A Clownish Contradiction

Sep 21, 2018

Don't miss this iconic production, Pagliacci, at Opera Omaha, Oct 19th and 21st! Tickets start at $19: https://ticketomaha.com/Productions/pagliacci

Clown-inspired characters have appeared many times onstage but also onscreen. Why are we so fascinated with them? Is it the iconic face paint, the goosebump-inspiring kit of creepy props… or is it the blatant contradiction displayed by many clowns in popular culture? In the case of Stephen King’s It, Pennywise the Clown is a combination of innocence and terror. Batman’s iconic Joker is gleeful and sociopathically violent. As for Leoncavallo’s Canio in Pagliacci, he is a combination of buffoonery and hot jealousy. Fellini, in his film I Clowns, in the tradition of Italian literature and Opera, incorporates the circus, which may at first seem like a location of eccentricity and escapism, but is in actuality “ an opportunity to reflect on life and its contradictions…. With laughter and foolishness as a way to mask the tragedy of life, once again, circus clowns become a cinematic instrument for Fellini to explore the human condition” (Manson: Fellini and the Circus: When Life Imitates Art). Contradiction is a potent lens of social examination.

There is a morbid fascination with clowns that arises because they are at the extremity of acceptable human behavior. Clowns lend themselves to horror because of the visual conflict which we face between seeing a figure who, for all intents and purposes, should spread joy and light among children. However, as Leoncavallo demonstrates, clowns have been a source of tragedy for a long time, and have been a source of anxiety for societies throughout all of history, as “these were characters who reflected a funhouse mirror back on society; academics note that their comedy was often derived from their voracious appetites for food, sex, and drink, and their manic behavior” (Rodriguez McRobbie: The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary). They press against boundaries of social morays. This is uncomfortable, but also alluring. The absurdity allows for comedy and satire to hide extremely deep troubles. While they are an exaggerated example of humanity, we can still recognize ourselves in them when the mask begins to slip. It is in part due to the fascination with what lies beneath the mask of joviality that still brings audiences flocking to Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, where we confront the knowledge that what lies beneath is a tragic villain with very human pain, in spite of playing the fool. For many years in the evolution of theatre and comedy “... it was what a real-life clown was concealing that tipped the public perception of clowns. Because this time, rather than a tragic or even troubled figure under the slap and motley, there was something much darker lurking” (Rodriguez McRobbie: The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary). Like Charles Dickens’ characterization of a clown wasting away on stage for people’s entertainment in The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, Canio too is unable to extract his personal pain from the stage, and he displays it for the world to see, uttering the final line after ironically murdering two people, “The comedy is finished!”.

By Lillian Snortland
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow

Works Cited:
Mason, V. (n.d.). Fellini: Circus of Life. Fellini and the Circus: When Life Imitates Art. Retrieved August 2018, from http://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/fellini/articles/fellini-and-the-circus-when-life-imitates-art/
Rodriguez McRobbie, L. (2013, July 31). Smithsonian.com. The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary. Retrieved August 2018, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-and-psychology-of-clowns-being-scary-20394516/

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