deal of their
material from earlier Hanlon-Lees productions. (26) They were above all noted for Eight Bells,
which their troupe performed from 1890 to 1914, when it was replaced by a similar concoction,
An Aerial Honeymoon.

The plot of Eight Bells was adapted from John Martin’s popular farce, To Paris and Back on Five
Pounds, but the comic business included a by then standard juggling routine, a chase scene, and
— instead of a segmented Pullman car — a ship that gets violently tossed about at sea during a
storm. The most popular scene in the whole piece was the elopement, in which the Byrne Brothers
formed a human pyramid rather than using a ladder. This same scene reappears in Buster Keaton’s
short, Neighbors (1920), while the balancing ladder on the fence, depicted in the same poster,
reappears in Keaton’s Cops (1922).

In the early twentieth century, many of the comic scenes developed by the Hanlon-Lees and other
pantomime troupes were presented in vaudeville theaters, at first in their full-length versions
and later in condensed form. Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel,
and many other early film comics grew up in the world of vaudeville and music hall. Thus the
fertile tradition of knockabout comedy was transmitted intact from the era of Grimaldi to that of
Keaton, by way of the Hanlon Lees. The film medium enabled these new acrobatic clowns to go
even further in some areas, but they certainly were fortunate to have such a rich heritage to draw
upon. o


1. Traditional English pantomime should not be confused with twentieth-century “Christmas pantomimes,”
which almost totally lack any kind of acrobatic harlequinade. The early history of English pantomime is well
covered in the books by Broadbent, Disher, Findlater, Mander and Mitchenson, Mayer, and Wilson
that are listed in the Bibliography.
2. Preface to Mémoires et Pantomimes des Freres Hanlon-Lees (Paris, 1879), p.9.
3. James T. Powers, Twinkle Little Star: Laughter, Tears, Thrills (New York : Putnam, 1939), pp. 150--51.
4. When Klischnigg once sought an engagement at a Vienna theater, he was told by the director, “A monkey in
my theater! This isn’t a menagerie.” The contortionist’s cool response was to nonchalantly scratch his ear with
his right foot. He got the job. The Russian Circus: A Concise Encyclopedia offers the following explanation
of “klischnigg”: “Forward bending, mainly with the body completely against the legs and without bending the
knees, done standing, sitting, and lying down. Other tricks include: ‘the frog’- standing on one’s hands with
one’s legs over one’s shoulders; ‘the monkey run’-the artist makes a quick entrance with the legs straight and
palms touching the ground, wrapping legs about the neck, etc,” pp. 152-53, translated by Judy Burgess.
5. Quoted in David Mayer, Harlequin in His Element, p. 107.
6. The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, edited by Charles Dickens and first published in 1838, tells surprisingly
little about Grimaldi the clown. Far more valuable is Richard Findlater’s biography, Grimaldi, King of Clowns.
7. Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, Pantomime, p. 20.
8. Findlater, Grimaldi, p. 152.
9. Ibid., p. 139.
10. The best modern equivalent for Grimaldi’s tricks with gadgets is to be found in the films of Buster Keaton.
For a thorough analysis, see: J.-P. Lebel, Buster Keaton (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1967), chapter five, “The
11. Findlater, Grimaldi, pp. 199-200.
12. Scripts of many of these pantomimes are in the collection of the New York Public Library. Tony Denier was
the author of Parlor Pantomimes and How to Join a Circus (New York : Dick and Fitzgerald Co., 1877). Walter
Draper’s Ph.D. dissertation, “George L. Fox, Comedian in Pantomime and Travesty” (University of Illinois,
1957), tells us next to nothing about Fox the performer.
13. “De L’Essence du Rire,” in Oeuvres Completes (Paris, 1882), vol. 2, p. 388.
14. Le Cirque Franconi, p. 36.
15. Charles Keith, Circus Life and Amusemetts, excerpted in The Sawdust Ring, Spring-Summer 1937, pp. 59--
16. For a general survey of juggling, see : MarceUo and Massimiliano Truzzi, “Notes Toward a History of Jug-
gling,” The Bandwagon, 18, no. 2 (March-April 1974) : 4-7.
17. The entree appears in Entrees Clownesques, edited by Tristan Remy, pp.137-41.
18. Gustave FrejavilIe, Au Music-Hall (Paris: Editions du Monde Nouveau, 1922), pp. 195-196.
NOTE: This next footnote is out of date! Lots more stuff now available in English. Stay tuned!
19. The only readily available material in English on the Hanlon-Lees is by Richard Southern: “Visions of
Leaps,” Life and Letters Today 30, no. 49 (September 1941); and the “Entortilationists” chapter in his book,
Victorian Theatre (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1971). Unfortunately, Mr. Southern has his
facts all wrong, attributing certain scenes to Le Voyage en Suisse that were actually in other pantomimes. More
helpful are: What the Leading Papers of l.ondon Say Concerning the Hanlon-Lees and Agoust (Birmingham,
England, 1880); Richard Lesclide, Memoires et Pantomimes des Freres Hanlons-Lees; George Moynet, Trucs et
Decors (Paris : Librairie IlIustre, n.d.); and Paul Hugounet, Mimes et Pierrots.
20. “Pantomime,” translated in Appendix B. NOTE: The book appendix cut cut by the publisher, but all of its
documents will appear on the blog.
21. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 17 April 1880, in What the Leading Papers of London Say, p. 29.
22. The critic for The Era congratulated the English adapter for getting rid of all “suggestiveness,” while the
reviewer on the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News commended his “quelling any little irregularity which,
however acceptable, even to highly moral English when over in the gay capital of France, could not for a mo-
ment be tolerated in the happy island of their birth.” What the Leading Papers of London Say, pp. 20, 30. Uh,
yeah, “gay capital” didn’t have the same meaning in the 1880s.
23. Ibid., p. 11 (the critic for The Standard).
24. Ibid., p. 6 (the Daily Telegraph critic).
25. When the Hanlon Brothers tired of sharing their newfound wealth with Agoust, they conspired to break a
few of his bones on stage-or so the story goes. At any rate, there was considerable animosity in their parting.
26. In 1889, for example, they performed” A Carriage Ride and its Mishaps,” based on the famous Hanlon-Lees