As I am nearing the end of this book, this intriguing curiousity, I have been feeling for many days that I should post the introduction – a briefly printed two pages. The is a subtle shimmer to it, a deceptive lightness that shows how the sensitive, tragic clown faces an impossible combination of nature. He must be the bungler, the jester – but he must be able to be sensitive, to work an act of laughter that everyone – even the poorest – can afford to laugh at. He is self-aware, and acts out his tragedy, oscillating amongst laughter and tears.
I am going to tell you about my life. The life of a clown. It is motley and coloured, like his face, which is painted to depict happiness and smiles, but can change in a flash to sorrow and tears, a child’s tears welling out of his great eyes.
A clown is an adventure. His life is an adventure. He looks into his mirror, puts on his mask and the mirror speaks of the lives and innermost feelings of people. His bulbous red nose gleams against his painted cheeks and white mouth, upturned and grimacing in an everlasting smile. But is he smiling? The clown lives in all of us and in the huge circus ring he displays many aspects of human life. He is you. He is me. He is the adventure around us and our innermost feelings.
I will tell you the story of the clown as we know him; the clown who laughs and the clown who weeps; the clown who is forever travelling, who must go on working as long as anyone in the circus tent wants to laugh and weep with him.
The clown has been with us for many years.
He is the successor to the court jester. The king’s fool was possibly more clever, much more human, perhaps even had a bigger heart than the king himself, and yet he stood before the world as the ridiculous, unfortunate, paltry bungler whom all could afford to despise.
It is the same with the clown. People laugh at him. He is and remains the poor blockhead, the buffoon who is boxed on the ear. He has water and custard pies thrown in his face. He slips on hard boards in his outsize boots, and when with a childish sob he heads for the exit, his floppy trousers fall down. People expect it of him and he has to make them laugh at his mishap.
Poor clown. He is the lowest of the low in the ring as well as the whole circus. He is there only to provoke laughter while his heart may be breaking. He comes into the ring while nets and trapezes are being rigged for the real artistes and children point at him. Poor clown.
I have known many clowns in my life and with very few exceptions, their lives ended in want and misery. Once I knew a clown who dearly loved a young girl. She was in love with him too, but she soon tired of him because he was a clown, a jester whom everyone laughed at. So she left him and he finally took his own life. I knew another clown who was well on his way to becoming famous, feted wherever he appeared all over the world. He already saw himself as the greatest of all clowns. But one day the audience didn’t laugh quite so loudly and he became unsure of himself, worry puckering his painted face. He began to drink to forget and drown his troubles. The audience no longer laughed when he wanted them to and he drank more and more. The moment a clown starts drinking, it is all up with the clowning. A few years later, I met that great clown again, and he was then no more than a human wreck.
The clown, the hopeless bungler, the footler, the rag-doll, is always regarded as the lowest of the low. Yet nevertheless, he must be intelligent, more human and more sensitive than the others.
That is precisely why the clown’s life almost always ends in tragedy. Poor clown.
- Charlie Rivel, ‘Poor Clown’, p.9-10 (1971) – translated from the Danish by Ursula Hoare.