Has The Clown Duo Gone Out of Style?
Updated: Feb 22
We are all familiar with the idea of comedians operating in pairs. Just think of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, or (in the UK) Morcambe and Wise.
The classic comic pairing of one seemingly smart and/or authoritative clown, set against a shabby and idiotic one (sometimes referred to as the 'true clown') is a long-standing feature of clown history, cemented in circus clowning, which itself harks back at least a thousand years to the burlesque mime shows and stock characters of Ancient Greek and Roman farce.
But if it is such a staple, why are we not seeing so many double acts nowadays? Is it a fashion that will return someday? Is there some fundamental shift in social norms that makes it less acceptable for us to laugh at the knockabout play between two characters who are clearly of unequal status? Maybe, in an age of super-polarized societies and some groups’ efforts to reject binaries altogether, this kind of old-school conflict is either too close to the bone or just hopelessly outmoded.
Maybe taking a look at the history of the comic duo can help us unravel this mystery.
John Towsen theorises in ‘Clowns’ that over long stretches of time the stupid clown transforms into the wily trickster and has to be replaced by a new version of the stupid.
In the 18th Century the most popular British clowns were often modeled on a boorish country bumpkin character (sometimes called Jack Pudding), a reflection of prejudices and divisions between the urban elites and rural ‘yokels’. During the 19th Century, however, this character gradually morphed into a more wily and cunning character, whose wit and sophistication allowed him to get the better of his superiors.
As clowns became a central feature of the fast-growing circus industry in the 19th Century, the role of the country bumpkin was replaced by the classic Auguste of the baggy clothes, garish facepaint and (apparently introduced by Albert Fratellini) the bulbous red nose.
This is a gross simplification of a long and gradual process of course.
But it’s worth having a closer look at the way that the Auguste and Whiteface (as the high status circus clowns came to be called) offered complex representations of deep-set binaries that existed in society.
In the 19th Century for example, the Whiteface often wore extremely ornate costumes tailored by exclusive Paris designers. And, as their name suggests, their faces were almost like a blank mask, white with small, delicate lines. They also acted with refinement, manners and, critically, with authority.
In contrast, the Auguste tended to wear old, dirty or mismatched clothes that generally did not fit. Their make-up grotesquely accentuated natural aspects of the face (e.g. mouth, nose, eyes), and often appeared disheveled and even drunk (much to the amusement of the audience, of course).
The Whiteface/Auguste pairing was reproduced by many clown duos, but perhaps none more famous than the French pair Footit and Chocolat. Interestly, though, as Towsen points out, they subverted the traditional hierarchy by having the Whiteface (Footit) look grotesque and ugly, grimacing, while the Auguste (Chocolat) wore polished shoes, silk stockings, satin breaches. Nevertheless, from what we can tell, their behavior still fit the traditional pattern. Footit could slap Chocolat for any reason or no reason. And Chocolat’s long-suffering impassivity left audiences wondering if he was stupid, or simply an unfortunate individual who is aware of his status and does nothing because he knows it would not do any good.
A professor of semiotics called Paul Bouissac, who has studied circus clowns for many decades, has an interesting take on the Whiteface/Auguste binary.
According to Bouissac, the Whiteface is ‘the epitome of culture…natural color and facial features disappear under
white make-up…perfectly fitting costume is made of rich fabric and embroidered with glittering thread…behaves elegantly and authoritatively.’
Meanwhile the Auguste is ‘The ugly clown…has a mask that accentuates natural protuberances and colors, enlarges his mouth…his suit is either too large or too small…eccentric in other respects. His way of walking and talking differs strikingly from his companion’s demeanour.’
For Bouissac clown routines involving the Whiteface and Auguste binary play on the deep tensions between culture and nature, where the Whiteface represents culture and the Auguste the absence of culture (i.e. nature).
The plot-lines of many clown routines are set up as a comic tension between these two characters. The whiteface clown attempts to accomplish some fantastic task for his audience, but his plans are forever interrupted by the intruding grotesques, the Augustes. Either by the whiteface’s invitation or simply by his own desire to participate in the plan of the dream of his friend, the Auguste dissolves the whiteface’s carefully articulated endeavors into chaos, disarranging conventional authority, meaning, and control.
Another clown researcher called Kenneth Little wrote an article about a French Whiteface performer, Pitu, who grew up in the circus and learned his trade from his father.
Interestingly, Pitu talks about how the new wave of clowning taught by theatre pedagogies like Jacques Lecoq and Etienne Decroux (he also refers to this as “postmodern” clowning) sought to avoid clichés of authoritarian and slapstick relationship between whiteface and auguste, and to emphasise clown as an inner, person and poetic creation.
And this is where it gets really interesting, because Pitu sees this as a threat to the whole genre of circus clowning. Not because it’s a bad thing per se but because traditional circus clowns have not been able to modernise with the times, but have simply carried on doing what they were taught.
Pitu himself worked hard to refashion his Whiteface for the modern era, not rejecting tradition but re-arranging it in a bricolage of clown influences.
In a particular sketch he breaks down in frustration at the inability of his auguste partners to help him accomplish a simple trick. At first he becomes a “rough and arrogant bully”, later “harried, embarrassed, and speechless”. Finally he leaves the space chased by the augustes who blame him for the disintegration. We see the clown undergo real transformation through the piece, so that the status role are reversed, and the strict hierarchical relationship between the two clowns is subverted.
Little theorizes that Pitu, by subverting the rigid Whiteface/Auguste roles and allowing himself to shift across the binary, was reintroducing an irreverential attitude which he believed should always underlie the clown’s attitude to tradition and all of life. The clown is a survivor, and perennially rises phoenix-like from the ashes of its own dying body. Pitu does not deny his roots, though they may be perishing, or run away from the circus, but plants himself in the fertile ashes of tradition by using the costume and make-up of his father, while setting his head squarely toward the future.
This is a pretty cool (and possibly romanticized) conclusion. But I love the optimism.
If we take this idea and apply it to right now, perhaps it’s possible to see that the lack of clown or comic duos is not a death but a space for re-birth. Maybe the comic formula is taking a break, leaving the stage for a while, in order to allow a healthy regeneration. Maybe it will burst back on stage at some point with a new and fresh take on an old chestnut.
And maybe it’s still there, if we look hard enough, laying low, trickster-like, finding ways to sneak through the cracks and subvert the accepted wisdom.
I would love to know your thoughts....