Hello, thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with University
of Utah College of Humanities. And today we're continuing our celebration of national
humor month by discussing the original comedians, clowns. Richard Preiss, associate
professor of English and author of Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theater,
is with me to discuss the origins of stage clowns and their roles in William Shakespeare's
plays. So let's just begin with when were clowns first introduced in theater?
So the super short answer to that question is since forever, they've been there since
the beginning, but we should probably back up. It might be helpful to begin by clarifying
some terminology. What we mean by theater and what we mean by clowns. I teach and
research early modern English theater. The drama of the English Renaissance is most
associated with, but not limited to, Shakespeare and his London contemporaries. Obviously
theater is much older than that, dating back thousands of years across a wide range
of cultures and each theatrical tradition had its own modes of comedy. Within each
of those, they must have also had clowns. We don't know much about particular actors
in ancient Greek theater, for example, but we know that the plays of Aristophanes
were extremely vulgar and explicit, featuring lots of scatological humor and sexual
innuendo and lampoons of public figures.
So the comedians who staged them must have specialized in things like impersonation,
slapstick, crowd work, which are a very clown specific set of skills. So that brings
us to our second definition, which is probably the more pertinent one. What's a clown.
This term has generated some confusion because it's much more commonly used to refer
to characters in plays than to performers. Even when experts in early modern literature
hear the phrase Shakespeare's clowns, they think of a specific character type in Shakespeare's
plays, namely low class dimwitted, clumsy, unsophisticated, constantly misinterpreting
things, simple in their tastes and very large in their appetites, both culinary and
sexual. The word clown in the period, in fact, literally meant rustic, someone from
the countryside rather than the city, good natured and well-intentioned, but clueless.
So if you think about the Pixar movie, Cars, the character of Mater, voiced by Larry
the cable guy, is a classic clown right down to the stereotype accent. So these characters
are often cast as mischievous servants or bumbling oafs, were like a stock type in
early modern theater. They derived from similar types in Roman drama and they were
very useful for the kind of plotting that these plays required, as well as for the
kind of culturally unifying work that early modern theater as a whole was concerned
with. But there is a different narrower sense of the word clown as well, that refers
not just to the character, but to the kind of performers who specialized in these
parts. Playing companies, almost as a rule, employed among their several comedians,
a comedian in chief, a single player called the clown of the company. And here, they
were not marginal figures. These were core members of, and shareholders in the company.
They were named in the company's charter, they were often the ones who were recorded
as taking payment for court performances, so really, central, visible personalities
in the organization. They were like the face of the company.
If you were a serious troop, you needed a clown. Early modern English theater before
Shakespeare in fact was mostly clowns in the early 1580s, just a few years after dedicated
playhouses started being built in London, but well before Shakespeare came on the
scene. Queen Elizabeth the first decided to cherry pick the best members of all the
active companies at the time to form a super company under her own patronage, the
Queen's Men, and half the actors they selected were clowns. By far the most famous
among them was a man named Richard Tarlton or Dick Tarlton, who was like an absolute
superstar. He was easily more famous than any tragic leading actor would be in later
generations, he was certainly more famous than Shakespeare himself was.
Back then, much as it is in movies today, hardly anybody knew or cared who wrote a
play. No one especially even conscious of plays has written things, but they knew
who the actors were, and the clowns were the star actors, they were the first real
celebrities. So even though we think of their roles in plays as relatively minor and
confined to the subplots, we know that their parts were always parts for one so that
the clown was never used to double other parts in the play. That actor was reserved
solely for that role. And that's very unusual, this was a theater that doubled actors
in different roles a lot. This tells us that what clowns did in performance was very
important and that they must've been doing a lot more than the surviving texts of
those plays captured.
So what was their specific purpose within the play?
Well, okay. Here's where things get trippy and this follows from what I was just saying.
Plays for us exist principally as books, because that's how we encounter them, we
tend to think of the experience of early modern theater as unfolding like a book does.
When you pick up a volume of Shakespeare's collected plays and you turn to the first
page of Romeo and Juliet, if you try to imagine what it was like to watch that play
being performed live back when it first premiered, you picture an audience congregated
in a big open air amphitheater, and they all fall into a hush, they all fall quiet.
And then out walked the chorus on stage, launches into this prologue, two households,
both alike in dignity and so forth. And then that's it, the play is just suddenly
underway, and it runs uninterrupted until the end when the audience applause and then
equally quietly, they all shuffle out.
If you remember the film Shakespeare in Love from, what is it now, 20-25 years ago,
that's how Elizabethan theater is depicted, and that's not at all what it was like.
The words in our books rarely correspond to the way plays were actually performed
and neither did the experience of play going, in early modern England, reduced simply
to a single text called the play. And more than any other performer, the clown was
really the source of that difference. So for starters, early modern audiences were
really unlike modern ones. They were drawn from a mix of occupations and social classes,
ages, genders, backgrounds, levels of education for whom commercial theater was like
a relatively novel and experimental institution.
Going to the theater was not the boudoir activity that it is for us today where you
can dress up in your trip's clothes and you sit quietly in the dark and God forbid,
you forget to silence your cell phone, that's mortifying. These were open-air amphitheaters
where shows started at two in the afternoon broad daylight, so the audience was very
much a part of the show, and indeed for some it was the show. People came to see and
to be seen and to make their voices heard, they were loud, they were opinionated,
they were given too much freer norms of audience participation than we are. If they
didn't like something, they booed and hissed, and they threw nuts or apples at the
It's still strange to realize that theater, now and then, sells you concessions that
can be weaponized against it. They're like, "Here, we're going to put these hard objects
in your hands to hurl at us." And if audiences did like something, they might burst
spontaneously into applause in the middle of a scene or a speech or laugh uproariously
or call out an appreciative response or demand that something be performed again.
In other words, either way, they were compulsively given to derailing the performance.
The idea of theater as something that you sat through and passively consumed was totally
foreign to them. After all a large segment of them weren't sitting, they were standing
at the lip of the stage. This is the group called the groundlings, standing on the
ground at the theater. They were on their feet the whole time. So they were working
no less than the actors were. And in a very fundamental sense, they saw theater as
a collective experience, something that they, along with the actors, were collectively
producing. So, that's a lot of energy to campaign. And if you're the playing company,
it almost certainly means that the play is never going to go exactly according to
plan. That's a good thing actually, because as it turns out, companies were not terribly
invested in the play going according to plan.
These were repertory companies, they were rotating through some dozen or 15 plays
over the course of any given month. At the same time as they were premiering or rolling
in to the repertory one or two new ones on a regular basis, all of these parts, they
needed to keep continuously memorized in their heads and ready to go at almost literally
a moment's notice. So negotiating all of this means having really wide margins for
errors, scripts that don't arrive fully finished, sometimes you get blown lines or
blown scenes or scenes that need to get added on, like on the fly when a disaster
happens in the backstage, you have to have techniques for stalling when things are
in a state of unreadiness. And so in turn, that means that you need players who are
really good at improv and crowd control. So enter the clown, literally. The first
thing that these unruly audiences got when the day's playing began was usually not
the play at all, but a solo performer who took the stage by himself to manage the
crowd. Have you ever been to the taping of a live TV show? Whether it's a-
Yeah, I think I've been one time, and it's a weird experience. It's really unlike
the product that you watch at home. It could be a sitcom or a talk show or a game
show, but TV studios employee warmup comedians, whose job is to come out and tell
jokes and work the room and loosen up the crowd, they have to get people ready to
laugh. So it takes a lot of behind the scenes work to make the product that comes
out of your TV.
The early modern stage clown did essentially the same, except he wasn't just warming
the audience up, as we've seen, they've already arrived warm. His job was also to
settle them down. If a crowd was too headstrong or too insistent on being heard and
recognized, they're going to constantly disrupt the performance. So in a sense, it
became the clown's job to absorb all that energy and harassment himself to keep it
from invading the play. So most of his interactions with the audience were structured
as games, in which the audience tries to get the better of him and he tries to get
the better of them. Most of the time he won, although of course we tend to hear mostly
about the performance who were good at this, there must've been many, "You sucked."
And got pounded off stage and didn't last in the business.
So think about it again, like in a modern analogy, as the contest between a standup
comedian and a heckler. If you've ever been in a club where that happens, where a
heckler starts talking, you can immediately feel there's a heightened sense of tension
and anxiety, everybody's holding their breath to see if the comic can withstand the
abuse and put the heckler in their place. In fact, we're thinking about why that scenario
still happens all the time today. It doesn't make any sense, people are paying money
to go to the club and just hear themselves. So the same impulse is still being activated
So in the process, the stage clown is teaching the audience something really fundamental
and profound about how theater works. Like namely that this is work, not just anybody
can stand up here and do this. So gradually through figures like the clown whose routines
were almost always improvised and were never recorded as part of the text of any play,
audiences are starting to learn that they don't make theater, that actors and playwrights
do. The plays have scripts and that performances are supposed to stick to those scripts.
That what we're doing up here is like producing a product, a commodity. So ironically
clowns were teaching audiences how to be audiences and consumers all under the guise
of just making them laugh.
What were some of the tactics that they used? You had mentioned that there was this
game between the audience and the clowns. What were some of their tactics, and not
just to make people laugh, maybe to make them calm down?
Yeah. It covers the gamut. There's a really wide range of genres, different clowns
develop their own styles and their own schticks that became their trademarks. Which
Playhouse you frequented was a big part of your identity as a play goer, and that
choice depended in turn on which individual clowns you liked and had an affinity for.
But we can review, we can survey some of the different genres of performance that
these comedians innovated by mapping them onto the structure of the theatrical event.
And think about the clowns as presiding over that whole event, like a master of ceremonies,
like an emcee. They would appear at the beginning before the play, they would pop
up at various points in the middle to give you something extra and see how you're
doing during the play and then they would take over the stage once more at the end,
after the play was over.
So, few of these genres really had their own names, people just describe what the
clown did as if it needed no explanation because they weren't aware that they were
talking to posterity when they wrote this down. That [Diane 00:14:30] mentioned Dick
Tarlton was responsible for inventing a lot of them. He was reputedly really homely
and had a large bulbous nose, and he used to open the show with a little bit that
was predicated on how instantly recognizable he was and how eager fans were to see
him. So there was no front curtain to the stage back then, the way that we have now
with the proscenium arch stage. It was the bare thrust stage, but the back of the
stage, there was this little recessed area called the discovery space, where a small
curtain was hung to conceal the door that led to the tiring house.
So you could use it to sneak items on stage, you could dramatically discover things.
That's why it was called the discovery space. Like pulling aside the arras to show
the body of Polonius after Hamlet stabs him for eavesdropping. So Tarlton would poke
only his nose through that curtain, and then somebody in the audience would catch
sight of it and point and be like, "Look, he's here." And then gradually more and
more of his body, he would expose and people would point and squeal in delight that
he was about to make his first appearance. This little comic strip tease became a
clown tradition, and we hear about other stage clowns still doing it 60 years later.
So thereafter, Tarlton seems to have done a pantomime bit where he made grotesque,
silly, funny faces. The crowd would yell out things for him to imitate like, "Be a
drunk or now be a baby and now be an animal." And they'd pick whatever animal they
wanted, and he would just become that thing.
Again, they're like imitators. Years later, a clown called Thomas Greene did such
a convincing imitation of a baboon that it genuinely freaked people out. There's really
little narrative to build on here, in order to make this funny, you have to be a really
gifted mimic and also able to find inspiration in anything to make it a story. So,
picture somebody rubber faced like Jim Carey and also extremely volatile and high
energy like Robin Williams, but combined all in a single package. So throughout this,
the clown remains something that the crowd wants to control and that also eludes their
control, but they don't ever fully have control over him, and that's the tantalizing
aspect of it.
The prelude that best exemplifies this was something called themes, which was also
created by Tarlton. So here the audience takes turns shouting out a theme on which
the clown has to rhyme extempore. So his ugliness or the weather, or a church bell
that happens to ring in the background or his wife's infidelity. Often these themes
from the audience would just take the form of rhymes themselves, so it would escalate
the encounter into a rhyming contest between the spectator and the clown, like a freestyle
rap battle. The object is to continuously one up each other. The spectators trying
to stump the clown, and the retorts invariably devolve into really withering personal
insult. We often hear about the loser in this exchange, usually the spectator, actually
being shamed into departure, like they just turned tail and leave the playhouse humiliated.
So a spectator will shout, "Me thinks it is a thing unfit to see the great iron turn
to spit." And wait to see what Tarlton's answer will be. And Tarlton replies, "Me
thinks it is a thing unfit to see an ass have any wit." And everybody cracks up and
that's it, it's a pretty good comeback, you're not going to come back from that. So
there was apparently a lesser clown called William Kendall, we don't hear much about
him, who was not as good at this as one needed to be. During this one performance
at Bristol, which is on the border with Wales, he decided it would be a really smart
idea to make fun of the Welsh and to call them all cuckold, whereupon a man in the
crowd cried out, "The horn," like the cuckold horn, "the horn becomes the saxon best,
I kissed thy wife, suppose the rest?" And Kendall, we're told in the punchline to
the schtick, was put to silence. So like damn, I mean, how do you recover from that
devastating one-liner that comes from the audience that Kendall couldn't? This is
a hard job.
So after this point, the clown might turn up anywhere in the play in a scripted or
partially scripted or totally unscripted capacity. These comic interludes or merriments,
as they were sometimes called, often existed in a very ambiguous relation to the script.
We're not sure how much they were actually part of the play. Will Kemp, who is Tarlton's
successor as the preeminent clown of the early modern stage, appears in a play from
the early 1590s called A Knack to Know a Knave. The title page of this quarto advertises,
"With Kemp's applauded merriments of the mad men of Gotham." So there's no byline
on this playbook title page to tell you who the author was, but the clown is so famous
that he actually gets blurred on the front page of the book. And yet when you open
the book to find this episode, the episode itself on the page amounts to very little.
Like at one point, we have a bunch of citizens who are gathered around because they're
expecting the King to pass through their town and they are having a debate to decide
which of them will deliver a petition to the king. And when the king finally arrives,
one of them says, "Sir, here's our petition." And the petition just asks the permission
for them to brew ale three times a week. And the king is like, "Sure, fine, whatever."
And they all disperse and that's it. That's the end of the scene. That's what gets
advertised on the title page. How did this deserve big neon lights on the title page?
We don't really know. I mean, probably all we're seeing here is a blueprint for the
scene, maybe a framework around which the actors improvise with a lot of physical
comedy that the text can't capture. But the question still remains why you would want
to buy a copy of that framework only. Then again, why did anyone ever buy a playbook
no less an empty shell of the performance?
So finally, at the end of the show is where things get really interesting. From Tarlton
onward, play going ritually ended with the performance of a stage jig. And today the
word jig means just a little informal dance, but this was a whole dramatic after piece
with characters, a plot, dancing, singing, and the clown takes the lead role. This
was an obligatory thing no matter whether the day's play happened to be a comedy or
a tragedy, you got a jig at the end. You may have just watched Romeo and Juliet die
and everyone is in tears, and now Will Kemp comes out playing an apprentice who's
trying to prevent his master from finding out that he's having sex with the master's
wife, and they chase each other around and somebody gets a bucket over their head
and kicked in the rear end.
Audiences loved the stuff, they loved jigs. For some people, it was more of an event
than the play itself. We were told that they would rush to the playhouse doors at
the end of the play, because now you no longer needed to buy a ticket to enter. And
the atmosphere during the jig was so ruckus, and for lack of a better word, orgasmic,
that it gets described as a kind of whirlwind or cacophony or a mosh pit. This one
observer says, "The stinkards," that's his term for the audience, "The stinkards speaking
all things, but no man understanding anything." That's a really terrifying prospect
if you're a city alderman.
Jigs activate the most destructive potential of theater to degenerate into a full-blown
riot. And in 1612, they were briefly abolished, they tried to just abolish jigs and
everybody pretty much ignored that ban. Kemp was especially beloved for his jigs,
many of which he published. For a time in the 1590s, he had more titles in print under
his own name than William Shakespeare did. So we really need to think about the clown
as a rival to the playwright. We hear about play goers spilling out into the streets
after a performance chanting Kemp's jig. The amazing thing is that none of this stuff
is in any playbook ever. If you open up Shakespeare's plays or any other playwrights
plays, you get no sense that these events are happening in the periphery of the play,
it's just act one scene one until the end, and it's much more of a variety show.
Speaking a little bit of Shakespeare, how did Shakespeare change the role of the stage
clown, and how were they different than the pre Shakespearean clown?
That's a good question. Yeah, this is a complicated story, Shakespeare in relationship
to all of this. Are you surprised to hear that it's a complicated story? Shakespeare's
capacity to change what the stage clown did was, by definition, limited, because his
influence is confined to how he writes the clown's dramatic role in the play, that's
his part. So to be clear to listeners, we're switching now from talking about what
the clown does outside the play, back to what he does inside, where we can observe
it, where we can see it in the text. But you've asked her a good question that will
eventually lead us back outside again.
So Shakespeare, as he always seems to do, occupies a unique place within the early
modern theatrical ecosystem. On the one hand, he was unusually permissive with and
trusting of the clowns in his company, but on the other hand, he also seems to have
invaded their territory in really sneaky ways. To appreciate this, we have to create
a context around him, we have to compare him to how other playwrights of the period
wrote for their clowns. So, for the sake of illustration, at one end of the spectrum
you have somebody like Christopher Marlowe, who wrote just five or so years before
Shakespeare's career began, and his plays feel very much like the product of a different
era, a different decade. Remember that during the 1580s clowns were still the kings
of the stage. Unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe was a freelance writer, he was unattached
to any specific company. He didn't have personal working relationships with most of
the actors, and in some of his plays it seems like he just lets them do whatever they
want, he doesn't care.
So, for example in Doctor Faustus, a play about a scholar who sells his soul to the
devil. There were whole themes consist of nothing but clowns goofing around. Faustus's
servant, Wagner, gets ahold of his conjuring book and he threatens to use it on some
guy named Robin. We don't even know who Robin is, he's just like this dude. He threatens
to use it on some guy named Robin, unless Robin becomes the servant's servant intern.
And after some bad puns and jokes about food and sex, Robin ends up getting chased
off stage by devils. In another scene, now Robin and his friend Rafe have the book,
and they use it to get out of paying their tavern bill. So we just get this Russian
doll sequence of increasing parodies of the main action with these peasant clown characters.
These scenes feel like vehicles for open-ended improvisation and they probably were.
Doctor Faustus exists in two distinct texts that were printed a number of years apart.
And in the later one, not only are the clown scenes different, they're also longer,
as if stuff that the comedians came up with in performance during the intervening
years, eventually migrated into the permanent text. At the other end of the spectrum,
you have a playwright like Ben Johnson, who's writing half a generation later than
Shakespeare, who's extremely intolerant of clowns. Johnson was the first real auteur
of the early modern stage, somebody who felt that the playwright should be calling
all the shots and getting all of the glory. And he wrote these incredibly long meticulous
plays with almost no clown characters. Many of them for children's companies who had
no clown performers whatsoever. And in these plays, not a syllable was allowed to
be out of place, and Johnson gripes about it to no end when the actors invariably
make mistakes in performance.
So Shakespeare falls somewhere in between these extremes. On the one hand, he deferred
from both Marlowe and Johnson in not being a freelancer. He wrote more or less for
only one company his whole life, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, who would later become
the King's Men. And he knew these actors intimately, he knew their strengths and weaknesses
as well as they did. And he seems to have been quite content to let them use their
assets. It was his job, as we've said, to concoct dramatic scenarios that are designed
to let them exploit their own talents to the fullest. So for roughly the first half
of Shakespeare's career, the company's clown was Will Kemp, who we've talked about.
We've seen that he's cut very much from the Dick Tarlton mold. His persona is this
blunt down to earth, every man who gets into trouble anytime he's forced to grapple
with learning or with big words, but who also doesn't mind being the butt of the joke
Shakespeare's parts for him are like blank canvases that allow Kemp to explore different
aspects of this persona. So in The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, he
plays servants who patiently suffer endless beatings at the hands of their masters,
but who also get their own stage time to vent about it. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona,
he plays a servant who gets blamed for the misdeeds of his incorrigible pet dog, and
in Romeo and Juliet, he plays an illiterate servant who needs to ask strangers to
read the instructions he's been given, and he gets into fights with musicians. So
you can see a pattern developing here. These are all really just variations on the
same character who are all intern variations on the persona, by which Kemp is already
known to his audience through his jigs and through his extra dramatic activity.
But Shakespeare is also opportunistic and greedy. At the same time as he's recognizing
the independence of the jig, he's also subtly encroaching on it. Toward the end of
the 1590s, he starts leaving these little openings at the ends of his plays for the
jig to grow out of it. So at the end of Love's Labour's lost, we're left with this
plot point unresolved of how Costard, the clown character, is going to win Jaquenetta's
hand in marriage. At the end of Much Ado About Nothing, we're told that Dogberry,
the buffoonish constable, has arrested the villain, Don John. But we never see Don
John punished, which we're expecting to.
At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom, the attention hogging leader of the
amateur actors, that we affectionately call the rude mechanicals, promises Duke Theseus
that they want to conclude their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe with what he calls
a booger mask dance. And all of these are almost certainly Kemp's parts, and all of
these seem like setups for the jig to follow. But they also are attempting to annex
the jig as a continuation and extension of the play. And they implicitly require Kemp
to stay in character, which is a character that Shakespeare has written for him. So
if you're Kemp, do you see this as a compliment? I'm not sure he did. So, yeah, I
think that probably covers it for his attitude toward it.
So other than Kemp, who were some of the more well-known Shakespearian clowns? And
what was their specific contribution to comedy and the theater in general?
Okay, well, so the next person that we have to talk about in this context is Robert
Armin. Kemp left the Chamberlain's men in 1599. Nobody knows why, but what I just
told you suggests that there might've been creative differences between Kemp and Shakespeare.
I mean, it's all conjecture, it's a nice story, we'll never really know. But he left
on this solo career and eventually returned. He traveled for awhile and he returns
to London and joins a different company.
Armin, is a comedian who's come up with a different company and was hired to replace
him. And Armin is a radically different kind of performer. Whereas Kemp established
this bond with the audience in their shared lower class sensibility at their lack
of pretense, Armin's persona seems to have been very distant and aloof. He was not
an athletic performer like Kemp, he didn't dance or do slapstick. His specialty was
vocals, he was a singer and he was something of a ventriloquist. He was also a lot
more literate and cerebral. He considered himself a student of folly in the humanist
sense. He wrote a book called Fool Upon Fool, which was an anthology of jest by and
unfortunately about the mentally disabled, which should be set here that Elizabethans
were unapologetically cruel in their treatment of the disabled, whom they called natural
These people were often kept as wards in, or by aristocratic households for entertainment
because their unpredictable, accidental, witticisms surprised and delighted others.
So this, together with performers, professional performers, who merely pretended to
be mentally disabled artificial fools, this is the origin of that other strain, that's
in the background here, the bigger of the court jester or the fool. So instead of
jigs, Armin made the game of themes, that we mentioned earlier with Tarlton. He made
the themes like his post show signature. And he used it to showcase both his vocal
talents and this new, weird comic persona.
He published these routines too, so we can actually read what they were like and they're
very difficult to reconstruct. Unlike in the jest books that record Tarlton's themes,
that's where most of that material resides, jest and joke books, people telling anecdotes
about funny stuff that Tarlton said. Unlike in those jest books where it's really
clear what the structure of the exchange with the audience is, it's clear when the
clown is talking and then when the audiences responding. Armin doesn't differentiate
his voice from the crowds.
Sometimes it seems like different spectators are responding to each other, and sometimes
it seems like they're the only ones talking and Armin's not talking at all. And it's
entirely possible, in fact, that the reverse is true, that all of the voices are Armin's,
and that in this version of themes, the audience never got to talk, he just kind of
performed them in a virtuosic polyphonic display that must've been at once, charming
and fascinating and also bizarre like an Andy Kaufman routine where he'll start off
in an accent and then unexpectedly drop it, or he'll start crying as if he's having
a breakdown and then turn his sobs into music, and you never know what's real and
what's part of the act.
Armin was very avant-garde in the same way. He was always tempting you with the possibility
that his folly was natural rather than artificial. So Shakespeare had a new comedian
to work with now, it takes us back to the story of the collaboration between playwright
and actor. So once again, he used the resources that were at his disposal. Armin forms
the bright dividing line in Shakespeare's place between the clowns of the earlier
plays, which are designed for Kemp and we've covered some of those already. And the
fools of the later ones, which are designed for a new performer with a very different
set of gifts.
So in, As You Like It, for example, Touchstone, is literally a court jester, but that's
his character, it's an establishing role for this new performer, to introduce him
to the audience. And Feste, in Twelfth Night, is exactly the same. He's a minstrel
who travels back and forth between aristocratic households. Both characters sing,
neither character fully participates in the same reality that everybody else seems
to occupy. That's even truer of a later role, like the Fool in King Lear, he doesn't
get a name, he's just called the Fool. Who speaks in riddles and for no apparent reason
just disappears from the play halfway through. Nobody knows why. So although Armin
could play more conventional rogues and rascals like the ballad-monger and pickpocket,
Autolycus, in The Winter's Tale, it's hard to see what audiences enjoyed about him,
specifically enjoyed about Armin. But they clearly did, as did Shakespeare, who seems
to have taken quite seriously the philosophical potential of the persona that Armin
I mean, if you think about it, Armin's specialty was playing multiple people at once,
and Shakespeare's roles for him, like the snarling misanthrope societies in Troilus
and Cressida, who have conversations with himself, occur in plays that are likewise
asking what it means for us to see ourselves as others see us, to be just outside
of our own bodies. For our self image and our self-worth always to be a function of
and bound up in the perceptions and subjectivity of others. So you're like, "Are you
ever really yourself? Are you just seeing yourself as others see you? Are we really
individuals or our own personalities just amalgams of everyone else we come into contact
So here again, it becomes inaccurate to call Armin, Shakespeare's fool, no less than
it was to call Kemp, Shakespeare's clown. In both cases, it's their solo work on stage
that's giving Shakespeare the ideas so that their characters in his plays can be better
described as collaborations between actor and playwright. So again, in a different
way of phrasing it, what happens inside the play is always on some level in dialogue
with, and like an extension of what's happening outside it in the parts of the performance
that we can't see because our texts don't document it.
So before we end, it's easy to see how these stage clowns have influenced comedy today.
But I would love to get your ideas on some ways they have influenced modern day comedy.
That's a good closing question. It's tricky. I mean, there's a big gulf of time and
space separating early modern English theater 400 years ago, and what we know today
as the contemporary anglophone entertainment industry. So it's hard to pinpoint an
exact route by which any, one specific aspect of stage crown practice survives today.
I mean, after all, the London playhouses were shut permanently by order of parliament
in 1642 once the English civil war began and it became important to the government
to silence dissent, and the first thing you do is you close the theaters. And the
theaters stage shut for a generation such that when they reopened in 1660, a lot of
the institutional culture of pre-civil war theater was just gone, it was just lost.
Very few former actors were still in the business to remember how things were done
and the audiences for which they performed had different needs. No one built huge
open air amphitheaters anymore. The new theaters were all relatively small enclosed
spaces, seating perhaps five or 600 spectators at a time rather than several thousand,
which is what you had with the Elizabethan amphitheaters.
So the composition and the dynamics of audiences were different, theaters are now
a more exclusive and upscale affair. And so the custom of having clowns begin and
intersperse and end performances just drops away. And for the first few years of theatrical
performance during the restoration, most of the plays being performed were revivals
of pre-war drama. I mean, it takes a while for people to start writing new plays.
The audience knew these plays first and foremost, as the relief visiting counterparts
did not, as texts. That was how they knew them as books, just as we do. And there
was less of a sense of theater as a live, spontaneous collaboration between actors
and audience that could end any number of ways.
So those play texts remain the primary means by which the stage clown survives today,
even though, as we've seen, they preserve only the dramatic characters and erase most
of the clowns extra dramatic behavior. But also as we've seen, those characters already
preserve the extra dramatic within themselves too. But even beyond that, that doesn't
mean that the influence of these generations of stage clowns altogether disappears
or is extinguished. English players were renowned throughout Europe for their comedic
skill, and they regularly toured the continent. There, they would've come into contact
with other performers like practitioners of the Italian commedia dell'arte, and they
must've learned things from each other. Commedia gets imported into England in the
late 17th century, and when that happened, it's entirely possible that English audiences
were getting bits and pieces of their own clowning traditions filtered back to them.
The Harlequinade becomes the dominant form of theatrical after piece.
And it's really like a mashup of commedia dell'arte and the English stage jig. You
get an extended slapstick vignette that's usually in pantomime, centered on a love
triangle or a sexual liaison between Harlequin, his mistress Columbine, her father,
Pantalone, who's usually trying to resist the match. And two new characters who emerged
on the scene Pierrot, who's Pantalone's servant, and this buffoonish antagonist, who's
called simply Clown. From these two characters, it's a straight line, from Pierrot
and Clown, it's a straight line to the two 19th century types of the mean scary circus
clown and the sad crying clown that most people still picture today when you say the
As embodied by Shakespeare's characters, clowns are of course, very much still alive.
They still provide the template for the clown characters that we enjoy in, like the
sit-com formula, Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld. He's the hipster doofus who's always
crashing into Jerry's apartment to the cheers of the studio audience, like exactly
the same as when Tarlton enters, tripping over stuff and mooching food, doing socially
inappropriate things and he seems to exist in a different reality from everybody else.
He's like a textbook Elizabethan stage clown. But the essence of stage clowning, of
course, the solo performer standing up, telling jokes, inviting talk back from the
crowd, taking the stage and trying to defend it persists through more of a process
of convergent evolution just by virtue of the universality of comedy itself that from
generation to generation it's kind of the same thing.
We've rediscovered that art form, I think in the 20th century, it's a distinctly American
one, it's stand up comedy. I think that has something to do with the American commitment
to democracy and freedom of speech, which even though we shouldn't confuse Elizabethan
England for a democracy, it's not. Those things are inherent in the social experiment
that playhouses represented. How does the individual define themselves through or
against the group? How does the gathering of individuals become a group, become an
audience and improvise for themselves a collective experience. Theater is like a laboratory
for figuring out what different forms of social organization are possible. And society,
like theater, is at some level always an improvisation. It's a form that we're making
up as we go along, and that is an inherently risky, dangerous exercise in which to
That was Richard Preiss, associate professor of English. For more information about
the University of Utah College of Humanities, please visit humanities.utah.edu.