"Buffo the Great, the Clown of Clowns"

The art of clowning was first known in Egyptian courts around 2,500 BC, and most cultures throughout history include some form of clown.  Shakespeare included clown characters in many of his plays, most famously in King Lear in which the Fool observes and comments on the action, often seeing the truth where seemingly wiser characters are misled.  In other plays, Shakespeare allowed the company's leading clowns such as Will Kemp to improvise scenes interlinked with the main narrative, just as comic turns in modern pantomime are employed to fill time during scene changes.

Around the same time as Shakespeare's clowns developed in England, the Commedia del'Arte in Italy introduced Harlequin, who became the standard for clowns and court jesters for many years.  The two-coloured costume with forked hat, red lips in a white face, and his own miniature carried as a puppet head on a stick, remains instantly recognisable.

England's first circus was opened by Phillip Astley in 1768, and one of his acts was Billy Buttons, an inept equestrian struggling to ride a horse to town.  However, the whiteface circus clown was truly born in the figure of Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837).  He adopted a lesser known character from the Commedia del'Arte and developed the tradition of slapstick humour and comic songs which influences Buffo's troupe and continues to dominate clowning today.  Buffo's story on page 121, in which he is advised to cheer himself up by seeing Buffo the Great at the Tivoli, was originally told of Grimaldi.  

The Auguste character which Walser portrays is long-suffering and subservient, the butt of the Whiteface's outrageous jokes and demands.  The Joey is the Whiteface, named after Grimaldi, whilst the 'carpet clown' was introduced to the American circus to lay a special carpet to keep performing horses from tripping in the mud, and to make the unrolling of the carpet a comedy act in itself.

A clown's individual makeup is a key part of his character.  In England, a new performer registering with Clowns International can register his own makeup and have an eggshell decorated with a miniature of his face, which is retained in a gallery as a form of copyright.

Auguste Clown
Creative Commons AttributionAuguste Clown - Credit: The Library of Virginia

There was a famous clown by the name of Grock, who worked in Switzerland in the early twentieth century.  A modern clown still living in America has taken the name of 'Buffo the Great', combining clowning with feats of strength and titling himself 'The World's Strongest Clown.'  The name probably relates to bouffon, from the French term for jester.  It describes a style of performance based on the art of mockery, with characters influenced by Roman farce and the half man, half animal 'satyr' figures of Greek mythology.  Jacques Lecoq, who revived bouffon in the 1960s, explained that "bouffons amuse themselves by reproducing the life of man in their own way, through games and pranks."

The term 'Charivari,' adopted by Carter as the family name of the acrobats displaced by Fevvers, originally described a raucous acrobatic clown routine, typically done by a large group of clowns, consisting of a series of fast-paced acrobatic maneuvers and comedy jumps off of a mini trampoline, over a vaulting horse and into a mat.

On page 120, Buffo lists some of the great clowns of history.  Domenico Biancolelli (Carter appears to have changed the name slightly) lived in Italy from 1636-1688.  He created the character of Harlequin in the Commedia del'Arte as part of the Mazarin troupe, who toured Italy and France.  His son Pierre-Francois followed him into clowning in the role of Pierrot.

Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846) was a celebrated Bohemian-French mime, whose character 'Baptiste' appeared as a Pierrot, a sad-faced black and white clown drawn from the Commedia del'Arte.  Pierrot is often depicted gazing at the moon, and Theodore de Banville's poem Pierrot (1842) concludes,

"The white Moon with its horns like a bull, Peeps behind the scenes, At its friend Jean Gaspard Deburau.”