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Send in the Clowness: The Problematic Origins of Female Circus Clowns

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 January 2023

Matthew McMahan*
Affiliation:
Center for Comedic Arts, Emerson College, Boston, MA, USA
Laurence Senelick
Affiliation:
Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA
*
*Corresponding author: Email: matthew_mcmahan@emerson.edu

Extract

Historically, clowns have always been trained “on the job”: one was born or adopted into a circus dynasty or else ran away to join the circus, serving an apprenticeship. Breaking with the long tradition that performers learn on the job, after World War II, national circuses in the Communist bloc created their own academies; they were followed in 1974 by the École nationale de cirque founded in Paris by Annie Fratellini and Pierre Étaix, now the Académie Fratellini, and in 1982 by the Escola Nacional de Circo in Brazil. These examples led to the teaching of circus skills in universities, enabling breaches in the gender barriers between types of circus acts. For example, six years after Ringling Brothers founded a clown college in 1968, Peggy Williams was the first woman to graduate with a contract. At first she felt out of place. In an interview series for the Ringling Museum of Art, she stated that early in her training she had presumed that clowns were gender neutral: “I didn't know there weren't girl clowns. I thought being a clown was being a clown. You could be a man or woman. I had no idea what was heading my way because of gender.” Although she learned under the auspices of great clowns such as Lou Jacobs, she was left to her own devices to craft a clown that reflected her allegedly female nature.

Type
Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Authors, 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of American Society for Theatre Research, Inc.

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References

Endnotes

1 “Collecting Recollections: Ringling Interview Series Featuring Peggy Williams,” The Ringling, Sarasota, FL (20 February 2018), accessed 11 May 2021, https://youtu.be/nHPUrdza8Fs.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid. More recently, some clowns have taken on an explicitly political mission. In a festival in Rio de Janeiro dedicated to female clowns, the 7th Esse Monte de Mulher Palhaça (25 August–5 September 2018), performers adopted an explicitly political stance, centering acts around a range of issues, including fatphobia, physical disability, indigeneity, and racism. Cézard, Delphine, “Are Female Clowns Politically Incorrect? A Case Study of Female Clowns’ Political Engagement at the 7th ‘Esse Monte de Mulher Palhaça’ Festival in Rio de Janeiro,” Cadernos de arte e antropologia 9.1 (2020): 29–46Google Scholar. A web forum series has called for a clown to be used as a tool for activism. See Amrita Dhaliwal and Nathaniel Justiniano, “Can a Clown Be an Activist,” Howlround (9 November 2020), accessed 2 May 2021, https://howlround.com/can-clown-be-activist

4 See, for example, Delphine Cézard, Les “Nouveaux” Clowns: Approche sociologique de l'identité de la profession et de l'art du clown aujourd'hui (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2014). For context on the international development of nouveau cirque, see Agathe Dumont, “Becoming an Art Form: From ‘Nouveau Cirque’ to Contemporary Circus in Europe,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Circus, ed. Gillian Arrighi and Jim Davis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 188–202.

5 Peta Tait, Circus Bodies: Cultural Identity in Aerial Performance (London: Routledge, 2005), 31, 141.

6 John H. Towsen, Clowns (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1976); George Speaight, The Book of Clowns (New York: Macmillan, 1980). Towsen remedies the omission in his blog “Women in Clowning Pre-1975: Part One—In the Circus” (10 March 2018), All Fall Down: The Craft and Art of Physical Comedy, blog accessed 3 October 2021, https://physicalcomedy.blogspot.com/2018/03/women-clowns-pre-1975-part-one-in-circus.

7 “La clownesse Cha-U-Kao,” Le Cirque dans l'univers 59, 4e trimestre (1965): 16–17.

8 Anna-Sophie Jürgens, “Lady Clowns: Clown-Ballerinas, Dancing ‘Clownesses’ and Female Clowns on the Popular Stage around 1900,” in Touring Performance and Global Exchange 1850–1960: Making Tracks, ed. Gilli Bush-Bailey and Kate Flaherty (London: Routledge, 2022), 65–81.

9 “Why Miss Williams Is a Clown: Her Father Was One for Forty Years,” New York Times, 31 March 1895, 27; “Local and District News,” Huddersfield Chronicle, 14 June 1892.

10 “London Music Halls,” The Era, 5 February 1865, 14.

11 William L. Slout, Olympians of the Sawdust Circle: A Biographical Dictionary of the 19th Century American Circus (San Bernardino: Borgo Press, 1998), 76; “Barnum and Bailey's Show,” The Era, 15 October 1898, 23.

12 Lulu was a dancer at the cabaret de Chat-Noir in Paris in 1880 who is said to have inspired Félicien Champsaur to write a pantomime of that name, produced at the Nouveau Cirque in 1888. Although Andrea Oberhuber calls her “première clownesse,” she was actually a blonde, romantic Colombine. Oberhuber, “Secrets de Lulu: Félicien Champsaur et la conception du ‘roman moderne,’” Les Lettres romanes 69.3–4 (2015): 365–81. Frank Wedekind may have been struck by the name when he worked in Parisian popular entertainment.

13 Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, “Clowns,” in Women of the American Circus, 1880–1940 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2012), 183–7, at 184. Outside of such billing (see the ad at https://clownopedia.fandom.com/wiki/Amelia_Butler) there is not much known about Butler or her act. The historian James W. Shettel mentions her only once in his article “The First Bareback Somersault Rider,” Circus Scrap Book 13 (1932): 21–52, appearing as “Columbine” alongside her husband Robert Butler in the Glenroy, Thayer, and Noyes's circus in Philadelphia in 1863. She is named in T. Allston Brown's History of the American Stage (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1870), 58, as a daughter of the clown John Grimaldi Wells.

14 She fashioned her stage name, “Ada Isaacs,” after the notoriety of Adah Isaacs Menken, who performed in the hippodrama Mazeppa. Maskell even took to performing her own version of Mazeppa in addition to clowning. We are indebted to Maskell's great-great granddaughter, Alison Young, who provided this information. Young has blogged about her ancestor in “Fascinating Ada,” Music Hall Alice, accessed 8 November 2021, https://musichallalice.wordpress.com/2018/10/11/fascinating-ada/.

15 “Entertainments,” Cardiff Times (6 November 1875), 6. Also see The Era (6 June 1869) and Leicester Journal (4 June 1869), 8.

16 Adams and Keene, Women of the American Circus, 184.

17 The Swiss clown Toto in 1931 perpetuated the misapprehension that female clowns did not exist. “Toto Declares Woman Clown Nonexistent,” Los Angeles Times (22 November 1931), 24. Typical is this flat statement by a modern writer on comedy: “There are no women clowns, there are no women buffoons.” George Minois, Historía do riso e do escárnio, trans. Manuel Ruas [of Histoire du rire et de la dérision (Paris: Fayard, 2000)] (São Paulo: Editore UNESZ, 2003), 611. [Note: All translations herein are those of the present article's authors.]

18 “Circus Remodels New Lady Clown,” New York Times (5 April 1939), 33.

19 “The Tank's the Thing: It Is the Feature at the Barnum & Bailey Show This Year,” New York Times (29 March 1895), 3; “Why Miss Williams Is a Clown,” 27.

20 See Arrighi, Gillian, “The Circus and Modernity: A Commitment to ‘The Newer’ and ‘The Newest,’Early Popular Visual Culture 10.2 (May 2012): 169–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Janet Davis, “Ladies of the Ring,” CircusNow.org (6 January 2015), accessed 5 May 2021, http://circusnow.org/ladies-of-the-ring/#_ednref19. [That site is now defunct, but Prof. Davis has graciously offered that interested readers may contact her directly.]

22 Truth (6 January 1898): 45. During this tour, Barnum & Bailey increased the number of lady clowns from three to four: Miss Del Fuego, Lizzie Seabert, and the Sisters Hera.

23 “The Greatest Show on Earth: Messrs. Barnum & Bailey's Visit to Croyden,” Croydon Advertiser and East Surrey Reporter (20 August 1898), 2.

24 Louise Peacock, “Circus Clowns,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Circus, ed. Gillian Arrighi and Jim Davis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 141–54, at 152.

25 Louise Peacock, Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance (Chicago: Intellect, 2009), 78.

26 Cézard, Delphine, “La Clown: Un Idéal impossible?,” Recherches féminines 25.2 (2012): 157–72Google Scholar, at 158.

27 Ibid., 165–6.

28 She joined the circus at a young age alongside her two sisters, Mary Ann and Louisa, in an act called the “Three Spirits.” This, along with Shettel's reference to Columbine (see note 13), suggests that her earliest incarnation was as a dancer in pantomime. See Thomas Allston Brown, History of the American Stage: Containing Biographical Sketches of Nearly Every Member of the Profession That Has Appeared on the American Stage, from 1733 to 1870 (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1870), 58.

29 Tristan Rémy, “Miss Loulou, nécrologie [obituary],” Le Cirque dans l'univers 100, 1er trimestre (1976): 88.

30 Inez Whitley Foster, “Clowning Is Full-Time Career for Woman Who Grew Up under the ‘Big Top,’” Christian Science Monitor, 10 May 1948, 12.

31 Tristan Rémy, Les Clowns (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1945), 443.

32 Hutter interviewed by Roth-Hunkeler, Theres, “Gardi Hutter: The Clever Augustine,” trans. Oberli-Turner, Maureen, Passages 10 (1991): 1921Google Scholar, at 19.

33 Joan Mankin, “Queenie Moon: An Interview with Joan Mankin,” in The Pickle Clowns: New American Circus Comedy, ed. Joel Schechter (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001), 100–10, at 103.

34 Diary entry, 15 January 1862; in Derek Hudson, Munby, Man of Two Worlds: The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby, 1828–1910 (London: Abacus, 1974), 113. A professional journal's reaction to her performance also pointed out the preservation of her “femininity”: “it is not often that a lady Clown is witnessed, and if only on account of the novelty of the affair she is well worth seeing and hearing. She dances with her customary grace and agility, and must be set down as a most clever and amusing artiste.” “London Music Halls,” The Era (5 February 1865), 14.

35 André Suarès, “Il n'y a pas de femme clown. Vous êtes-vous demandé pourquoi?” Comœdia no. 4937 (3 July 1926): 1.

36 Ibid.

37 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 1999), 43.

38 Quinn, Michael L., “The Comedy of Reference: The Semiotics of Commedia Figures in Eighteenth-Century Venice,” Theatre Journal 43.1 (1991): 70–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 74. Similarly, Butler writes that gender is “a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame.” Gender Trouble, 43.

39 “Female Clowns,” San Francisco Figaro (17 September 1872), 2.

40 Ibid.

41 Kathleen Rowe, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 31.

42 Walter Freewood describes Grimaldi stealing sausages and stuffing a baby in his pocket in Theatrical Journal (1865). Quoted in A. E. W. Wilson, King Panto: The Story of Pantomime (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1935), 35.

43 Jürgens, “Lady Clowns,” 74.

44 “Why Miss Williams Is a Clown,” 27. Evetta Matthews is called Miss Williams in this article.

45 “Fireside Talks,” Home Notes, London 7.81 (3 August 1895): 73–4, at 73.

46 “Why Miss Williams Is a Clown,” 27.

47 Adams and Keene, Women of the American Circus, 186.

48 “Why Miss Williams Is a Clown,” 27.

49 Ibid.; “The Tank's the Thing: It Is the Feature at the Barnum & Bailey Show This Year,” New York Times, 29 March 1895, 3.

50 Peter Pickup, “Pick-up Notes,” South London Press, 31 December 1892, 5.

51 On Wallett see The Public Life of W. F. Wallett, the Queen's Jester: An Autobiography, ed. John Luntley (London: Bemrose & Sons, 1870).

52 “The Tank's the Thing,” 3; “Why Miss Williams Is a Clown,” 27.

53 The Tour of 1897: A Daily Record of the Triumphs of the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth (Buffalo, NY: Courier, for Harvey L. Watkins, 1897), 60. The English Jessie Villars had appeared in Welsh panto in 1881; in 1901 the Buffalo Times referred to her as “the only female clown,” although by then she was in a touring theatrical company. By 1899 Lizzie Seabert began working as a flying ring artist, with Barnum & Bailey at least to 1904. Lonny Olschansky (Leonie Eggertsen, 1884–?) was the daughter of the prominent Danish clown William Olschansky and probably the only real clowness of the three.

54 “Why Miss Williams Is a Clown,” 27.

55 Cézard, Les “Nouveaux” clowns, 213.

56 Suarès, “Il n'y a pas de femme clown,” 1.

57 The latest reference in print we found of Loretta La Pearl is in the obituary of her relative Roy La Pearl in 1956, which mentions her act with dogs. “La Pearl—Roy,” Billboard (19 May 1956): 43. An earlier entry describes the act involving “Boxing Dogs.” Bill Sachs, “Magic,” Billboard (16 September 1950), 54.

58 May, Earl Chapin, “With the ‘Merry Joeys’ of the Tent World,” Popular Mechanics (April 1927): 595–9Google Scholar, at 596.

59 Rémy, Tristan, “Yvette Spiessert clownesse,” Le Cirque dans l'univers 55, 4e trimestre (1964): 27–8Google Scholar.

60 Colette Cosnier-Hélard, “Le Clown et la demoiselle,” in Le Clown: Rire et/ou dérision?, ed. Nicole Vigouroux-Frey (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 1999), 67–76, at 68.

61 May, “With the ‘Merry Joeys,’” 597.

62 Ibid., 598.

63 Gustave Fréjaville, Au music-hall (Paris: Éditions du Nouveau-Monde, 1923), 206–7.

64 Charlotte Blanqui, “Dans les cirques,” La Rampe (15 March 1926): 20.

65 Judith Crist, “Only Woman Clown Declares Job Demands She Act Like Lady,” New York Harold Tribune, 11 April 1948, A5.

66 Frank Foster and Willan G. Bosworth, Clowning Through (London: Heath Cranton, 1937), 105–9.

67 The Lulu Adams collection is at the University of Sheffield. See Arantza Barrutia-Wood, “Archive Piece: Lulu Adams—Female Clown and Circus Performer,” Early Popular Visual Culture 14.1 (2016): 107–16.

68 “Before the Show,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 25 July1939, 4; Emma Bugbee, “Lulu, 1st Woman Circus Clown, Vain about Make-Up and Wig,” New York Herald Tribune, 24 April 1939, 16.

69 “New York's Play World,” Hartford Courant, 6 April 1939, 10.

70 Crist, “Only Woman Clown,” A5.

71 Virginia Irwin, “Woman Clown: ‘It's Best of All Jobs,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 28 April 1948, 41.

72 “Circus Remodels New Lady Clown,” 33; Whiteley Foster, “Clowning Is Full-Time Career,’” 12. Rose Hanlon, another married clown in the same show, wore male attire and male clown makeup.

73 Whiteley Foster, “Clowning Is Full-Time Career,” 12.

74 Bugbee, “Lulu, 1st Woman Circus Clown,” 16.

75 Whiteley Foster, “Clowning Is Full-Time Career,” 12. Irwin, “Woman Clown,” 41.

76 Irwin, “Woman Clown,” 41.

77 Crist, “Only Woman Clown,” A5.

78 Ibid.

79 Irwin, “Woman Clown,” 41.

80 “Only Woman Clown Likes Cutting Capers,” Montreal Gazette, 8 May 1939, 6.

81 Bugbee, “Lulu, 1st Woman Circus Clown,” 16.

82 “Ringling Clown Dies at Start of Broadcast Here,” New York Herald Tribune, 7 April 1948, 20.

83 Brighton and Hove Daily (1952), quoted in Barrutia-Wood, “Archive Piece: Lulu Adams,” 108.

84 A fact she mentions multiple times in her autobiography. See Annie Fratellini, Destin de clown (Lyon: La Manufacture, 1989), 122, 155, 168.

85 Jean Monteaux, Jean Monteaux interroge Annie Fratellini: Un Cirque pour l'avenir (Paris: Le Centurion, 1977), 27.

86 Fratellini, Destin de clown, 141.

87 “No one should be able to sense my form. The clown is asexual, . . .” “Here we join the inaccessibility and the unreality of the clown. We are an image and must retain our mystery.” Fratellini, Destin de clown, 163–4.

88 Monteaux, Annie Fratellini, 25–6.

89 Ibid., 26.

90 Fratellini, Destin de clown, 169. A similar performer was Valentina Rowland, granddaughter of the famous Coco (Nicolai Poliakoff) and a star with the Bertram Mills Circus. After a childhood working in a German circus, she took on the role of a knockabout auguste, performing as Cocotina in male costume and walrus mustache. Her mother, Helen Poliakoff, Coco's daughter, had preceded her as Cocotina, which did not prevent the British press from headlining Valentina as the “First Girl Clown.” London Sunday Dispatch (22 January 1961), 3; “Trio Vitalites Keep Busy,” The Stage (26 January 1961), 5.

91 Gardi Hutter interviewed by Lili Curcio, Revista Anjos do Picadeiro 6 (2007): 159–65, at 162.

92 Quoted in Saavedra, Renata, “Mulheres palhaças: Comicidade, gênero e política com o grupo ‘As Marias da Graça,’Revista Ártemis 26.1 (July–December 2018): 143–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 153.

93 De Menezes, Fernando Chui, “Quatro atos de Judite: O corpo feminista da palhaça,” Revista Trana Interdisciplinas (São Paulo) 2.1 (2011): 161–8Google Scholar, cited in Do Nascimento, Maria S., “Casada consigo mesma: Mulheres palhaças e a busca de uma comicidade feminista,” Revista Ártemis 26.1 (July–December 2018): 125–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 166.

94 Nascimento, “Casada consigo mesma,” 127–9.