- Close/Clown Encounters with History:From Mimesis to Kinesis in Practice as Research
I am standing in front of a small audience of performance scholars at the Association of Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference, in a drab room at the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago.1 Surrounding me, pinned to walls and hanging from the ceiling, are pieces of evidence—photocopies and projections of illustrations, maps, playbills, scripts, press clippings, portraits—the archival traces of nineteenth-century comedian Charles Mathews and his virtuosic multicharacter monologues. I am in the final moments of the culminating performance of a two-year Practice-as Research (PaR) project, trying to make sense of all this incomplete, often obscure material and focusing in particular on Mathews’s 1824 tour de force, Trip to America.2 Although I was part of a team of six collaborators working on the excavation of Mathews, the challenge of embodying the controversial and ultimately inimitable Englishman fell to me, a trained clown. But at the conclusion of two years’ work and an exhausting hour-long performance, I admit defeat.
Resigned and dispirited, I pull out a balloon from my pocket and blow it up. What else is a clown to do? Light from the video projector catches the balloon, and suddenly the jutting chin and arched eyebrows of Mathews’s face are cast onto its curve, taking on lifelike solidity and conjuring his ghostly presence. Having struggled, and ultimately failed, to know him through various attempts at embodiment, I suddenly find myself face to face with an incarnation of Mathews outside of myself that I can talk to and question in person, intimately. In the pressure of meeting a celebrity, I am not eloquent. I gabble a question about why he spent so much time mocking others, especially those of different races and ethnicities than his own. He evades my questions and reproaches my seriousness:
We’re all worthy of ridicule. You should know that. You’re a clown.Me:
But reinforcing racialized stereotypes merely upholds an oppressive, hegemonic, Eurocentric master narrative.Mathews:
Oh how deliciously pompous! I can use that. (making a note for himself)Me:
I just want to know what was the purpose of your humor.Mathews:
That reminds me of an Irishman I once met.
Mathews proceeds to tell a dubious joke in which he meets a cheery Irishman who asks him whether a certain turtle is a real turtle or a mock turtle. I look at him, puzzled. Is he trying to tell me something or is this just more evasive and offensive humor? But before I can ask, the balloon escapes from my grasp. It whines and sputters in circles around the room before landing, limp and lifeless, on the floor. History, tantalizingly brought to life, returns to its intractable, unknowable form, and we are left in the present with … what?
This is the question I consider as I reflect on my experiences as an artist/scholar activating my embodied “know-how” as scholarship between September 2009 and August 2011.3 When Tracy Davis asked me if I would be interested in collaborating on a practical exploration of Mathews’s iconic and controversial performance Trip to America, I was immediately enthusiastic. Tracy was perplexed by the editing challenges presented in discrepant, overlapping, multiformat, unauthorized transcriptions and proposed workshopping material to see if it made sense “on its feet.” Although the [End Page 113] project also connected to themes pertinent to my own research—namely, the social use of humor, intercultural performance, and the ethics of representation—I was mostly attracted by the idea of putting my own practical know-how to use in the context of tangible, scholarly inquiry and demonstrating the epistemological value of practice as useful to the academy. The compliment of being asked by a well-respected senior scholar to contribute my talent to her historical research project was a powerful incentive in itself.
However, I failed to predict the fraught complexities of reenacting material originally performed by a man considered by some scholars to have “established a performative paradigm for future blackface minstrels” (McAllister 160). During the course of the project, we learned the...