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Reviewed by:
  • Clown by Jon Davison
  • Dave Peterson
Clown. By Jon Davison. Readings in Theatre Practice series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013; pp. 344.

Jon Davison’s Clown provides a valuable introduction to studying clowns as historical subjects and clown as a contemporary performance practice. The book is divided into two sections: “What Do Clowns Do?” and “How Do Clowns Clown?” The first half of the text focuses primarily on the history of clowns in Western Europe and the United States, and the second explores contemporary clown practice and training. While the sections complement each other, the two halves could be read separately, depending on a reader’s interest. Where the first section synthesizes a wide range of existing clown histories, the second enters into contemporary debates about what constitutes clown as a practice. Throughout the book, Davison challenges a notion that clown is primarily a performance “to provide an experience of authenticity” (7), critiquing popular notions that clown is a uniquely personal form of performance because it reveals an “authentic” or “true” performance through spontaneous action. Much of the book wrestles between clown’s formalized aspects and this feeling of the authentic.

Chapter 1, “Grock’s Entrée,” is an analysis of Grock, the famous early twentieth-century Swiss clown. Davison opposes the notion that clown is “almost always an oral, nonliterary form” (9) by supplying a wide range of documentation of Grock’s work, including scripts, descriptions by others, and even recordings. Through these materials, the author establishes that clown acts tend to consist of “a catalogue of odd behavior” (15). By clearly outlining what a clown does, Davison demystifies the aura of the authentic to reveal that clowning is often a “highly structured and ordered activity” (7).

Looking first to the history, Davison analyzes a wealth of clown histories, showing that a sense of authenticity or truth in clowning is always temporally dependent. Drawing on David Wiles’s work, Davison finds that English early modern clowns were a response to anxiety about the growth of London (chapter 2, “Clown History”), then points to mid-nineteenth-century clowns’ use of elaborate traps and devices as “driven by the high-paced age of mechanisation” in his third chapter, “Clown and Pierrot” (61). In chapter 6, “Death and Rebirth of Clown,” Davison finds that existential trends following World War II showcased “tension in clowning between meaningfulness and meaninglessness” (120). Davison’s breadth of research demonstrates the temporal motivations of clowns, but also serves as a great starting point for those wishing to know more about clowns of the past. Of note to English readers will be larger portions of Tristian Remy’s work on the clowns; there is a paucity of published translations of the notable French clown theorist and historian’s work, and Davison’s translations are useful in both their own right and as part of his narrative. The thorough history serves to address some of the frequent romanticizing of clowns as ahistorical figures.

The second half of the book engages with contemporary clown practice, taking on the contradictions between ideas of truth through spontaneity with the need for structure in clown practice. Davison notes that “the last 50 years have seen an explosion of interest in clown training worldwide” (133), resulting in divergent ideas about the art form. He provides passionate insight into several fissures within contemporary clown training that are sourced in his own experience as a clown trainer. In chapter 10, “Clown Training,” Davison observes the integration of play and clown as aspects of theatrical training. While acknowledging the use of games to advance theatre practice, he is skeptical of the current use: “what may have been revolutionary and liberating in the late 1950s might not be so in the early 21st century” (217). Moreover, he finds that failure, an essential cornerstone of clown, is not embraced by highly structured theatrical games. More fruitful is the incorporation of clown techniques by teachers like Michael Chekhov and Sanford Meisner. The latter’s emphasis on “the actual here-and-now,” as opposed to a “fictional world,” is identified as a more useful and accurate incorporation of clown into actor training than the playful games and clown exercises...


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