Submitted by Susanne Bacon.
I must have been four or five years old when a small traveling circus came to our suburb in Germany. He pitched his tent with a ring in a meadow next to one of our supermarkets, put his carts in the back and handed out leaflets. When my mom took my little brother and I to an afternoon show, I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t remember that huge melee of short programs in the ring. It was mind blowing, since we didn’t have a TV at home, and the few visits to the movies showed some cohesive stories that I already knew from fairy tale books. So the only conclusive sketch that stuck was that of a clown running away from his wife, threatening him with a broom. Her role came when the ring had to be set up for a new act, and we the kids howled with laughter. I even remember that apart from a weird hat, a red nose, and huge pants held in place by suspenders, he wasn’t too much make-up. He was a real character. And we loved him.
Nowadays, every time I meet clowns, not much is left of the endearing character of the past. Over time, I have visited quite a few circuses. There were still the funny clowns. But there were also the pantomimating white clowns in a beautiful harlequin dress. I never understood them; I found them elegant, sad and somewhat disturbing. They came from another sphere.
In the late 1970s, McDonald’s started opening one restaurant after another in my homeland, Germany. Their messenger was one of the last sympathetic clowns to sign up with me, Ronald McDonald. An imitator was usually present at grand openings or special promotional events. Yet it was just a clown outfit without a mind; blowing up balloons and turning them into animals was not my idea of a clown. Maybe I had grown too old. Or maybe I still wanted my fun clown back from preschool days.
Then, in the 1990s, I discovered the Batman movies through a student friend of mine. I wasn’t one, and I didn’t know why people were so keen to watch something as dark as the darkness of Gotham City. Wasn’t there already enough sadness around us? The Joker, a grim caricature of a clown with smeared makeup, was at the root of everything that happened, plus comedic relief. I hadn’t realized that at that point I was watching a phenomenon, the turn of a character we thought we knew so well to something that could be downright 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 less well-known novel “The Man Who Laughs”. It is deeply critical work on contemporary politics. At the base is a man whose face was mutilated as a child to earn money as a source of laughter on stage. Even his most serious political appeals don’t get the response they deserve – his face causes constant laughter. The grotesque exterior is NOT a reflection of man’s deeply frustrated inner workings.
Does this ring a bell? Indeed, Joaquin Phoenix plays the narcissistic psychopath Arthur in the movie “The Joker”. As predictable as the plot is and as brutal as the story is, the point of connection is that whenever the character wants to cry, they burst out laughing. And although Arthur wears clownish makeup, which in the end is smeared, he’s a tragic character, as far removed from my childhood clown as possible.
Halloween is coming. There are Halloween movies with clowns, none of them are funny. None of them arouse sympathy. They are basically flat types symbolizing evil in a once friendly costume. Enter the internet and ask your friends or their children what is one of the scariest characters for them. Their response will most often be “clowns”. This happens when a character is emptied of all meaning except being a model of evil.
I have met people in life who seem able to put themselves at the center of any party by constantly joking. They play the clown. They have a witty answer to everything. More often than not, I found them to be extremely sad or scared people who did not want to reveal their true selves. Being on the sidelines would have meant reflecting their problems. I have ceased to be fooled by them. Behind the antics is often someone who needs a hug.
Thinking back to my childhood clown, maybe he wasn’t that funny either. He was running from an angry woman, after all. Looking back, we only laughed at the chase and unexpected pop-ups from stage props. In a more serious context, the clown would perhaps rather have deserved our empathy. His wife too. I think if we search for the real face behind a person’s mask and outfit, we find that between the bursts of laughter and screams of terror could lie a world of empathy.