A Chorus of Clowns: The Roots of Masked Comic Theater
The following article is reprinted with author's permission from Endicott Studio.
In the middle of winter, when it is so gray I can't take it any more, I rent as many Marx Brothers movies as I can find. There is something about the zany interaction of these "clowns" creating havoc in a department store, a racetrack, or the stateroom of an ocean liner that brightens the dullness of the day.
Then there is that crackling, fast dialogue, most of it famously improvised; and the elaborate musical numbers, ridiculous dances, and absurd moments of slapstick.
Perhaps because I know they are four brothers, I sense a kinship in their characters. Although each one of them wears a different costume and "mask," there is a synchronicity in their performance — for while each one constructs his own comedic business, they do not act alone, but form a madcap chorus of clowns.
Watching them, I sense much older traditions layered beneath the surface of their film performances. It is easy to imagine Groucho with satyr's hooves or Harpo in the round wide–mouth mask of an ancient Fool.
Inspired by the antics of the Marx Brothers, I decided to review the roots of clowning in the early Southern European history of theater clowns — not the circus clowns — but those masked characters who rose out of early pagan cults and then developed into secular, irreverent tricksters and mirrors of human behavior.
The history of comic theatre and clowns reaches a long arm back to the ancient traditions of Greek mime.
This early theatre derived its sources of inspiration from three cultural branches: the ecstatic revels of the Dionysian cults which celebrated Dionysus, the God of Wine and fertility; an abundance of rural folklore with an emphasis on crude humor; and a surprisingly secular perspective of life.
The British theatre historian Allardyce Nicoll in his classic treatise on early theatre, Masks Mimes and Miracles, describes the secular aspect of the early comic theatre as
"the glad acceptance of life's brightness, the amused and untroubled realization that this world is nothing but a jest. . .[the mimes] based their work on life itself, and never looked beyond; they ridiculed the legends of the old gods just as later they ridiculed the Christian rites. . .[T]hose who believed in the pagan gods could still laugh when these gods were reduced to ridiculous terms upon the stage."
The origins of the clowns, like the trickster figures of myth, arose out of a burgeoning rebellious spirit, expressing the human need to challenge social propriety through figures licensed to refuse its strictures.
The Rural Dionysia, held in the month of Poseidon, (late December to early January), was a rowdy, earthy affair. This festival combined a host of country pleasures; fertility revels, drinking enormous quantities of wine, and singing songs to the God Dionysus.
Rudimentary plays probably arose from the improvisational fun of drunken, masked revelers.
Out of these cults came two strands of comic theater: the improvisational performances that developed among the Dorians in the Peloponnese of ancient Greece and the more formal, written plays for the classical stage. (Socrates and Euripides attended many of these festivals.)
In 500 B.C., as Athenian playwrights were creating tragedies, a few saw the theatrical possibilities in Dionysian revels.
Play competitions were presented in the spring at the City Dionysia in honor of the God Dionysius. Each playwright composed three interlocking tragedies and one comedic "satyr" play.
The satyr plays were short humorous interludes which lightly referenced the themes of the more serious plays. They found great favor with the audience, who regarded them as a much needed respite.
Satyrs in Greek mythology were servants to Dionysus. Half man, half goat, the creatures were known for their wanton and lascivious behavior, chasing nymphs and drinking freely.
They were cunning but cowardly creatures, dangerous to humans on whom they enjoyed playing pranks. They are immediately recognized in Greek art by their shaggy pelts, horses' tails, and enormous phalluses.
In the satyr plays, men wore costumes of goat, deer, or panther skins, thrown over their naked bodies, along with grotesque masks, wigs of wild hair, and leather phalluses.
Twelve to fifteen of the satyrs performed the role of the chorus, led by a round–potbellied Silenius, a water spirit. The settings for these plays was usually a lonely wood, under an open sky, and unlike the solemn formality of the tragedies, the actors delivered their lines in natural speech that was often full of vulgarities.
The performance style was robust and mostly slapstick with plenty of obscene gestures.
The satyr plays took their themes from mythology and legends, turning gripping heroic tales into humorous, even silly, affairs through the antics of the satyrs.
Cyclops by Euripides, for example, recounts the well–known tale of Odysseus' encounter with Polyphemus, the one–eyed giant.
In Homer's gripping version, Polyphemus has imprisoned Odysseus and his men in his enormous cave, anticipating eating one or two of them a night. After secretly fashioning a stake, Odysseus succeeds in blinding the Cyclops, and escaping with his men by hiding under the woolly bellies of Polyphemus' sheep.
In Euripides' satyr play, by contrast, Silenius and the satyrs have been forced to slave for Polyphemus. Silenius must rake clean sheep's dung from the massive cave, while the satyrs work as disgruntled shepherds to Polyphemus' sheep.
They miss their woods, their nymphs, and above all, their wine. A storm–tossed Odysseus arrives in dire need of supplies for his crew. He bargains with Silenius, who is not at all cooperative until Odysseus offers payment in wine.
With a cry of joy, Silenius heads for the cave to steal food for Odysseus and his men. While he is gone, the satyrs beg Odysseus to regale them with tales from the battle of Troy, interrupting him periodically to deride Helen as
"the traitress. . .[W]ould there had never have been a race of women born into the world at all, unless it were for me alone!" (translation by Samuel Coleridge).
The plot becomes complicated when Silenius returns with the stolen food, followed by an angry Polyphemus who demands an explanation. Silenius says he was beaten by the strangers while he fought to protect the cave, but the satyrs quickly ridicule him for his lies.
Silenius, knowing the Cyclops' taste for human flesh, points to Odysseus and says to the giant:
"I will give thee a word of advice! As for his flesh, leave not a morsel of it, and if thou eat his tongue, Cyclops, thou wilt become a monstrous clever talker."
Odysseus and his terrified men are herded into the cave, and the stone rolled in front of the entrance. Outside, the miserable satyrs wait, imagining the worst in a gruesome song and scisinnis, a frenetic dance that consisted of skipping and jumping.
Soon, however, they have their chance to assist the hero in fashioning the stake intended to blind Polyphemus. But they are not brave enough to actually help Odysseus do the deed and they scatter, watching the activities from a safe distance.
Only when Odysseus and his men are free do they rejoin him, happy at last to be returning to their groves and their nymphs.
Sadly, only tantalizing fragments remain of Socrates' satyr play, Ichneutai, (translated variously as The Trackers, The Hunters, or The Searchers). The play is based on the myth of the mysterious theft of Apollo's cattle by the trickster Hermes.
In the myth, Hermes has hidden the cattle in a cave on Mt. Cyllene. When the deception is discovered, Apollo and Hermes have it out in court before Zeus. As part of their eventual reconciliation, Hermes makes a gift of his new invention, the lyre, to Apollo, who is entranced by the sound and becomes the god of music.
Once more the satyr play offers a rougher version of this myth, complete with the usual mishaps, romping, and scatological humor one might expect while hunting lost cattle.
Offered a reward of gold by Apollo, Silenius and his satyrs agree to hunt for the missing cattle. Alexander Gross describes the journey of the satyrs in his essay "Goat Singers and Scholars":
"Apollo retires, and the satyrs begin their search — now rampantly wanton, now cowering and squealing, they encounter the various hazards of the quest. Much of the time they scramble along on all fours, sniffing the ground like bloodhounds, as they follow the tracks of the missing cattle.
A sudden sound is heard which frightens them, and they tumble to the ground in a rout. Silenius goads them back to their feet — this speech is one of the best–preserved parts of the play:
SILENUS: What — are you afraid and trembling from a sound? Are you puppet people molded out of wax?
You turds of creation! In every shadow you see a bogey and make demons out of everything. You sprawled–out, muscleless, honorless lackeys! Look at yourselves — nothing but bodies, tongues, and pricks.
How can you let this happen — you obey the words and you run away from the doing. Think of your father here — you degrade the lowest beasts. When I was young I adorned the hollows of the nymphs and left many memorials to my manhood lying at their bottoms.
I never ran away, I never even wavered, nor did I cower in dread before the fearful bellowing of mountain beasts. I met them squarely with a spear. But now all of this is tarnished by you, because of a new song piped by a shepherd.
How can you be such children — you fear before you see. Would you lose the shimmering gold the sun–god offered us? And what of the freedom he promised you — and myself as well?
Would you go to sleep and give this all away? Back to the trail and take up the scent, find the cattle and the cattle–keeper, or I'll make you cry out for your cowardice."
The satyrs and Silenius meet the mountain nymph Cyllene who scolds them for profaning the mountains with their raucous behavior. They, however, using their noses, have tracked the cattle to her cave, where they now begin a hilarious discourse on "bull shit."
Cyllene remains prim, refusing to acknowledge the brown piles all around as the satyrs continue to sniff and prod. The manuscript breaks off here, and it is hard to know whether the satyrs' comments on bull shit are aimed at Apollo, Cyllene, or themselves.
As the playwrights were developing scripts for satyrs, in the countryside Greek Dorian mimes were creating a popular rural comic theatre. Mime here means "mimic," and the Greek mimes were considerably noisy compared with the silent affairs of modern mime.
These performances included song, dance, and the improvised dialogue between favorite stock characters that appeared in hilarious comic sketches. Costumes included broad, grotesque masks, wild hair, and large phalluses dangling beneath too short tunics, all which suggest they too were influenced by the early masked revels of the Dionysian cults.
As early as 581 B.C. the citizens of the Dorian city of Megara were producing comedies in which ordinary men interacted with a host of gods and devils in a frankly burlesque performance.
Nicoll suggests, "[T]he form this burlesque took evidently called for the dragging down of the divine legends to the level of ordinary life. Of prime importance it is to note that burlesque of the divine or heroic legend has always been associated with all forms of mimic drama."
These comedies were not scripted plays, but largely improvised, by both professional and amateur troupes of actors composed of both men and women.
The stock characters of these plays included:
- Herakles (the god whose misadventures with humans seems to have been a favorite plot),
- an old man with a pointed beard,
- an old–hag–like woman,
- a fool,
- an incompetent doctor, and
- at least two slaves, who were often thieves and gluttons.
The performance was livened up with operatic bits, when the speakers mixed dialogue with snatched songs, a few dance steps, and perhaps a bit of sleight of hand. Occasionally, there were dancers in animal masks of pigs, asses, and cocks, along with jugglers, acrobats, and fire eaters.
Over time, the traditions of the Dorian mimes migrated northward toward Italy. Named for the Phlyakes, "Gossip Players," the Phlyax comic theater developed in the Greek colonies of Southern Italy and served as a bridge between the early Greek comic theatre of Megara and the later evolution of comedy in Rome.
Like the Dorian mimes, Phlyax comedies formed around mythological burlesques in which ordinary citizens became entangled with legendary heroes, especially Odysseus and Herakles. Perhaps these two figures were so popular because they echoed the transgressive nature of rural comic theater.
If one's life was in the hands of fickle gods, certainly these two human characters had had more than their fair share of entanglements. Odysseus was a cunning enough trickster to thwart the gods (and even sleep with a goddess or two).
Despite being half divine, Herakles often suffered at the hands of the goddess Hera, who regarded this illegitimate son of Zeus as an insult to her dignity.
We can get a vivid impression of what Phlyax comedies were like from vases, painted with scenes from the plays, showing these two heroic figures, often in compromising or questionable positions.
On one vase, Herakles follows a veiled woman with lusty intentions, only to draw back in horror when she turns and reveals her hag's face.
On other vases, Herakles uses his club to batter down a door while his servant, seated on a horse, keeps guard; Odysseus battles an old man for possession of the image of Pallas he has stolen from Troy.
Zeus, a crowd pleaser no doubt because of his persistent womanizing, appears on vases ogling a woman in a window while an old man holds a ladder for the god to climb.
There are depictions of drunken actors prancing before Dionysus, and various nymphs gazing down from their windows looking amused while hapless slaves try to pull and push the elderly centaur Cheiron up the ladder to meet them.
The Phlyax plays combined these mythological burlesques with comedies of everyday life:
- the agony of a hangover when returning from a revel,
- the struggle to pay the rent, and
- many scenes involving the preparation of food and feasting.
The cast of characters included ordinary unmasked characters, as well as masked stock characters who were becoming ever more solidified in their archetypal roles.
For example, the masks of the old men always showed them to be either bald with small pointed beards, or snub–nosed and clean shaven. The mask of a peasant had a small white cap with two peaks, almost like a cockscomb (bearing a striking similarity to the later fool's caps of the Middle Ages).
There are several slave masks with similar features; a stump nose, a wide opened mouth, and worried brow. The Phlyakes players introduced a new slave mask, with a bald head and a sharply raised eyebrow that gave the face a wild, asymmetrical look.
Phlyax costumes were simple; short tunics over thin leggings that created the impression of nakedness. Many of the characters wore heavy padding around the middle for a paunch, or on the hip to create a large rump (not unlike the hind end of an ass.)
The settings for the plays were simple, suggested more by props than scenery: rudimentary altars, thrones for important characters, a laurel bush to represent a grove, and a tripod with a wooden structure atop intended to be Apollo's temple at Delphi.
After the demise of the Phlyax sometime in 300 B.C., the comedic theatre found a new expression in the indigenous fabula Atellana from the Oscan town Atella in the Campania (near Naples.)
The Atella used the familiar masks and stock characters of ancient comedy but drew their plots almost entirely from the rural life of their audiences with only rare appearances of mythological and legendary figures. These stories were rife with all the sins and scandals of any community. In these short Atellan farcical plays, we begin to see the first inklings of a not–yet–born Italian comic theater, the Commedia dell' Arte. As with the Commedia, the Atellan farces crowded the stage with stock characters, fools and tricksters, known by their appetites and foibles; and actors spent their careers polishing the roles of these specific masks.
- Bucco, the first of four stock characters, was a boisterous but stupid fool, who delighted in bragging and eating. His mask had a high forehead, puffed out cheeks and wide opened mouth (bucca means cheek or mouth).
- Dossenuss appeared as a scary mask with an exaggerated jaw full of teeth and a huge hooked nose. In small statues he was shown hunchbacked and corpulent, often with a large wart on the end of his beak–nose. Like Bucco, he was considered a fool — but of a higher order, for he was witty, malicious, and clever enough to obtain his food at the public's expense.
- Maccus was known as a glutton and clumsy, head–banging, toe–stubbing fool. His mask was round, plump, and bald headed, emphasizing his soft, pudgy features.
- The name of Pappus, the last of the four, came from the Greek pappos meaning papa. An old man with a bald head and straggling beard, he was stupid and wandering in mind, and often taken advantage of by younger companions.
The Atellan farces became popular enough to spread in professional troupes from Naples up to Rome where they were beloved by audiences for their burlesques, their rude wit, and bold political satire. On occasion performers got away with outrageous political barbs, and audiences roared their approval when, for example, an excessive Emperor was slyly referred to as "the old–he goat." But there were risks involved in pushing the satire too far. The Emperor Caligula once went so far as to burn the writer of an Atellan farce alive.
While condemned by the intellectual upper classes as merely obscene, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest the Atellan farce mixed delicate phrasing and a rich tradition of puns with its naughty rustic wit. The Latin may have been in the vulgate, but it was wielded by clever comedians who knew how to manipulate the language.
City youths with time on their hands formed small groups to bring Atellan farces to the public in various venues while professional Atellan troupes performed in small neighborhood theaters and at royal banquets, alongside poets, harp players, and tragedians. The Atellan farces flourished as a popular entertainment for almost 150 years before being slowly eclipsed by the more elaborate mimic dramas approved by the state. These early forms of comic theatre laid the foundations of a popular, low brow comedy. In Mask Mimes and Miracles, Nicoll describes it thus:
"All make free use of every means offered by the stage. Music, dancing, and acrobatics mingle with regular dialogue. The dramatic poet for the most part remains in the background; much of the mimic activity is purely improvisational. All keep strictly to life. There may be exaggeration, but there is no artificiality. The gods are brought from the high paths of Olympus to walk the common streets along with grotesquely conceived characters of the day. The bombastic and grandiloquent language of tragedy is dragged from its tottering throne and mocked at. Naturally, this being so, all these forms of drama are unconfined in scope; they sweep not only over the whole of human life, but, in their secular tendencies and in their general appeal, embrace along with these all creations of myth, all abstract figures of the popular imagination."
While court jesters and "wise fools" who attended royalty offered solo performances like a standup comic, the Dorian mimes, satyr plays, Phlyax, and Atellan farces created an unruly crowd of clowns and fools in whose convoluted plots and antics an audience might see its own human weaknesses, its foolishness, and its appetites played out in frank, good humor.
As popular as the Atellan farces once were until the close of the first century, afterwards these stock characters diminished from the broad public stage. Scholars don't know precisely why they disappeared, but given that they reappeared years later in Commedia dell' Arte, it is believed that they returned to their rural roots where they settled into Christian mystery plays, as well as local pagan festivities that the Church never quite succeeded in suppressing.
The rediscovery of classical texts in the 15th century brought about a new revival in the comic theatre, especially in France and Italy. The plays of Plautus were discovered in 1429, along with six comedies from Terence. These two popular playwrights from ancient Rome had adapted the early Greek comedies into Roman versions. The Roman comedies reintroduced to Europe the idea of a play as an experience in itself, rather than an adjunct to a religious occasion, as the Mystery Plays had been.
The Roman comedies offered a flexibility of form not available in the more complicated liturgical productions. The action of the comedies occurred in one usually familiar setting, rather than in the biblical city of Jerusalem, or on a mountain top. Whereas the Mystery Plays were symbolic representations of profound mystical truths, calling for the audience members to bolster their faith and mend their ways, the new comedies were mimetic, rather than symbolic. The drama here tended toward the physical rather than the spiritual and the language was frank and direct. Actors on the stage, rather than portraying the ritual and symbolic figures of the faith, were now instructed to mimic as closely as possible the speech and behavior of their audiences.
Out of this reintroduction of the Roman comedy arose the Italian Commedia dell' Arte, or as it was more popularly known at the time, la Commedia degli Zanni (the comedy of clowns) and la Commedia non scritta (the comedy of improvisation).
Once again, clowns filled the stage with their foolish antics and insatiable appetites alongside unmasked actors who usually portrayed the Innamorati, the lovers.
Performers gathered together in small, semi–professional itinerant troupes, touring their productions across Italy and the rest of Europe. They performed before rustic audiences on narrow portable stages, and the best of the troupes were invited to the royal estates of the aristocracy where they performed in elegant banquet halls.
The success of a Commedia troupe depended on its skill at adapting improvised scripts to accommodate the wide variety of audiences it faced on its journeys. Upon arriving in a region it was not uncommon for an actor to scout out the local gossip, scandals, and infamous citizens of the village or town.
Such information would be incorporated into the night's performances as improvised asides. These "in jokes" brought a sense of engagement and merriment to the audience delighted to find itself the subject of the comedy.
As in the Roman and Greek comedies, it is the clowns and fools who predominate among the masks. The Zanni (a generic name for the Italian clowns), like their counterparts in antiquity, are drawn from the lowest social orders.
Instead of slaves, the masked Zanni of the Commedia are the dispossessed workers and immigrants from poor rural communities.
Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries was not so much a single country, as an eclectic collection of states, with regional dialects. This influenced the development of Commedia's stock characters, as each mask derives from a different region:
- Arleccino, a country bumpkin, hails from "lower Bergamo," and like his predecessor Bucco has an outsized appetite for food and foolishness.
- Brighella is from "upper Bergamo," considered the craftier part of the town. Although a servant like Arleccino, Brighella's intelligence has allowed him to better himself. In the plays he is an opportunist and conniver, capable of offering advice to a young lord down on his luck.
- Pulcinella, associated with the city of Naples, seems to be a reincarnation of the Atellan mask of Dossenuss. He is hunchbacked and pot–bellied and his mask has a deeply furrowed forehead, a hooked nose like a bird of prey, and a mustache. This is a quarrelsome clown, who can be by turns faithful, revengeful, cowardly, and a bully. His extravagant personality was captured in a series of hilarious drawings by Giandomenico Tiepolo. As if to emphasize the out–sized ego of the clown, Tiepolo has drawn him as a group of "Pulcinelli," filling the edges of the page with their activities.
The masks of old men include a host of familiar stock characters from the ancient theatre:
- Pantelone, recognized by his long nose and mustache, is the greedy miser. He clutches a full money bag at his waist (a faint echo to the satyr's phallus) but is foolish enough to lose it all lusting after a young woman.
- Il Dottore, an elderly bachelor (or if he is married, a cuckold) is an orator, although he never makes any sense. In a round–faced mask of an elderly fool with bushy white eyebrows and a bulbous nose, he rambles on in various speeches until he is carried off the stage still talking.
- Tartaglia, whose name comes from the Italian verb "to stammer," is another elderly gentleman who makes a brief stammering appearance, usually as an additional comic opportunity.
- While neither a clown, nor an old man, Il Capitano serves as another role model for the puffed up arrogance and buffoonery of the upper class. An alleged soldier, he boasts of ridiculous bravery, but never fights as he is more inclined to become entangled in his overly long sword (yet another phallic joke). Sometimes he woos the young noble woman, other times the serving girl and lover of the fool, but he never wins their affection.
Although the performances were improvised, the actors had a stock repertoire of scenes and stories they could draw upon. The performances were physical affairs of tumbling, slapstick, mock fighting, and stolen kisses. In between acts, a young ingénue might perform a charming song on a mandolin, or one of the lovers would recite a well known poem on the subject of love.
A few of the well–known actresses, such as Isabel Canali of the Zan Ganassa troupe, became quite famous throughout Europe for their performances. Occasionally, the accessibility of beautiful women on the informal stages caused public havoc. Young lords were known to interrupt the plays to court these celebrated beauties. In the 17th century fines were leveled against any man accused of impeding the play with his amorous intentions. Always on the edge of propriety, Commedia troupes were alternately praised and reviled. In 1590 Conte Ulysse Bentivoglio described one company as "a brothel of infatuation between strumpets and scamps."
The Commedia plays usually centered around the problems of marriage, faithful and adulterous spouses, beautiful young widows in dire straits, cheating boyfriends, and elderly men chasing young skirts. The comedy took pleasure in exposing the inappropriateness of an old man thwarting a young couple in love by becoming an obstacle to their marriage. Either he was a father, preventing the marriage all the while lusting after the young serving girl, or he was an unlikely suitor, but with wealth enough to purchase the necessary dowry. The clowns acted to confuse the situation, creating a kind of anarchy on stage through misunderstandings and deceptions. But the net result of their chaos was restoration of balance. The greedy old man was separated from his money and the object of his lust. The lovers were married, and the servants were either fed or bedded at last with the serving girl.
And so I return to the Marx Brothers
There is Groucho, the satyr, his phallus–like cigar twiddling between his fingers as the huge black eyebrows wriggle suggestively at the young woman in a silky sheathe. He dances an impromptu tango, bent over, cheek to jowl and one can almost see the twitching tail. He turns on a hoof and sidles up to the matronly (but oh so well connected) Marguerite Dumas. (Was there ever a modern female character with such Penelope–suffering patience?) Groucho's dialogue like that of the early Atellan farces revolves around an endless series of outrageous puns delivered with lightning speed.
Chico is the new Brighella, the craftier superior fool, while Harpo seems to follow Arleccino and Bucco as the more foolish sidekick in their usual pandemonium.
Chico represents the "brains" and quick wit of this pair, while the mute Harpo excels in physical pranks, cutting off ties (another modern phallic joke), honking his horn, and chasing after coat–check girls, cigarette girls, and nurses. As an added bonus, Harpo's performances always poked a pin in the high brow disdain for low brow humor. In the midst of some mad chase, a magic moment would arise, and he would sit down at a harp (oh, lyre of Apollo) and play exquisitely.
The plots of course most often revolved around acquiring wealth, the chance to eat well, making fun of pompous high society types, getting the girl, marriage, and reconnecting the confused and addled lovers.
The chorus of clowns rips apart polite society and in that act exposes our true feelings. In this joyful disorder, we remember primal emotions: we lust, we become envious and jealous, we are starved for affection and fame, and we long for an illusive, trouble–free happiness.
We would rather sleep than work; we are clever and undeniably foolish at times. We are complicated, conflicted, and no single character can carry the weight of so many inconsistencies.
We need a chorus of clowns to speak for us.
Despite their secular natures, the clowns are still mythic to me. Humor is an old response to fear of the unknown and contempt for the familiar.
For 3,000 years, somewhere a chorus of clowns has misbehaved, and in their audacity, called down gods, heroes, and legends for a face to face meeting with humanity, offering laughter as a form of reverence.