Festive Factory’s off the shelf acts, whilst not specifically offering traditional Clown style characters, are rooted in a tradition that spread from the king’s courts, to the stage, to the circus, to the streets.
Roving entertainment, stage shows, story telling, (such as that performed by Festive Factory) street theatre, or busking performances that use audience participation will be able to also trace their interactivity to the clown tradition.
But Modern day clowning is a far cry from its origins whose traces appear in Greek burlesque and on the Roman stage.
The origin of the English word “clown” is uncertain, but it is thought to have come from a Scandinavian or Teutonic word for “clod,” which means a coarse or boorish fellow; perhaps a lout.
Fools and Court Jesters were privileged members of kings and noblemen’s parties throughout the middle Ages as long as what they said and did, amused their masters. They were usually gifted musicians, mimics, skilled dancers, and acrobats, full of quick wit, cheek and, as intimated, necessarily multi skilled. No doubt a quick wit would also have been a survival tool, not unlike the successful street show artist today. Offence might carry the severest of penalties hence the need to lower their status to that of an ‘idiot’. “ I might be rude or speak an uncomfortable truth, but who cares what I think, I’m no better than a mule.” Of course within this lies an enviable freedom on a tight rope, no doubt.
The ‘fool’ carried a mock scepter, called a Marotte, which was a stick with a carved head and tassels. The Marotte would serve to protect his master. Perhaps the Marotte evolved became somehow connected also to the Marionette.
It would not be too difficult to imagine the fool in sighting action or responsibility to the Marotte.
Original ‘fool’ costumes frequently consisted of a hood with donkey ears and even a tail. This was to further the low status, reminding all, how “asinine” he was – an object of ridicule and not to be taken seriously. Eventually the hood evolved into a three-pointed cap with bells at the ends while the tail disappeared. The pointed cap and tasseled scepter became symbols of these jesters that are still recognized today.
On the early English stage, a clown was a privileged laugh provoker. He had no real part in the drama, but carried on his jokes and tricks, sometimes addressing himself to the delighted audience instead of confining himself to the stage action. Perhaps this was in fact the beginning of the audience participation.
Shakespeare elevated the clown, by scripting dialogue for him, often using him as a “comic relief” to ease the tension in his tragedies. The gravediggers in Hamlet are clowns. Othello had his clown. Launcelot Gobbo was Shylock’s famous clown.
In France, the Pierrot in his two-colored costume was a happy, lighthearted clown, also an accomplished dancer. The Pierrot’s character has changed over time and is now typically a romantic, sad figure with a tear painted on his white cheek.
There is a clear influence on the mime tradition here borrowed for example with Marcel Marceau’s character Bip also with the painted face and ‘tear’.
Both traditions of course are of the same Commedia dell’Arte family.
Although the name Harlequin is French, it is believed that the Arlecchino character originated in Italy with ‘Alichino’ from Dante’s Inferno. This was a favorite character in the Commedia dell’Arte and was distinguished by his black mask, shaved head, and expert acrobatics, As the character evolved, Harlequin became a romantic hero, popular in Pantomime.
Italy also contributed Pantaloon, originally Pantaleone: serious face and baggy trousers along with the interpretation of the clown as a tragic figure, laughing, while his heart was breaking.
Germany contributed the painted clown face, often showing no personal expression. The German costume of the character called ‘Pickelherring’, evolved into what is now recognized as the typical clown, with oversized shoes, ill-fitting clothes, and a ruff at the collar. This clown would become most associated with the rich and traditional Circus Arena Clown, highly stylized in both costume and character.
Festive Factory has replaced the traditional clown costume, with their own unique representation of costumed characters who’s ancestry is unmistakable. Festive Factory appreciates this lineage of their Clown from a rich and diverse European culture that continues to develop to this day, through an ever increasing range of wonderful roving characters.
Thanks and acknowledgment for historic references to “All about Clowns” in this article.