Submitted by Susanne Bacon.
I must have been four or five when a small traveling circus came to our suburb in Germany. It set up its one-ring tent in a meadow next to one of our supermarkets, placed their wagons into the back, and handed out leaflets. When my mother took my little brother and me to an afternoon show, I had no idea what to expect. Little do I remember of that immense melee of short programs in the ring. It was mind-blowing, as we didn’t have a TV set at home, and the few visits to the movie theater showed coherent stories that I already knew from fairy-tale books. So, the only conclusive skit that stuck was that of a clown who was running from his wife, who threatened him with a broom. His part came up when the ring had to be set up for a new act, and we children howled with laughter. I even remember that apart from a weird hat, a red nose, and huge pants held up by suspenders, he wasn’t overly made up. He was a true character. And we loved him.
These days, whenever I come across clowns, not much is left of the endearing character of yore. Over time, I visited quite a few circuses. There were still the funny clowns. But there were also the pantomiming white clowns in gorgeous harlequin dress. I never understood them; I found them elegant, sad, and somewhat disturbing. They came from a different sphere.
At the end of the 1970s, McDonald’s started opening one restaurant after another in my mother country, Germany. Their messenger was one of the last friendly clowns that register with me, Ronald McDonald. An impersonator usually was around at the grand openings or at special promotion events. Yet, it was just the outfit of a clown lacking the wit; blowing up balloons and shaping them into animals was not my idea of a clown. Maybe, I had become too old. Or maybe, I still wanted back my fun clown from pre-school days.
Then, in the 1990s, I was introduced to Batman movies by a student friend of mine. I was not into the genre, and I didn’t know why people were so keen on watching something as dark as the gloom of Gotham City. Wasn’t there enough gloom around us already? The Joker, a sinister caricature of a clown with smudged make-up, was at the bottom of everything bad that happened, not the comic relief anymore. I didn’t realize that at that point I was watching a phenomenon, the twist of a character we thought we knew so well to something that could be outright scary.
A few years later, I started reading Victor Hugo’s novels. Not all of them but quite a few. Among them was the probably lesser-known novel “The Man Who Laughs”. It’s a deeply critical work about contemporary politics. At its core is a man whose face has been mutilated when he was a child to make money as a source of laughter on stage. Even his most serious political appeals fail to receive the response they deserve – his face causes constant laughter. The grotesque outside is NOT the reflection of the deeply frustrated inner workings of the man.
Does this ring a bell? Indeed, Joaquin Phoenix stars as the narcissist psychopath Arthur in the movie “The Joker”. As predictable as the plot may be and as brutal as the story is, the connecting point is that whenever the character wants to cry, he has a fit of laughter. And though Arthur wears clownish make-up, which in the end gets smeared, he is a tragic character, as far away from my childhood clown as could be.
Halloween is coming up. There are Halloween movies featuring clowns, not one of them funny. Not one of them stirring up sympathy. They are basically flat types symbolizing evil in a formerly friendly costume. Enter the internet and ask your friends or their children what one of the most fearsome characters is to them. Their answer will most often be “clowns”. That happens when a character is emptied of any meaning except to be a template of evil.
I have met people in life who seem to be able to turn themselves into the center of any party by joking endlessly. They clown around. They have a witty answer to everything. More often than not I have found them to be infinitely sad or frightened people who didn’t want to let on about their real selves. Being on the sidelines would have meant for them to be reflecting their troubles. I have stopped being fooled by them. Behind the clownishness often hides somebody who needs a hug.
Looking back to my childhood clown, maybe he wasn’t such a funny person either. He was running from an infuriated wife, after all. With hindsight, we only laughed at the chase and the unexpected pop-ups from behind stage props. In a more serious context, the clown might have deserved our empathy rather. So might his wife. I think, if we search for the real face behind a person’s mask and their outfit, we find that between gales of laughter and shrieks of terror could lie a world of empathy.