One single word that strikes fear into the heart of people of all ages. But not all clowns are created equal. Way back in the early 16th Century, the Italians devised the Commedia dell’arte, which literally translates to “Comedy of Art” but in practice means “Comedy of the Professional.” These artistes were masters of the unwritten and improvised, the “Commedia” of their title referring not to the subject matter but instead to the way in which they performed. No dialogue was written down and memorized, although performance matter was discussed and choreographed in terms of characters, plot, and pace. Actors organized in groups of ten, called a company, with each performer specializing in a specific character or type of acting: the swashbuckling pirate, simpleton love-stricken swain, or the now-dreaded clown.
Troupes soon spread across Europe, and the style worked its way to England via France in the late 17th Century, likely with the return of Charles II, the Merrie Monarch. According to information posted at the Victoria & Albert Museum, stock characters like Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon and Clown developed into the English Harlequinade, while Pulcinella, developed into Mr Punch.
And added bonus to my research this week was the discovery of why Harley Quinn carries a bat as her weapon of choice: historical harlequins armed themselves with a “magic sword” called a “slapstick.” The more you know.
Trigger warning: the following images contain clowns. I’ll save the absolute creepiest for last (although Cruikshank’s subject is holding what looks like a knife, and he’s second in my exhibition).
And the pièce de ré·sis·tance:
- Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- Learn more about the Commedia dell’arte at TheatreHistory and Faction of Fools.
- Explore the world of contemporary Commedia at Dell’Arte International.