The History  of Clown (and Herstory)

The following is a distillation of several authoritative sources on the previous path of the clown. It’s function is as a quick study.


The art of clowning has existed for thousands of years. A pygmy clown performed as a jester in the court of Pharaoh Dadkeri-Assi during Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty about 2500 B.C. Court jesters have performed in China since 1818 B.C. Throughout history most cultures have had a clown figure…..




They have gone by many names around the world throughout history including: Auguste, Badin (Medieval France), Bobo (Spain c. 1500’s), Buffoon, Chou (China), Claune (France 1800’s), Contrary (Native America Plains Tribes), Excentrique (Solo French Clown), Fool, Gleeman (England, medieval), Gracioso (Spain, C. late 1500’s), Hano (Native American), Jester, Joey, Jongleur (ninth century Europe), Kartala (Bali), Nibhatkin (Burma), Penasar (Bali), Rizhii (Russia, 1800’s), Semar (Java), Trickster (in the mythology of many cultures), Vidusaka (India), Doukeshi (Japan) and Wayang Orang (Indonesia),


Clowning In England


During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, clowning in England was basically a theatrical art form. One of the earliest uses of the word “Clown” occurs in one of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare was the playwright for the Lord Chandler’s Men acting troupe. Everyone knows and misquotes, Hamlet’s speech, “Alas poor Yorick ….” fewer realise that the gravedigger who so casually passes the relic to Hamlet is, in the play, designated “Clown”. The term means “Clod” or “Clumsy, boorish fellow” and is thought to derive from the old Danish word “Klunni” which conveys the same meaning. It perfectly describes the character of the gravedigger, discussing the details of the rotting corpses and throwing bits of them about, but it is far from the modern use of the term “Clown” which indeed was not used in its modern sense for another hundred years.

Of the 26 principal actors in the Lord Chandler’s Men listed in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, two, William Kemp and Richard Armin, were clowns. William Kemp was the first clown to appear with the troupe. He was such an important star that he was a part owner in both the troupe and the Globe Theatre. He specialized in playing stupid country bumpkin type characters (a style that would later become known as the Auguste).



Italian Commedia del’arte


In the 1700’s, Italian Commedia del’arte al improviso (professional improvised comedy) was imported into this country. In the earliest forms of this entertainment, actors improvised, from a vast memorised storehouse of line-combinations and business, a play along a simple theme. Two young lovers are trying to elope and they are constantly thwarted by the girl’s father (Pantaloon) and his friend the Doctor (both old men). Skirmishing around this quartet are a number of extra characters, including soldiers (Scaramouche, the Captain) and servants, Zannis (hence our word Zany). By the time the pantomime arrived in Britain, Harlequin and Columbine were the two young lovers. Pantaloon was a figure of fun and a nuisance. Policemen had replaced soldiers, Pulchinello had transmuted into Punch and got his own show, Harlequin was given a magic stick so that he and his lover could transform scenes magically to escape the pursuers during the hectic, mad chases. He would “slap” the stick and so it was later that comedic scenes became known as “slapstick”.



The history of clowning is a history of creativity, evolution, and change.. In English Pantomime, a style of theatre based on the Commedia del Arte, John Rich completed the evolution of Harlequin elevating it to starring position. New characters evolved to assume the position of Harlequin’s stupid victims. One of these was the whiteface clown Pierrot. His flour-whitened face is thought to be the introduction of the White-face or ‘classic’ clown, the oldest and most well-known of the clowns, and typically the straight clown in skits.


Father of Modern Clowning


One of the most famous exponents of the art of the white face clown was Joseph Grimaldi (1778 – 1837)


Grimaldi was exclusively a theatrical clown. He is considered the father of modern clowning because he is the performer who elevated the Whiteface clown to a starring role replacing Harlequin. It was Grimaldi who first did away with the pantomime mask and wore make-up, a practice soon seized upon and copied by his contemporaries. Grimaldi grew up in the theatre, and excelled at designing elaborate trick special effects. The type of production he starred in resembled a live action ‘roadrunner’ cartoon with chase scenes and comic violence with extreme but temporary results.

Whilst Grimaldi was developing the character of the clown in England so it was taking a slightly different evolution across the channel. The French pantomimist Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Deburau took on the character in the early 19th century and reinvented the role and appearance of Pierrot, a famous love-sick, sad clown, whose melancholy has remained part of the clown tradition and this character in turn inspired another type of whiteface, the Mime.


The Clown/ Mime


Debureau performed at Théâtre des Funambules, he passed his skills to his son who founded a theatre school and it was from here that noteworthy director and teacher Jacques Copeau influenced the likes of Etienne Decroux who emerged with Jean Louis Barrault to teach his version of corporeal mime. A line can be drawn directly from him through to probably one of the most inspired and well known mimes of modern times Marcel Marceau, who studied under Decroux and joined Barraults’ acting company. It was while working with Barrault that Marceau developed his most famous creation, a clown named “Bip”. Marceau influenced British theatre maker Lindsey Kemp one of whose pupils was a young David Bowie whilst Copeau’s work is reflected in the teaching of French mime teacher Jacques Lecoq and his student Phillipe Gaullier, both of whose pedagogy during the 1970’s and 80’s has influenced a whole generation of British actors, such as Steven Berkoff, with Theatre de Complicite being the most celebrated and Sacha Baron Cohen being the latest



The First Circus Clown


Back in England a new performance genre was about to appear which would provide a home for the classic clown for many years to come and still serves as a place for a particular kind of clown. The circus, i.e. performance in a specially designed ring, was born.

Philip Astley created what is considered the first circus in England in 1768. His production was based around his troupe of trick riders, the seven years war had ended and there were whole battalions of unemployed horses and riders who formed trick riding troupes to earn a living. Philip Astley was one of the foremost of these and saw that these acts could be housed within a hall or theatre. The circle shape was adopted because it was the ideal shape to accommodate the turning circles of the equestrian acts. He also created the first circus clown act called Billy Buttons, or the Tailor’s Ride To Brentford. The topical act was based on a popular tale of a tailor, an inept equestrian, trying to ride a horse to Brentford to vote in an election.. As the circus grew and Astley hired other clowns, he required them to learn the Billy Buttons routine. It soon became a traditional part of every circus for 100 years and indeed variations of this routine are still being performed in modern circuses. Circus was family entertainment and the clowns’ costumes and acts became more and more outlandish as their roles divided into standard recognisable types. The White face or boss clown, the auguste or stupid clown and the contra-auguste whose role fell between the other two.


From these white-faced circus clowns and Grimaldi’s theatre based pantomime clowns, emerged the modern whiteface principal clown, the Boss Clown, dressed in a sequin suit with conical hat and graceful shoes. His make-up base of white grease paint meant distant audiences could see the clown; it is he who shines at everything, whether it be playing musical instruments, juggling and spinning plates or leading the other buffoons in traditional clown entrees. He is the most intelligent type of clown with the highest status – typically the ringleader.


The whiteface clown held sway in the circus for a hundred years, but as we progress into the 20th Century, he became less of the funster, giving way to the cheeky auguste. The whiteface clown’s wit and skill were still important, but now he was content to use them as a foil or straight man to the zany undisciplined knockabout of his bizarre colleague, the auguste.


The auguste clown is the least intelligent, and zaniest of the clowns, he tends to be the silly clown in skits. Make-up is a flesh-tone base, with features grotesquely outlined. The costume of the auguste tends to be gaudy, mismatched, over-sized and very bright, baggy pants, oversize shoes, fright wig and red nose are all familiar parts of the costume to circus goers over the years.



Origins of the Auguste character


There is a widely told legend about the origins of the Auguste clown. According to the legend, an American acrobat named Tom Belling was performing with a circus in Germany in 1869. Confined to his dressing room as discipline for missing his tricks, he entertained his friends by putting on misfitting clothes to perform his impression of the show’s manager. The manager suddenly entered the room. Belling took off running, ending up in the circus arena where he fell over the ringcurb. In his embarrassment and haste to escape, he fell over the ringcurb again on his way out. The audience yelled, “auguste!” which is German for fool. The manager commanded that Belling continue appearing as the Auguste.


Most serious historians doubt that the legend is true. For one thing, the word Auguste did not exist in the German language until after the character became popular. One of the theories of the actual origin is that Belling copied the character from the R’izhii (Red Haired) clowns he saw when he toured Russia with a circus


Another theory is that the famous English Clown, John Albert Griffiths who worked under the name of “September” always called his partner, no matter who that was, August, and the name has stuck.


Having appeared on the scene, however, the Auguste was here to stay and there have been many great Auguste clowns who have “put on the motley and slap” and trod the sawdust. In the 20th century, great Augustes have included the great Swiss Clown, Grock, a famous whiteface pantomimist, was a performer who evoked laughter in his continual struggle with inanimate objects.   The Russian Clown, Coco (Nicolai Polakovs) who was adopted and became an honorary Englishman and honoured with an M.B.E. and Spanish Clown Charlie Rivel.


Footit and Chocolat


One of the first truly successful Augustes was Chocolat (Raphael Padilla) ( 1917), a Cuban born Black orphan. He was sold as a servant to a European, and eventually worked as family servant for Tony Grice, a whiteface clown. Part of his duties was appearing as an Auguste in Grice’s clown acts. It was after he teamed with English Whiteface clown George Footit (1864-1921) that he became extremely popular. The duo demonstrated the dramatic comedy inherent in a whiteface- auguste duo. Footit was the haughty, authoritarian, demanding, physically abusive Clown. Chocolat was a lazy fool unsuccessfully attempting to appear dignified, a naive hapless scapegoat who obeys without complaining and doesn’t react to the abuse he suffers. They were most noted for their original parodies rich in dialogue. Their success inspired many imitators establishing the auguste character.


Others that spring to mind are the French Clown Charlie Cairoli who clowned at Blackpool Tower Circus in Britain for over 30 years, Popov, a truly great Russian clown, and the French Fratellinis. The two clowns who had the most impact on the development of the Auguste in the 20th century were probably Albert Fratellini and Lou Jacobs. As one of the famous Fratellini Brothers, a well established circus family, Albert Fratellini created a character who was an in-between from one brother’s classic White-face and another brother’s tramp character. Early auguste clowns had a naturalistic appearance as if they had just wandered off the street into the circus ring. The exaggerated make up associated with the auguste clown today was introduced by Albert Fratellini, of the Fratellini Brothers. He also introduced the red nose, which has since become synonymous with clowns. Ringling Brothers circus clown, Lou Jacobs, developed the ‘character’ of the auguste. They created the foundation of the modern auguste who still stamps his way around the more traditional circuses today


The Tramp or Hobo Clown


In the United States meanwhile emerged another type of clown, not exclusive to the US but popularised with the rise of early silent movies. This was the character clown, the most popular of these being the Hobo or Tramp clown although character clowns can be police officers, women, or babies – any character at all.


In the great depression of the 1930’s, unemployment and homeless people recorded an all time high. From this, the Tramp Clown appeared. Charlie Chaplin was probably the first and best remembered. He travelled from England to America at the turn of the century, just in time to take advantage of the new medium of film. The invention of the cinema in the 1890’s gave clowns greater scope than they could have previously imagined. Skills learned in the circus, the music halls and their American equivalent, vaudeville, were adapted to the screen.


The Hobo usually has tattered clothes, a tattered hat, make-up which suggests he is unshaven, exaggerated features and a red nose. The generic Tramp character is ‘down-on-his-luck’. Charlie Chaplin as the silent ‘Little Tramp’ clown, brought laughter to millions worldwide through film. The Hobo may look similar, but knows that everything will turn out all right so is not unhappy about his situation. Red Skelton’s Freddy the Freeloader and Carol Burnett’s washerwomen are classic Hobo characters.



Origins of the Tramp Character


James McIntyre (1937) and Tom Heath (1938) created the tramp clown characterization in 1874. They portrayed African Americans made homeless by the Civil War. They based their characters on blackface minstrel clowns which is the origin of the white mouth used by tramp clowns. They studied African American culture attempting to accurately portray it. McIntyre is credited with introducing an African American dance called the Buck and Wing to the American stage. The dance later became known as tap dancing. It should be noted that there are alternate ‘origins’ for the tramp character—one of which was the traveling “hoe boys,” or itinerant farm workers, who rode the rails from one town to another, wiping the soot away from their eyes & mouth. These hoe boys (or hobos) are another possible inspiration for the tramp clown.




The 20 th Century Clown


And so although those auguste clowns are still stamping their weary way around the traditional circus rings across the UK and Europe so there have been many reinventions of the character, as circus has changed to reflect modern concerns so has the clown character. We come right up to date with seminal French circus Archaos and their cyberpunk metal clowns who roamed the ring brandishing chainsaws dressed in leather creating sparks wherever they went. As public opinion turned against the use of animals in circus so humans had to replace them with different characters. Cirque de Soleil in Canada developed some wonderful characters with some great modern clowns, such as Rene Bassinet, controlling huge crowds with a whistle and a look, (or in clown performance parlance ‘a clock’)

Likewise the Russian born Slava Polunin took clowning to new heights creating huge spectacles in theatres with his acclaimed Snow Show. Beckett wrote plays with clowns in mind, what else could Vladimir and Estragon be in Waiting for Godot but clowns?


In post war France, the mime turned film director, Jacques Tati developed his own wonderful silent comedy character Monsieur Hulot with not a red nose in sight but a clown none the less. The study of clown spread from the fashionable French schools of Lecoq and Gaulier as it influenced a new generation of British actors. They brought their experience into the mainstream UK performance scene and the clown performer was reborn in the new wave of physical theatre companies, such as Complicite, Ridiculusmus, Peepolykus and most lately Spymonkey.


These clowns adopt the uniform of the everyday, albeit a slightly exaggerated version and they are everywhere in our culture, from Basil Fawlty, through Frank Spencer to the ubiquitous character of Mr Bean. One can trace the line through though with a little imagination, and spot the traditional types in all kinds of modern settings, Fawlty Towers for example where Basil Fawlty is the whiteface and Manual the auguste. The Marx Bros have perfect clown relationships , we can see the relationship working between Rik and Ade in the Young Ones, Baldrick and Black Adder in the TV series of the same name and then there are the internationally recognised solo clowns who appear on film such as Inspector Clouseau, Monsieur Hulot and Mr Bean through to the latest figures of fun that include Borat and Miranda Hart.

And here come the new clowns, still reflecting our own foolishness, Dr Brown, The Boy with Tape on His Face, Spymonkey….the list continues as new clowns find themselves in the spotlight. But what about the women clowns, looking back at this I realise there is very little mention of the female clown and so that will have to be an article in itself and will include contemporary clowns such as De Castro, Miranda Hart, Nola Rae, and Caroline Dream.

At the top of this article you will find a link to a blog that addresses the lack of documentation on the female  clown