The History of Clowns

By Catherine Rose

Love them, loathe them or view them with terror, clowns have been entertaining us for thousands of years. Renowned for humour, with the recent relaunch of Stephen King’s horror classic It and his demonic antagonist Pennywise, clowns have become a scare symbol too. But where did they originate?

Clowns began with royalty and across history and cultures, royal courts have long featured court jesters. The earliest recorded were in ancient Egypt during the fifth dynasty (around 2500BC).

Clowns were even prominent in native tribes and formed an integral part of their social and religious ceremonies. Not only did they provide entertainment, they were also believed to be healers and counsellors. When the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés overthrew central America’s Aztecs in 1520, it was said that the Aztec king Montezuma’s court had dwarf and hunchback clowns whom Cortés took back to Spain with him.

Despite being an object of ridicule, court jesters were in fact highly thought of and the only members of a royal household permitted to openly air their views. When China’s Great Wall was being built around 300BC, Emperor Shih Huang-Ti decided he wanted it painted as well. Hundreds of labourers had already lost their lives constructing the wall but it was his court jester Yu Sze who persuaded the emperor to abandon the painting idea, saving hundreds more lives.

Although rustic fools appear in Ancient Greek and Roman plays, during the 16th century clowns increasingly moved out of the court and into the theatre. Shakespeare often featured ‘the fool’ in his plays. These characters were integral to the play and actors would frequently ad lib for comic effect during performances.

It was around this time that the Commedia del Arte, a structured form of comedy theatre with set characters, began in Italy. It quickly spread across Europe and heralded the advent of the pantomime.

The set characters consisted of three servants who would plot to trick their masters. The principal servant or first zanni (which gave us the word ‘zany’) was the modern day ‘straight guy’ who would come up with the clever schemes; his helper, the second zanni was a witless fool or ‘fall guy’ who would become hilariously entangled in them, often either unintentionally thwarting them or ending up being a victim himself, and the third character was the female fonteca who provided the romantic interest.

The clown-like characters of Harlequin and Pierrot grew out of Commedia del Arte. Harlequin was originally the second zanni to a character named Brighella but eventually he grew to become a principal character of his own.

The white-faced clown began with Pierrot but was popularised by Joseph ‘Joey’ Grimaldi (1778-1837) who has been described as ‘the father of modern clowning’. He was well known for his comic songs and theatrical special effects. Wearing a spiky blue wig with white make-up and rouge on his cheeks and lips, his costume was a variation of the Harlequin suit with its trademark ruffles around the neck – a clothing item that has been associated with clowns ever since.

The first circus was created in 1768 by Philip Astley and his equestrian shows that took place in a ring. It was Astley who created the first circus clown, calling him Billy Buttons. Billy Buttons’ character was a tailor who, in his act, would try and fail to ride a horse in amusing ways.

Billy proved so popular among audiences that he soon became a feature in other circus acts. This led to the development of the Auguste (or fool) clown, a forerunner of our modern-day clown, who would spend his act tripping over his feet and having all sorts of accidents.

The iconic American character Uncle Sam was based on a famous circus clown. Dan Rice was a philanthropist and close friend of President Lincoln who made his fortune working as a clown during the Civil War period by using humour and songs to make political observations. Sporting a goatee beard, he wore a red nose and his suit and top hat were decorated with the American flag. When political cartoonist Thomas Nast first drew Uncle Sam, he allegedly based it on Rice.

The Fratellini brothers were famous circus clowns in the early 1900s and although they weren’t the first to invent the white-faced, red-nosed performer, it was the brothers who ensured the clown make-up, costumes (including the oversized shoes of the Auguste clown) and the red nose – still used as a symbol of comedy – became a tradition.

The coupling of skill (such as juggling or riding a unicycle) with slapstick has evolved as hallmarks of the clown. The 20th century may have associated them with hamburgers and horror, but throughout history there have been bad clowns too – sinister masked characters who can feature in our worst nightmares. In fact, fear of clowns is a recognized psychological condition known as ‘coulrophobia’.

But however you view them, no one can deny that clowns have long had the power to entertain.

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