In Cambridge, the fair used to come in the summer and was known as Midsummer Fair, held on Midsummer Common. Our history classes at our little junior school were great, we started with local history and branched out to national history; we learned that Midsummer Fair was the oldest in England, and had been taking place since the reign of King John… have I remembered this correctly? Yes, I have! It was granted a charter by King John in 1211, that’s just over eight hundred years ago! What I didn’t know, or have forgotten, it originally took place at the feast of St Etheldreda, and all revenues went to the monks of Barnwell Priory. (St Etheldreda was a local girl, born near Newmarket, and became abbess of Ely)
In the winter, the circus came to town and was held on Midsummer Common. I don’t like circuses now, but when I was little it was amazing to see the ‘wild’ animals, although it horrifies me now. I remember acrobats, and tightrope walkers, and trapeze artists, and displays of horses doing horsey things with their glamorous riders, beautiful and exotic women and dashingly handsome men! There was a ringmaster with a top hat and whip, of course, and his assistant in spangly costume, and the men who shifted stuff about, putting up the cages for the beasts, erectile the tightrope, setting the scenes for different displays and I always thought they were more exciting and interesting than the other men in costume (most probably they actually were the other men!) Ever present in the ring were the clowns; I never thought they were particularly funny, but nor did I or any of my friends think they were particularly creepy or frightening. There may have been a couple of girls who didn’t like them, but there were always a couple of people who didn’t like anything.
These days clowns are the objects of fear and phobias – even I don’t particularly like them, for no real reason… why has it changed from clown being funny, comical, heroic sometimes, pathetic (in the true sense) to being sinister, vile, horrible, threatening? Recently there was a spate of people jumping out on others wearing a clown mask – and some of their ‘victims’ claimed to have been traumatised by it – even though the masked ones (probably young lads) actually did nothing?
I have been pondering this since reading a very good article this morning from the Smithsonian Institute by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary. She explores the history of clowns and clowning, and the reciprocal history of people being afraid of them. The byline reads: You aren’t alone in your fear of makeup-clad entertainers; people have been frightened by clowns for centuries. I was a little surprised as I thought it was mainly since novels such as Stephen King’s ‘It‘, and late twentieth century scary movies, but no! Fear of clowns has been around as long as people have dressed up, disguised their faces with make-up or masks, and played tricks and literally ‘clowned’ around.
Ms Rodriguez McRobbie explains that most cultures have had clowns, two and a half millennia ago in Egypt, imperial China, ancient Rome and the Hopi, for example. Court jesters figure largely in medieval stories, and of course, the Fool is a major character in King Lear, and also Feste the jester in Twelfth Night (my only moment of fame on the boards was as Curio, when I had to say Feste, the jester, my lord; a fool that the lady Olivia’s father took much delight in )
In the eighteenth century clowns were like superstars, Grimaldi being the most well-known; he had a tragic life behind his make-up, and when Dickens had a character in The Pickwick Papers, supposedly based on Grimaldi’s son, the idea of the clown as something other than a fun-loving prankster seemed to come to the fore. To get a full picture of how the image of clowns has changed, and what influenced it, and how they have influenced our present culture, do have a read of Ms Rodriguez McRobbie’s article:
Sad clowns feature a great deal in popular music – ‘my smile is my make-up, I wear since my break up with you‘ – Smokey Robinson, Tears of a Clown, springs to mind, but there are so many more:
- Cathy’s Clown – The Everly Brothers
- Clown – Emeli Sandé
- Clown Song – P-Control
- Clown Strike – Elvis Costello
- Clowns and Ballerinas – Negativland
- Clowns – Goldfrapp
- Clowntime Is Over – Elvis Costello
- Clowny Clown Clown – Crispin Glover
- Death of a Clown – The Kinks
- Everybody Loves a Clown – Gary Lewis & the Playboys
- Fancy Clown – Madvillain
- Fifty-Fifty Clown – Cocteau Twins
- Ha! Ha! Said The Clown – Manfred Mann
- Kinko The Clown – Ogden Edsl
- Lay It Down Clown – The Replacements
- Pocket of a Clown – Dwight Yoakam
- Rambozo the Clown – Dead Kennedys
- Rock ‘n’ Roll Clown – Harpo
- Sad Clowns – John Mellencamp
- See the Funny Little Clown – Bobby Goldsboro
- Send in the Clowns – Judy Collins
- Tears of a Clown – The Miracles
- You Killed the Clown – Thompson Twins
… and there are more! Which one should I choose to share?
PS I have never written about clowns… maybe I should?!