Shakespeare’s Clowns

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Another guest blog from Andrew Cowie (who is holding the blogging fort whilst I get our new web pages up and running!)

My friend Ira Seidenstein is a professional clown. He’s also a fine Shakespearean actor, a combination which might seem incongruous today but which Shakespeare himself would have taken for granted.

Clowning is more than big shoes and red noses, it’s a performance tradition with a history extending back through commedia dell’arte to the mediaeval mystery plays. It was a form familiar to Shakespeare and he recognised the clown as a specialist talent with acrobatic, musical and dancing skills the rest of the company were unlikely to have. A third of Shakespeare’s plays include characters either called or described as a clown, fool or jester and we know from Hamlet’s advice to the players that they were anarchic and subversive: ‘let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too.’

Clown training today is based principally on Jacques Lecoq’s school in Paris and that of his former student, Philippe Gaulier. Ira trained with Lecoq and so too did many actors and directors who based their subsequent work on his methods. Simon McBurney trained with Lecoq and went on to create Complicite, John Wright trained there and co-founded Trestle Theatre and Told By An Idiot, Footsbarn was founded by Lecoq graduates which led in turn to Kneehigh, Julie Taymor, director of The Lion King stage show, trained with Lecoq and so did Gillian Lynne, who choreographed Cats.

But if clowning is alive and well why do we see so little of it in Shakespeare today? You can date the divorce between Shakespeare and his clowns from the 1737 Licensing Act which introduced theatre censorship in Britain. For the next 231 years, until 1968, theatre was split into licensed, state-censored ‘legitimate theatre’ and unlicensed, uncensored, comedy, music and burlesque. The two branches then evolved separately; legitimate theatre became high art for the emerging middle classes while clowning was demoted to working class pop culture and developed through music hall, which remained uncensored, into pantomime and musical theatre.

Shakespeare became the epitome of legitimate theatre. In the 18th century his plays were rewritten to provide moral instruction and a happy ending then in the 19th century legitimate theatre discovered social realism. It was no longer enough for theatre to entertain, it had to be real. Andre Antoine’s Theatre Libre, founded in Paris in 1887, introduced the staging conventions we take for granted today; the invisible fourth wall, darkened auditoria and three dimensional sets, while Stanislavski developed his psychology-based actor training at the Moscow Arts Theatre to meet the demands of new realist drama by Ibsen, Tolstoy and Chekhov.

By the 20th century Shakespeare’s reinvention as a realist writer was complete. Directors turned the comedies into bleak social commentaries and the clowns into dour, humourless observers of human folly. But some theatre companies are working to reconnect Shakespeare with his clowns. Edward Hall’s Propeller company, a Shakespeare touring company with a strong Lecoq influence, have just been awarded new Arts Council funding of £265,000 a year to develop their work. And if you happen to be in Paris in May you can join one of Ira’s workshops and learn how it’s done!

 

 

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Damn, how did I miss that? So much for my research! Many thanks Duncan, I found a couple of reviews online including this one in The Guardian and it sounded good too: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2011/mar/09/hamlet-the-clown-prince-review

  • Thanks Ira, I wondered if I ought to get you to check the blog post before I submitted it in case you said: ‘but it’s nothing like that at all!’ so I’m grateful for your comments and your corrections. Sadly I won’t be able to join you in Brisbane but I’d love to think someone might learn about your work through this blog and find their way to one of your courses somewhere in the world.

  • Duncan

    The Company Theatre of Mumbai recently toured the UK with their Hamlet: The Clown Prince in which the entire story is told/performed by clowns.

  • Hi, 1st comment may be in cyberspace awaiting ur approval. In the meantime, yes there was/is a Cartesian split twixt proper acting and comic acting. Yin Yang. I propose various ways of harmony. It is still true with Hamlet’s comments that yes a clown can overflow “even though some necessary question” is the important point at a moment a the play. “Shakespeare’s Clowns” will be the theme for QCR3 Jan3-20. Guest Teacher will be Professor Tom Bishop – co-editor of Shakespearean International Yearbook http://www.ashgate.com/default.aspx?page=637&calcTitle=1&forthcoming=1&title_id=11360&edition_id=14606

    July 4 – Sept 30 also in sunny Brisbane is http://www.iraseid.com/isaactandclown.html

    Clarification regarding Lecoq, I trained at his 1st offshoot school Dell’ arte in California. Founder – Carlo Mazzone-Clementi taught fultime then. Carlo was a primary muse for Lecoq. In fact they were mutual muses as young men, post WWII finding their way in the world. They were continuously working together in Italy for 3 years together circa 1948-51. I also trained in Stanislavsky and Method Acting, and 2002-2008 in Suzuki Actor Training Method and was involved in ten Suzuki based productions in that period.

    This is my intro to your wonderful blog. I will subscribe now. Thanks, Ira

  • Hi, 1st comment may be in cyberspace awaiting ur approval. In the meantime, yes there was/is a Cartesian split twixt proper acting and comic acting. Yin Yang. I propose various ways of harmony. It is still true with Hamlet’s comments that yes a clown can overflow “even though some necessary question” is the important point at a moment a the play. “Shakespeare’s Clowns” will be the theme for QCR3 Jan3-20. Guest Teacher will be Professor Tom Bishop – co-editor of Shakespearean International Yearbook http://www.ashgate.com/default.aspx?page=637&calcTitle=1&forthcoming=1&title_id=11360&edition_id=14606

    July 4 – Sept 30 also in sunny Brisbane is http://www.iraseid.com/isaactandclown.html

    Clarification regarding Lecoq, I trained at his 1st offshoot school Dell’ arte in California. Founder – Carlo Mazzone-Clementi taught fultime then. Carlo was a primary muse for Lecoq. In fact they were mutual muses as young men, post WWII finding their way in the world. They were continuously working together in Italy for 3 years together circa 1948-51. I also trained in Stanislavsky and Method Acting, and 2002-2008 in Suzuki Actor Training Method and was involved in ten Suzuki based productions in that period.

    This is my intro to your wonderful blog. I will subscribe now. Thanks, Ira

  • Exact to the point of the Cartesian split of legit theatre and theatre of comedy.
    Let the healing begin:
    http://www.iraseid.com/isaactandclown.html

    Plus the grand “Shakespeare’s Clowns” 3-week intensive Jan 3-20 in warm Brisbane.
    Guest Professor will co-teach with me – Prof. Tom Bishop co-editor of Shakespearean International Yearbook http://www.ashgate.com/default.aspx?page=637&calcTitle=1&forthcoming=1&title_id=11360&edition_id=14606

    Clarification I trained in the Lecoq method at the primary offshoot school Dell’ arte School in California. At the time the Founder – Carlo Mazzone-Clementi taught ful-time. Carlo was a major muse to Lecoq during their fervent years of discovery in Italy. I’ve also trained in Stanislavsky, Method Acting, Suzuki Actor Training Method.

    Thank you for including me on your blog! I will subscribe, it looks great!!

    Regards,
    Ira

  • Exact to the point of the Cartesian split of legit theatre and theatre of comedy.
    Let the healing begin:
    http://www.iraseid.com/isaactandclown.html

    Plus the grand “Shakespeare’s Clowns” 3-week intensive Jan 3-20 in warm Brisbane.
    Guest Professor will co-teach with me – Prof. Tom Bishop co-editor of Shakespearean International Yearbook http://www.ashgate.com/default.aspx?page=637&calcTitle=1&forthcoming=1&title_id=11360&edition_id=14606

    Clarification I trained in the Lecoq method at the primary offshoot school Dell’ arte School in California. At the time the Founder – Carlo Mazzone-Clementi taught ful-time. Carlo was a major muse to Lecoq during their fervent years of discovery in Italy. I’ve also trained in Stanislavsky, Method Acting, Suzuki Actor Training Method.

    Thank you for including me on your blog! I will subscribe, it looks great!!

    Regards,
    Ira

  • Exact to the point of the Cartesian split of legit theatre and theatre of comedy.
    Let the healing begin:
    http://www.iraseid.com/isaactandclown.html

    Plus the grand “Shakespeare’s Clowns” 3-week intensive Jan 3-20 in warm Brisbane.
    Guest Professor will co-teach with me – Prof. Tom Bishop co-editor of Shakespearean International Yearbook http://www.ashgate.com/default.aspx?page=637&calcTitle=1&forthcoming=1&title_id=11360&edition_id=14606

    Clarification I trained in the Lecoq method at the primary offshoot school Dell’ arte School in California. At the time the Founder – Carlo Mazzone-Clementi taught ful-time. Carlo was a major muse to Lecoq during their fervent years of discovery in Italy. I’ve also trained in Stanislavsky, Method Acting, Suzuki Actor Training Method.

    Thank you for including me on your blog! I will subscribe, it looks great!!

    Regards,
    Ira

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