Slava Polunin: The Monologue of a Clown – 3: Tradition


I feel pity for the good audience that it denies the clownery. Historically, there is a great and magic treasure in this world, and that is the clown. For why, then, do we see a figure or a picture of a clown in almost every house? His image is nearly in every book, and almost every poet has a poem about the clown, but why? It means that there is something magical, something eternal in the clownery. I personally belong to such a powerful tradition that I can actually build upon this base whatever I want. But at the same time I feel a perpetual resistance. I feel it in America, in England, everywhere. They say: “Oh, a clown? Then it is for an infant matinee or a birthday party”. Or: “My, the clownery?! Are you mad? Oh, and you even apply make-up… It’s dull and old-fashioned”. All this is because we haven’t seen the real clowns for ages, since the silent films. The tradition of clownery is completely sophisticated. The number of true things is fantastically small. Perhaps, in Russia there are no such things at all. There were good guys – The Southern Birds, The Unison, The Tales of the East, The Mimicrici, and The Masks-show. Because they were not allowed to grow stronger and stand on their own feet, because of the money situation, all of them shook loose: some broke down, some emigrated, some went for big money and now have a fear to leave this path. So, there were people, but no conditions.

People always make traditions. But perhaps, in order to live long, tradition must die, from time to time? Once commedia del-arte had been all but buried in the sand, then a sudden ‘oops’ – and there came English music hall, Grimaldi circus, then ‘hap’ – all had disappeared again, ‘bang’ – there came French fairs, the pantomimes of the well-known Deburot, the one as whom Jean-Louis Barreau starred in ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’. Later it disappeared as well. Then it was revived in the silent cinema. The silent cinema for me is the top of the top of clownery. There was no decent clown who would not leave the stage for the silent film. Like in the vortex, everyone was absorbed by it. But the sound came and crossed out all of them. Thus, after a long period tradition had come to grief again. Two or three comedians did survive, and Chaplin was the greatest among them. Almost everything I know I took from the silent cinema. If one day people realized what the silent cinema had been in the art history, and began studying it, they would find the main secret of mine. Everything I own has been taken from there: bits of pieces, of personages, of atmosphere… I have a huge collection of silent films, assorted by periods, by genres and by personalities. I am a very reasonable man: I do not settle down till I dig to the truth. At first, I was collecting Chaplin’s films. Having all 92 films, I began watching them a-new and eliminating them. Then I arranged everything that could be proved useful for those interested in clownery. Now they may not watch all Chaplin, for I have assorted the finest of him: the best, the typical, the tricky, the tragic. Of all 120 films of Oliver Hardy I’ve only chosen 16. If one is interested in Hardy, I can demonstrate all his aesthetic principles upon the precise examples. I have all de Funes, more than 40 films. Of those, I have only chosen the tricks and arranged them in 3 hours of killing laughter. I know all these tricks by heart. Same for my son Vanya. It is like the ABC, everyone should know it.

However, everyone should know what the Grimaldi circus, the Deburot’s pantomime, the English music hall, the commedia del-arte, and the psychological theatre were. Not forgetting, as well, about the Eastern theatre, i.e. Chinese, Indian, Japanese, No, Kabuki, Buto theatrical traditions, in which I have had a great interest and which I have studied. And yet even that’s not the end. Many different things blended in me. I brought these goods from everywhere, from all the antics where they were buried in the dust, useless. I brought them from all types of theatre that as yet managed to preserve the decent state. My way in art is the way of studying the avant-garde, of looking for the new expression, for the unexpected form, accompanied by the study of folk tradition, of all that had been before us.

Of course, my term for it – ‘clownery’ – is conditional. In fact, my occupation is the world of plastics, of eccentricity, of abnormal behaviour. Meanwhile, a clown, a mime is a man of abnormal behaviour. He behaves conditionally, and by means of this he changes the style of real life, he makes something different of it. Any plastic art at its top must necessarily be a fantastic and strange stylization, unlike any traditional dramatic theatre.

JD: below is the famous Table Ballet by Charlie Chaplin.

Translated from Russian by Julia Shuvalova.



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