Tears of the Clown: are clowns really sad on the inside?
Updated: Nov 21, 2022
There is a persistent myth about clowns that their broad painted smiles are masking a deep sadness, even tragedy. I have heard it speculated that this is what makes people feel uncomfortable when they see clowns: the awareness that what we are seeing is a pretence, a disguise, and that the clown's true feelings are being concealed behind this garish show of happiness and fun.
It is hard to challenge such myths when there are so many examples to cite of clowns who suffered from depression or who were afflicted by terribly tragic circumstances. Grimaldi's early life was afflicted by a violent father and his later life by an alcoholic son. Charlie Chaplin grew up in extreme poverty. Max Linder, the silent movie era comic actor, committed suicide aged 41. Comedians Tony Hancock and Robin Williams, who might both be described as modern clowns, took their own lives due to depression. The list goes on.
However, it is not just the existence of depression among clowns that generates the real bond between clowns and existential suffering. I see it as a much deeper and more nuanced co-existence. I don't believe that clowns are any more likely to have clinical depression (or existential angst) than any other segment of the population. It is pretty common after all. Nevertheless I do think that there is a real and significant aspect to a clowns' work which binds them inextricably to these darker undersides of human experience. So what is that bond and why does it exist?
The myth of the melancholic clown is really a distraction, a sleight of hand that shifts attention away from the true relevance of clowning to all humans. It is too easy to associate clowns with all kinds of mental illness, madness and sadness, and to thereby write clowns off as crazy or simply irrelevant.
But the fact is all humans suffer to a lesser or greater extent with existential (and very real) suffering. We all face the big questions about why we are here, whether we have value, whether we are loved or are able to love, whether we ought to be happy or ought not to be happy, whether our kids' problems are our fault, whether the world's problems are our fault, whether we will die painfully or prematurely, whether we want to be here at all, and how long we must struggle on before it all ends and we find blessed relief. Clown performers are no exception to this rule. But while they are just human underneath the greasepaint, there are two particular ways in which their affinity for such questions is heightened and must indeed be so for them to be effective as clowns.
The first is in their own attitude to suffering and hardship. The other has to do with how they represent and express suffering and hardship in their performances. These are separate, but both important, issues.
It is said that on the Ringling Clown College application, candidates are asked when they last cried, when they had a personal crisis and how they dealt with it. In my own work with Sue Morrison the emotional lives of the students inevitably become part of their process of finding their unique clown persona. Many kinds of clown training involve this kind of inward-looking examination and require the student to be excessively open and vulnerable, in touch with their personal strife and emotional pain.
This is not to say they make work about it. But rather that in order to be a good clown you need to have evolved emotional sensibilities, to be unafraid of crisis, suffering and the darkness that resides in all of our hearts. The reason why this is important leads me to the second point. The majority of clown routines, whether they be more at the dark/existential end of clowning or the fun and frivolous end, reflect in some way on the struggle of human existence. For sure, they usually find the ridiculousness, the humour and the absurdity in it, and sometimes (but not always) they also result in overcoming it. But the starting point, and the bread and butter of the clown routine, is the innate underlying inability we all have to truly understand and control our environments.
Whether it is Grock trying to play a tiny violin, Popov trying to put back together a broken statue, a clown trying to shoot an apple off another clown's head, or Charlie Chaplin so hungry he must resort to boiling and eating his own boot, all clowning is based in this common denominator of misfortune, wrongness, failure, accident, or misery. A clown routine may or may not end with a triumph, a victory, a flourish, but if at some point it does not express abject failure (albeit in a funny tone) it cannot properly be called clowning.
This is what clowning is and does. It deals with the everyday failure, the hilarious catastrophe that is life. This is why clowns are labelled as depressed, because it assumed that the failures of the character in the routine are also the failures of the performer. But of course they are not.
However, the ability to play those failures with empathy, authenticity and connection, a performer (as I mentioned earlier) must know and understand the experience of suffering in their own life. Otherwise it is hard to be funny, I would suggest.
So no, clowns do not need to be any more depressed or melancholic than anyone else. Nor do they hide behind a mask of fun and joy. Rather, their jovial spirits, whether expressed physically or through make-up (or both) are a beautiful and piquant counterweight to the repeated routines of failure which they perform for us (or we perform for them) night after night. Clowns are masters of balance, walking a vertiginous tightrope between poles of desolation and exuberance. Like all humans they feel the day to day sting of loss and disappointment. But unlike most humans their job is to reflect this common experience for us, to show us we are not the only ones, and to remind us of our humanity and our divinity in the same finely aimed stroke.