From whiteface to red nose and beyond: an essay on the history and development of clowning

What is a clown? A quick-witted harlequin with a quizzically embellished white face, or a bumbling red-nosed fool? To understand the history and development of clowning over the past few centuries, we can explore the two most recognisable faces it has presented to the world: the whiteface and the auguste.

Comic archetypes had already been developed by Italy’s commedia dell’ arte in the 16th century, with the servant Zanni playing fool to the greedy Pantaloon and pompous Dottore. By the 1800s, the most famous of these tricksters, the mercurial Arlecchino, had become the central character in the harlequinade, a popular part of the pantomime theatrical shows in Regency London. The character of ‘clown’, who had provided comic relief to the dramatic tension in Shakespeare’s plays, was a rustic fool to the urbane Harlequin, until the great Joseph Grimaldi elevated him to the star of the harlequinade – reflecting the industrialisation and changing social roles of the age, clown was no longer a simple bumpkin but became a metropolitan satirist. ”His costume and makeup became an iconic variation of the Pierrot: whiteface with bold red triangles on his cheeks, the better to symbolize the florid complexion of drunks; a blue wig and a costume that pokes fun at servants’ livery. The exaggerated facial make up was both a legacy of the commedia dell’ arte and a necessity for projecting emotion in a large theatre such as Covent Garden or Sadler’s Wells” (Simon, L.). Meanwhile, Philip Astley had laid the foundations for modern European circus by adding acrobats, jugglers and talking clowns, beginning with ‘Mr Merryman’, to his equestrian shows. “From these emerged the modern Whiteface Principal Clown, the Boss Clown, in sequins and conical hat and graceful shoes; he who shines at everything, whether it be playing musical instruments, juggling and spinning plates or leading the other buffoons in traditional clown entrées.” (Clown Bluey).

By the latter half of the 19th century, the whiteface was joined by a very different kind of clown. Supposedly originated by equestrian Tom Belling at Circus Renz in Berlin, the auguste became immensely popular.  “As opposed to the clown, a stylized character wearing a rather abstract makeup and a very distinct costume whose origins could be traced to the Middle Ages, the auguste didn’t rely on physical skills or an oddball look to elicit laughter: he was fundamentally human, a funny idiot, an everyday-man put in absurd and embarrassing situations that generated comedy. Audiences could relate easily to this new comic personage, and they loved him.” (Jando, D.) The juxtaposition and interplay of this odd couple – the ambitious whiteface aspiring to accomplish something fantastic while the hapless, messy auguste continually manages to wreck those careful plans – made a successful formula for entertainment, and one which also played on social dynamics of race, class and status. This was markedly the case in the celebrated Paris-based duo Foottit and Chocolate, both successful performers in their own right who became regular partners around 1890. In their finely honed repertoire of entrées Foottit played the authoritarian, abusive whiteface clown and Chocolat a naive fool and scapegoat who, crucially, provoked laughter by making fun of the former’s authority (and in doing so, upheld the clown tradition of mocking the concept of authority itself).

The 20th century belonged to the auguste, and many of its most famous clowns: Coco, Charlie Rivel, Charlie Cairoli, Oleg Popov, the Ringling Brothers’ Lou Jacobs, whose tufts of hair, exaggerated costume, pranks and back-firing contraptions became the defining image of the ‘clown’. Circus clowns became buffoons, and the characters of the whiteface and auguste began to appear instead in vaudeville and the nascent medium of cinema. The Swiss clown Grock, originally an auguste to the whiteface Antonet, became the most highly paid entertainer of his time when he made the transition from circus to music hall in the early 1900s, elevating the clown entrée to high theatrical art. The American-style circus, having expanded from one ring to three, required visual, not verbal entertainment to reach its huge audiences, and the whiteface’s wit and skill was superseded by his role of ‘straight man’ to the slapstick physical comedy of the auguste. New variations of the auguste began to emerge: the Fratellinis were a trio made up of elegant whiteface Francois, auguste Paul and Albert as an exaggerated grotesque version of the auguste, while the Rastellis featured whiteface Antonio Poletto, twin augustes Oreste and Alfredo and Chocolate Ferreira (in blackface, not then deemed inappropriate).

Post-war, while the auguste’s garish makeup and oversized clothes grew more preposterous yet also more uniform, a more subtle and existential take on the auguste emerged in the form of the tramp clown, a shabbily-dressed, downtrodden hobo character personified by Otto Griebling, Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie, less tragically by Red Skelton’s Freddy Freeloader and perhaps most famously of all, by Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin was no stranger to the workhouse, and his vision of the clown can be seen as “a universal symbol of artfulness in the face of overwhelming poverty. Like a brilliant Arlecchino battling an endless stream of tyrannical masters, Chaplin’s Tramp took on an entire system of cops, toffs, bosses, industrialists and exploiters – and won.” (LeBank, E. and Bridel, D.) The facepaint and paraphernalia were absent, but in their play and interaction screen comedians like Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd – and later Laurel and Hardy, W. C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers and more – were clowns through and through. Even today, when the semiotics of white facepaint or red nose have all but lost their meaning, the characters of the whiteface, auguste, tramp and other commedia-derived archetypes continue to provide rich comic material well beyond what is perceived by most people as ‘clowning’ – Craig Gustafson’s Clown Hierarchy attempts to categorise a range of works from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to South Park make for very interesting reading. And while it is argued that the transgressive ‘shock factor’ of traditional slapstick has lost its potency in a world saturated with violent imagery, Gaulier-trained comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen could be said to disprove this with the brilliant naked fight scene in his 2006 mockumentary Borat.

The indomitable rise of cinema and television would ultimately prove to the detriment of ‘live’ entertainment spaces, and to the stage clowns and circus clowns who made their careers there. Yet it is in the world of theatre that the art of clowning has been reborn, as Jacques Lecoq, Philippe Gaulier and others have inspired a new generation of performers to re-discover the clown’s roots in the commedia dell’arte and respectfully reinvent the traditions of later centuries. As early as 1947, Marcel Marceau’s white-faced silent clown Bip showed a revival of interest in physical comedy through mime, a path followed in the present day by the likes of Australia’s Nola Rae. In mid-1970s San Francisco, the Pickle Family Circus laid the foundations for contemporary circus, with a one-ring, small-scale show allowing closer connection between performers and audience and an ethos of equality, co-operation and inclusivity reflected in their acts. “In the Pickles Family Circus, skill is what counts, not gender or even species. Play is used to communicate their view of how society should be.” (Peacock, L.) In Sous Pression, Belgian clowns Les Witloof use traditional circus tricks, skills and structures – a series of entrées with little in the way of a connecting narrative line – but although the duo establish a clear status dynamic of boss clown/simple clown, it is with far more emotional nuance than the whiteface/auguste of yore. “There is an impetus towards clowning with a purpose beyond that of simply making the audience laugh. The clowns demonstrate the fragility and vulnerability of human existence.” (Peacock, L.) The award-winning Slava’s Snow Show can be interpreted as a treatise on the existential anguish of the human condition, but it is still a clown show: the whiteface clowns of the ‘Blue Canary’ sequence are a benign, abstract presence as Slava Polunin’s auguste Asisyai and Angela de Castro’s tramp ‘Rough’ explore ‘the journey of life’ – incorporating the oversized clothes, slapshoes and techniques of clown tradition, most gleefully replacing theatrical convention with the circus convention of audience invasion as the clowns’ anarchy spills through the fourth wall to engage the audience in complicity and play.

Today, it is perhaps only to circus historians, enthusiasts and clowns themselves that the terms ‘auguste’ and ‘whiteface’ hold any meaning, let alone evoke the specific visual and behavioural characteristics they once indicated. Yet the characters still exist, albeit more usually in the everyday disguise of regular humans like us. And whenever and wherever we see the painted face, or even the tiniest red nose, we recognise them as clowns, and know that they are bringing the opportunity as they always have, to enter into their upside-down world – and play.

References [Accessed: 23/11/16]

Gustaffson, C. [Accessed 13/13/16]

Jando, D. [Accessed 22/11/2016]

LeBank, E. and Bridel, D. (2015) Clowns: In Conversation with Modern Masters. Routledge.

Peacock, L. (2009) Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance. Intellect Books.

Simon, L. (2014) The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus. Reaktion Books.

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