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Clown Readings

Clown - Readings in Theatre Practice (2013) is a mixture of clown history, philosophy, and practice, aiming to present as many different perspectives on clown in their historical and social contexts, covering the origins of the auguste/clown duo, shakespearean clowns, female clowns, contemporary clown training, gags books, analyses of clowns past and present, etc.

A wide scope of material is covered, including theoretical analyses, press coverage, interviews, autobiographies, and live and recorded clown performances. This material is confidently summarised alongside key passages from the sources, some of which are translated from French, Spanish, and Italian, and not previously accessible to Anglophone readers.”


“The monograph also includes useful insights on clowning from sources that might not otherwise have been considered, such as the practice of Michael Chekhov, television comedy, and autobiographical accounts by stand-up comedians. This makes the book most useful for contextualising more specific studies of clown performance or for introducing newcomers to the disparate literature on this disparate subject through carefully selected excerpts.”


“The variety of practices addressed within this book means that for readers with prior knowledge of clown practice, Clown is likely to cover familiar ground, offering reinforcement of knowledge, but adding historical context and suggesting opposing views.”


“The book is a much-needed contribution to the field, discussing historical and contemporary clowning in one volume, and offering comparative analysis linking the strands of performance that have been called clown with other comic forms.”

“Davison is successful in the difficult task of transcribing and describing comic examples. His accounts of clown numbers retain the possibility of making the reader laugh, allowing the examples to illustrate theoretical points. Davison’s own writing is often amusing as well”


“Placing the embodied knowledge of the practitioner above the professional spectator or theorist of humour, Davison’s approach encourages the reader to consider how clown theory, history, and practice can be usefully applied to creating new performances”


From Lucy Amsden (2014) “Clown by Jon Davison” in Contemporary Theatre Review 24: 2, pp 279-80



"Jon Davison’s Clown provides a valuable introduction to studying clowns as historical subjects and clown as a contemporary performance practice."


"Throughout the book, Davison challenges a notion that clown is primarily a performance “to provide an experience of authenticity” (7), critiquing popular notions that clown is a uniquely personal form of performance because it reveals an “authentic” or “true” performance through spontaneous action. Much of the book wrestles between clown’s formalized aspects and this feeling of the authentic."


"Davison’s breadth of research demonstrates the temporal motivations of clowns, but also serves as a great starting point for those wishing to know more about clowns of the past."


"The thorough history serves to address some of the frequent romanticizing of clowns as ahistorical figures."


"Davison’s book is marked by an intense investment in his subject matter."


"The book’s wealth of information and broad scope encourages further detailed looks at a variety of clown histories and practices. Often taking views contrary to other clown or theatre practitioners and scholars like Lecoq and Andrew McConnell Stott, Davison hopes to ruffle feathers. This desire seems entirely appropriate and germane for his conception of clown: 'in a way that’s what clowns are: they go against the grain'”

Reviewed by Dave Peterson University of Pittsburgh

Copyright © 2014 Johns Hopkins University Press

Davison is not afraid to challenge assumptions and counter prejudices. The result is a gratifyingly historicized and situated account of a staggering range of examples of clowning, grounded in personal artistic experience, which is invaluable for students and scholars alike.

Clown is impressively ambitious in scope, ranging from Shakespearean fools to hospital clowns, from Buster Keaton to the Koshari of New Mexico”


Barnaby King, Edge Hill University, review in Theatre Research International.

Opening paragraphs of Clown Readings in Theatre Practice




The comedian, Bill Hicks, told this story in his show, Sane Man:


I was in Nashville, Tennessee last week and after the show I went to a waffle house, right, and I’m sitting there eating and reading a book, I don’t know anybody and I’m eating and I’m reading a book, and this waitress comes over to me and ‘tut tut tut tut tut! What you reading for?’ I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never been asked that!’ Not, “what am I reading?”, but “what am I reading for?” well, goddammit, you stumped me!’ [...] then this trucker in the next booth gets up, stands over me and goes, ‘Well, looks like we got ourselves a reader!’ (Hicks 1989)


This book, another kind of reader, has all the makings for being turned into a joke. A book about clown, clowns and clowning, and a serious one at that. Olly Double, the stand-up comedian and academic, begins his second book, Getting the Joke (2005), with a section entitled ‘I’ve Got a Degree in Beckhamology’ where he tells of the media reaction to his obtaining a full-time academic post at the University of Kent:


The idea of teaching stand-up comedy at university had all the hallmarks of a silly-season classic, and the press went for the hey-you’ll-never-believe-what-these-crazy-academics-are-up-to-now angle. The Guardian’s piece started:


I say. I say. Did you hear that they’ve hired a clown at Kent University? No, really. He’s going to be teaching the students stand-up comedy. No. Seriously, laze ‘n’ gennermen, he’s got a Ph.D. in it. Actually, Dr Oliver Double is not a clown, but he is a practising stand-up comedian. And he will be teaching third-year drama students who want it — and ooh, we all want it, don’t we, missis! — the art of rambling into a pub microphone and making people choke on their pints with mirth. (Double 2005: 1-2)


Of course, the idea of being serious about something which isn’t serious, like comedy, or clowning, is funny. In fact, being serious about anything, in the clown’s world, is funny. But the idea that we don’t, or can’t, have ideas about clowns is just plain false. When I was researching this book, I wrote some short reviews of clown performances, books, films and other phenomena, as I wanted to find a vocabulary with which to talk about clown on its own terms and not by the criteria of other genres. One clown took offence, not because I had reviewed him negatively (I hadn’t), but because he believed that none of us had the knowledge or the licence to be able to criticise others in the profession. Clowns today may on the whole be mutually supportive, as is to be expected given our present low status, both culturally and economically (it was not always thus), but ideas and beliefs - positive and negative, insightful and banal - about clowns are all around us. It might be useful to draw some of them together so that we know what they are and can think about them.  


Introduction: Clown Ideas


We would expect to begin with a clear definition of the field of enquiry. But defining what a clown is is not a straightforward matter. Just about everyone has ideas, preconceptions or opinions about clowns. Clowns themselves certainly do. There is a surprising variety of ideas around about clowns, especially when you start looking beyond your own time and place.


Some define clown in terms of the dynamics of both laughter: ‘A clown who doesn’t provoke laughter is a shameful mime’ (Gaulier 2007a: 289) and failure: ‘this big idiot who regrets not being funny’ (Gaulier 2007a: 301). Although others disagree: ‘It's okay not to be funny. Clowns do not have to make people laugh‘ (Simon 2009: 31), whilst others believe clowns to be sad or to exhibit ‘shabby melancholy‘ (Stott 2009: XVI).


Some define clown in relation to expected behavior or rules: clowns ‘contradict their context‘ (McManus 2003). 'The key feature uniting all clowns, therefore, is their ability, skill or stupidity, to break the rules' (McManus 2003: 12).


An etymological definition would take us back to the origins of the word clown in 16th England, referring to those who do not behave like gentlemen, but in ‘clownish or uncivil fashions‘ (French Academy, 1586). 

Some identify the clown with the red nose, which they consider to be ‘a tiny neutral mask for the clown’ (Wright 2002: 80), which is also ‘a quest for liberation from the “social masks” we all wear‘ (Murray 2003: 79,  on Jacques Lecoq).


Some consider that clowning is a route to spirituality and self-knowledge, via ‘a great joy, a great confidence, a great acceptance of ourselves, and thus of others too‘ (Cenoz 2011); ‘the main similarity between clown and Zen is that if you are you are thinking, then you are not where you want to be‘ (Cohen 2005); ‘Clowning is about the freedom that comes from a state of total, unconditional acceptance of our most authentic selves‘ (Henderson 2008).


Some see clowning as a means to relieve suffering, ranging in status from ‘respected complementary care providers [and] members of the health care team‘ (Koller and Gryski 2008), to the more humble friend: ‘I would never agree laughter is the best medicine, I’ve never said it. Friendship is clearly the best medicine‘ (Adams 2007).

Some believe clowns are responsible for bringing rain to the crops: ‘they also fast, mortify themselves, and pray to Those Above that every kind of fruit may ripen in its time, even the fruit in woman’s womb‘ (Bandolier 1890: 34). Some ascribe such powers to their taboo-breaking: ‘This “wisdom” magically acquired shows well that this is a question of the breaking of a taboo’ (Makarius 1974: 63).

Some think that clowns are a socially useful way to control traffic, since they ’can achieve what traffic police cannot achieve using warning and sanctions [...] by employing artistic and peaceful actions’ (Toothaker 2011), but others believe that to be a clown is to sink below human dignity: ’I'm going to earn something, even if it’s as a clown’ (Partido del Trabajo de México 2009).


At times, some have believed clowns could stop wars: ’The laughter of Bim and Bom almost stopped the Russian Revolution’ (Schechter 1998: 33). Alternatively, they might find themselves on the side of governments: ’Nikulin replied: “Who will be the subject of our parody? The government is marvellous”’ (Schechter 1998: 15-16). Some think that clowns can teach politicians: ’The World Parliament of Clowns will give scientists, politicians, managers and entrepreneurs, artists and religious leaders [...] immunity to say all their thoughts and ideas and to give all their wisdom to the world without the fear of blame and humiliation. One of the rights of clowns is to fail’ (Moshaeva 2006). Others see politicians as clowns: ‘In order for the balance to be harmonious, the President must be a whiteface clown and the Prime Minister an auguste, in their nature as much as in their function’ (Fallois in Rémy 1945: XIX).


Some see clowns in the street: ’skills that are necessary for clowning, such as [...] street theatre’ (Haifa 2006) whilst others do not: ’Dreams of grandeur save the idiot. His ambition isn’t to play in the street (not a very comfortable place) but at the Paris Opera’ (Gaulier 2007a: 291).


The list is much longer. Clowns have been seen as revolutionary, reactionary, avant-garde, universal, marginal, irrelevant, fundamental, dangerous, harmless, immoral, exemplary, skilled, chaotic, wealthy, poor, innocent, cruel, joyous, melancholic, or as fulfilling any number of social, artistic, cultural or political functions as can be imagined.


Today for some, the clown is a figure that has survived from the past, pre-technological, pre-modern, pre-literate even. For others, clown has undergone a renewal and branched out into new and highly contemporary fields:  the post-Stanislavskian training of performers; therapy and a means to spiritual self-discovery; or a tool to change politics and decision-making in a world racing towards disaster.


All of these views could be shown to be at least partly true, at least at a particular moment in a particular place. The opposites could also be shown to be true, perhaps in other places and at other times. The point is that clowns, though they may be ubiquitous, are just as varied as any other phenomenon. They have a history, indeed many histories. They occur in different cultural contexts. There are often very precise reasons for why they are the way they are. We can usually trace particular characteristics to particular dates, or specific people and places. By looking at a wide range of material on clowns, we can see just how historically and culturally determined they are. If we can see what is specific to times, places and individuals, perhaps we can also see more clearly what clowns have in common, and if there is anything which always holds true for clowns.




Containing such an array of perspectives, this book is also bound, at some point or another, to go against the grain of what you think you know about clowns. Whatever one’s grain is, it will probably go against it. My own included. And in a way that’s what clowns are, they go against the grain. Whenever I see two people in agreement, my instinct is to disagree with them. Maybe that’s what led me to be a clown. In any case, it’s a useful research tool. A kind of naive scepticism, no malice intended. When two people agree on what clowns are, my ears prick up even more, ready to provide the contrary view if called upon. Or even if not.


So hopefully you will find something in this book that will make you think you might be wrong about clown. Which would be no bad thing, since clowns inevitably end up being wrong. I say to clown students that 93% of our lives and actions are failures and only 7% of it turns out right. That isn’t because I or anyone else has done such a scientific experiment; I took to the idea some years ago after reading that 93% of communication is apparently non-verbal. I liked the idea, though for the life of me I couldn’t see how you could measure such a thing. So given that the scientist in question was, in my opinion, making it up, I thought I might as well do the same. It feels about right to me, as a clown. When I say 93% of our lives, I mean all human beings, not just clowns. One thing one might say about clowns, though, is that they could be happy with such a statistic. Perhaps that is what marks you out as a clown from the rest. This admission of failure is the bedrock upon which most clown training of the last half century has been founded (Gaulier, Cenoz, Clay, etc.). The World Parliament of Clowns promotes the use of failure as a form of intelligence, hoping to influence world policy-makers (Antoschka).


I trust, then, that we will all be happy to give up some of our assumptions about clown throughout the course of this book, and that it will fail to live up to our own prejudices and expectations.

© Jon Davison 2013 reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan

And here is the full contents list:

Introduction: Clown Ideas

Part I: What Do Clowns Do?

Chapter 1: Grock’s Entrée

Chapter 2: Clown History
... -The state of clown history
-William Wallett: Shakespearean clown
-Richard Tarlton and the Elizabethan clown: a new social and stage type
-Will Kemp: Shakespeare's clown and the stage jig
-Ben Jonson: the clown performance mode
-Robert Armin: Shakespeare's fool

Chapter 3: Clown and Pierrot
-Speaking and silent clowns
-Revolution, Napoleon and Jean-Gaspard Deburau: the French Pierrot
-Pierrot, Pedrolino and the migration of commedia dell'arte
-Arlecchino, Arlequin and Harlequin
-Harlequin and Clown: the Harlequinade
-Joey Grimaldi: clown legend
-Joey Grimaldi: the legacy
-Pierrot and Melodrama
-Pierrot after Deburau: a modernist hero
-Modernism and clown theory
-Cross-channel clowns and the rise of Parisian circus
-The Hanlons: the triumph of acrobatic pantomime

Chapter 4: Birth of the Auguste
-The auguste clowns of the 1880s: myths, anecdotes and some facts
-The French Third Republic: new clowns for a new age
-Footit and Chocolat: the clown-auguste relationship
-Clown types: duos, trios and soloists
-Little Walter, Antonet and Grock: the clown duo in flux
-Grock: the auguste as soloist in the theatre
-Grock: clown evolution
-The music-hall eccentric
-From circus to theatre, and back

Chapter 5: Clown Drama
-The Fratellini: superstar trio of the post-Great War era
-Tristan Rémy and the clown entrée
-The evolution of the North American clown: big tops and baseball
-The tramp clown: from Civil War to Great Depression
-Costume legends: Harrigan, Chaplin and the Fratellini
-Tramps, walkarounds and come-ins
-The lineage of the English pantomime: from the Hanlons via Karno and Sennett to Chaplin
-Laurel and Hardy: comedy as a ritual

Chapter 6: Death and Rebirth of the Clown 
-Charlie Rivel: post-holocaust clown 
-Clowns and tradition in the late 20th century
-Fellini and the death of the clown
-The splits in clowning: tradition versus contemporary, infantilisation versus phobia
-Slava Polunin: perestroika clown
-Grock and Polunin: philosopher clowns 
-Cirque du Soleil: globalised clowns
-Surviving tradition: Andrei Jigalov, Fumagalli, Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée

Chapter 7: Clown Women
-Women’s clown history: the New Woman
-Lulu the clownesse and the Belle Époque
-Annie Fratellini, women’s liberation and clown gender roles
-Women clowns today: femininity, drag and beyond gender

Part II: How Do Clowns Clown?

Chapter 8: Clown Theory, Technique and Technology
-Theories of comedy: Oliver Double
-Practitioners and Theorists: Ken Dodd, Sigmund Freud et al
-Professional advice: Bob Monkhouse and Max Miller 
-Alan Clay: street knowledge
-Lupino Lane: technical knowledge
-The technology and mechanics of clowning
-Trick props: the Fratellini, the Rastelli and Pompoff and Thedy
-Sebastià Gasch and Jordi Jané: a political history of props and jokes 
-Grock and Tortell Poltrona: the theory, technique and technology of the chair
-Food comedy: carrots, bananas and fish
-Slosh: technology and technique in pantomime
-Cultural anthropology and the meaning of clowning
-Ritual clowns: mud, urine, faeces and menstrual blood
-Paul Bouissac and circus anthropology: the profanation of the sacred
-Taboo-breaking in European clowning: babies, pigs and cannibalism
-Bouissac and gag theory
-Gag structure, categorisation and ownership: Dominique Denis’s 1000 gags
-Impossible props: Grock, Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball
-Lazzi: stage crudities and violence

Chapter 9: Clown Authors
-Autobiographies and trade secrets: Coco and Buffo
-Harpo Marx in the USSR: the clown-actor-author and Stanislavsky
-The Marx Brothers: narrative and hokum
-Clown authorship: Philippe Goudard and Cirque du Soleil
-Authors, censorship and culture: art and act in the USSR and post-war France
-Clown dramaturgy and new circus
-Art-clowns and Bozos
-Clown autobiography in the cinema: Leonid Yengibarov and Charlie Chaplin
-Cinematic clown fiction and documentary
-The clown lecture: Jacques Tati and the performance of clown theory
-Monsieur Hulot and the village idiot
-Gag types and their authors: Tati and Chaplin 
-Rowan Atkinson’s guide to visual comedy

Chapter 10: Clown Training
-The red nose and the clown-actor: the Fratellini, Jacques Copeau and Jacques Lecoq
-Philippe Gaulier: failure and the flop
-Fake spontaneity: Charlie Cairoli and stand-up comedians
-Laughter training 
-Clown exercises and accepting failure
-Bim and Bom: laughter as (counter-)revolutionary
-Clown and the actor’s paradox: Gaulier vs. Stanislavsky
-Clown training with Gaulier
-Pleasure, play and drama training
-Games, theatre and rules
-Types of play: Roger Caillois and James Carse
-Breaking the rules
-Clive Barker and David Mamet: control and liberation 
-Vertiginous games: play beyond rules
-The actor and the clown: Michael Chekhov, Lenard Petit and Sanford Meisner
-Clown and method acting
-Clown training and emotion
-Clowning and the foundations of 20th century theatre: Bertolt Brecht and Karl Valentin
-Samuel Beckett, Buster Keaton and Robin Williams

Chapter 11: Clown Politics
-Realism vs. the grotesque: the Soviet clown congress and Oleg Popov 
-Anarchy and the state: Vitaly Lazarenko and Joseph Stalin
-Military and patriotic display and the origins of circus: the Ducrow family
-Leaping clowns
-Clowns in the post-Krushchev era
-Lecoq, Popov and clown realism
-Society’s moral conscience: traditional clowns of Vancouver Island
-Political and spiritual power: the Koshari and social order
-Religious ceremony: the purpose of clowns in New Mexico
-Clown activism: the Clandestine Insurgent Clown Rebel Army

Chapter 12: Clown TV
-Sitcom clowns ‘in their own universe’: Phoebe, Kramer and Mork
-Innocence and stupidity: Joey
-Non-clown comedy, parody and satire
-Buffoons: Louie de Palma
-Truth and hoax: Andy Kaufman and Ricky Gervais
-Amoral clowning: Larry David

Chapter 13: Clown Plots
-Plot structure and problem-solving: Avner the Eccentric
-Magic, surprise and Tommy Cooper
-The narrative of circus skills, virtuosity and anti-virtuosity: Yengibarov, Keaton and Harry Langdon
-Beyond chases: Mack Sennett, Langdon and Chaplin
-Performance styles: virtuosic pantomime and the boob

Chapter 14: Clown Truth
-Copeau and the purity of clowns
-Lecoq and the personal clown
-Revealing personal truths: the sick comics
-Gaulier and the theatre of pretence
-Beyond contemporary clowning: fusing old and new, outer and inner

Conclusion: Clown Today
-Marginal status: traffic light and street clowns in Latin America
-Social clowning and the response to fear and horror: Frank Anderson and Peta Lily
-Humanitarian clowns: Patch Adams, hospitals and expeditions
-The professionalisation of clowning in health
-The World Parliament of Clowns and stupidity as a form of intelligence
-Clown spirituality: Jan Henderson, Alan Clay and astrology
-Clowning and theology: Christianity and Buddhism
-Applied clown and the misfit: Hilary Ramsden


Here is the full bibliography, listing all the sources cited or collected in "Clown Readings"

Also viewable here


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Anderberg, Kirsten (2005) ‘Women Street Performers and Sexual Safety’,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

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Arratoon, Liz (2011) Review of Slava’s Snowshow in The Stage, 19th December 2011,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

Aspa, Jordi (2009) ‘La Integridad del Círculo’ in Zirkolika, Revista Trimestral de les Arts Circenses no. 21, Summer 2009, p.33.

Astruc, Gabriel (1929) Le pavillon des fantômes (Paris: Grasset).

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Baugé, Isabelle (1995) Pantomimes (Cahors : Cicéro Éditions).

Beeman, William O. (1981) ‘Why Do They Laugh? An Interactional Approach to Humor in Traditional Iranian Improvisatory Theatre: Performance and its Effects’ in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 94, No. 374, Folk Drama (Oct. – Dec., 1981), 506-526.

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-(1973) The Milk Number at Cirque Bouglione, Paris,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

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Campardon, Émile (1880) Les Comédiens du Roi de la troupe italienne (Paris: Berger-Levrault et Cie).

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Cazeneuve, Jean (1957) Les dieux dansent à Cibola (Paris: Gallimard).

Ceballos, Edgar (1999) El Libro de Oro de los Payasos (Mexico DF: Escenología).

Cenoz, Clara (2009) Banana!, date accessed 29th December 2011.

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Chaplin, Charlie (1916) The Pawnshop (Mutual Film Corporation).

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Clay, Alan (2005) (Newtown, Australia: Artmedia Publishing).

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Cosdon, Mark (2010) The Hanlon Brothers: from daredevil acrobatics to spectacle pantomime, 1833-1931 (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press).

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Davis, Janet M (2005) ‘Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakirs, and Lady Savages:

Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America’, Lecture at the University of Virginia 5th-8th October 2005,, date accessed 29th December 2011.

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  • (1997) 1.000 gags de clowns (Strasbourg: Magix Unlimited).

Dickens, Charles (1837) The Post-humourous notes of the Pickwickian Club (London: E. Lloyd).

Dimitriev, Yuri (1967) The Soviet Circus 1917-1941 (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

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  • (1937) Greatest Show on Earth (London: G. Bell and Sons)

Double, Oliver (1997) Stand-Up: On Being a Comedian (London: Methuen).

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