THE TRUE AND INIMITABLE KINGS OF LAUGHTER
CLOWNs are the most traditional of all entertainers and one of the most persistent of the traditions about the miss that those who have just died were better than those one has laughed at a moment ago. A very obvious reason is that the clowns of the recent past are the clowns of our own childhood. It is my fortunate position never to have seen a clown when I was a child, and all those I have ever laughed at are alive and funny. One of them, the superb Grock, was a failure in New York; the remarkable Fortunello and Cirillino who arrived with the Greenwich Village Follies of1922 are acrobats of an exceptional delicacy and humour;there isn't a touch of obvious refinement about them andthey are exquisite. And the real thing in knockabout grotesquerie are the three who call themselves, justifiably, the true and inimitable kings of laughter, the brothers Fratellini at the Cirque Medrano in Paris.
The Cirque Medrano is a one-ring circus in a permanent building near the Place Pigalle; ten times a week it fills the vast saucer of its seating capacity at an absurdly low price-the most expensive seats, I believe, are six francs-and presents something a little above the average European circus bill. There are more riding and a few more stunts than at others, and there are less trained animals. And ten times weekly the entire audience shouts with gratification as Francesco Fratellini steps gracefully over the ring,
hesitates, retreats, and finally sits down in a ringside seat and begins a conversation with the lady sit- ting beside him. Fratellini and makes them great is a sort of internal logic in everything they do. When the spangled figure with the white- washed face sits down by the ring and chats a moment it is Merelyn ARACD disconcerting; at once the logic appears-he is waiting for the show to begin. An attendant approaches and tells him to stop stalling, that the peopleare waiting to be amused. He replies in an odd English that he has paid his "mawney" and why doesn't the show begin.
Promptly another attendant repeats the message of the firstin English; Francesco replies in Italian. By the time theprocess has been gone through in five languages the clown has changed his tack entirely; you realize that since hedoesn't understand what all these uniformed attendants aresaying to him, he thinks that they are the show and he istrying to conceal his own irritation at being made the object
of their addresses and at the same time he is pretending tobe amused at their antics. The last time he speaks in whatseems to be gibberish (it is credibly reported to he rather fair Turkish) and the attendants fall back. From theopposite entrance to the ring arrives a figureof unparalleled grotesqueness-garments vast and loose in unexpected places, monstrous shoes,squares like windowpanes over his eyes, a glowing and preposterous nose. His gait is of theutmost dignity, he senses the sit-uation and advances to Frances-co's seat; and as a pure matterof business he delivers a terrificslap, bows nobly, and departs. Alan-w At Francesco enters the ring. the same time a third figureappears-a bald-headed man in carefully arranged clothes, amonocle, and a high hat, a stick. The three Fratellini are onthe scene (1). It is impossible to say what happens there, for theFratellini have an inexhaustible repertoire. The materialsare always of the simplest, and the effects, too; they havehardly any "props," the costumes, the smiles, themovements, the gestures, are almost exactly alike from dayto day. Much of their material
(1) I have seen them since in another entrance, the most brilliant of all. SeeAppendix.
is old, for they are the sons and grandsons of clowns as farback as their family memory can carry; I have seen themonce appear armed for a fight with inflated bladders, looking precisely like contemporary pictures in MauriceSand's book about the commedia dell'arte, and on anotheroccasion have seen them so carried away with the frenzy oftheir activity that they actually improvised and proved theirdescent from this ancient form. They do burlesquesketches-a barber shop, a bull fight, a human elephant, amagician, or a billiard game; the moment they stop the entire audience roars for "la musique," the most famous oftheir acts, remarkable because it has a minimum ofphysical violence.
La Musique is all a matter of construction and is awonderful example of the use of material. For at bottom itconsists of the efforts of two men to play a serenade andthe continual intrusion of a third. Francesco and Paoloarrive, each carrying a guitar or a mandoline, and place twochairs close together exactly in the centre of the ring. They step on the chairs and prepare to sit on the backs9 but eventhis simple process is difficult for them, as neither iswilling to sit down before the other, nor to remain seatedwhile the other is still erect, and they must be continuallyrising and apologizing until one flings the other down andkeeps him there until he himself is seated. Ready then, theyblow out the electric lights and strike the first notes; but the spotlight deserts
them; they are left in the dark and puzzled; they regard oneanother with dismay and suspicion. Suddenly they see itacross the ring and, descending with great gravity, carry their chairs across. Again they start, and again the spotlightgoes; their irritation mounts, but their dignity remains andthey follow it. It flits back to where they had come from.
There is a consultation and the two chairs are returned totheir original place in the centre of the ring. Then the two musicians take off their coats, prowl around the ringstalking the light, and fall upon it; then slowly and withmuch labour they lift the light by its edges and carefullycarry it back to their chairs. And as they begin to play thegrotesque marches in behind them, unconscious of them,intent only upon his vast horn and the enormous musicalscore he carries. Unseeing and unseen, he prepares himself, and at about the tenth bar the great bray of his horn shattersthe melody of the strings. The two musicians are dismayed,but as they cannot see the source of the disturbance, theytry again; again the horn intrudes. This time there isexpostulation and argument with the grotesque, but, as hereasonably points out, music was desired and he is doinghis share. There is only one issue for such a scene, and ittakes place, in a riot.
The preparation of these riots is a work of real delicacy, for the Fratellini know that two things are equally true: violence is funny and violence ceases to be funny.
Like Chaplin, they infuse into their
violence the sense of reason-they are violent only when noother means will suffice. In the photographer scene theycall into action the "august" a stock character of theEuropean circus, played at the Medrano with exceptionalskill by M Lucien Godart. The august is a man of greatdignity whose office it is to parley with clowns, be the buttof their jokes, and in M Godart's version, set off theirgrotesque appearance by an excellent figure and the mostcorrect of evening clothes. (He is in addition a rather goodtumbler, and it is part of the Medrano tradition for theaudience to hiss him until he grows seemingly furious andturns twenty difficult somersaults around the ring.) TheFratellini, armed with a huge black box and a cloth, ask himto sit for his photograph. Francesco takes it upon himself toexplain the apparatus, Paolo standing close by with thethree fence posts which represent the tripod, and Alberto,the grotesque waiting near by. Suddenly the tripod falls onAlberto's feet and he howls with pain; Paolo picks the postsup again, and again they fall, and again he howls. It is unbelievable that this should be funny, yet it is funnybeyond any capacity to describe it for one reason which thespectator senses long before he sees it. That is that thetripod is not intentionally thrown on the feet of thegrotesque. The fault is Francesco's, for he is explaining themachine and making serious errors, and every time hemakes a mistake Paolo gets excited and forgets that he hasthe
tripod in his hand, and simply lets it drop. One senses hisacute regret, and at the next moment one realizes that hisscientific zeal, his respect for his profession ofphotographer, simply does not permit him to let amisstatement pass; his gesture as he turns to set the matterright is so eager, so agonized, that one doesn't see what hashappened to the tripod until it has fallen. And to point themoral of the matter, when the grotesque Alberto after thefifth time picks the tripod up and attempts to slay Paolo, Paolo is again turning toward the others and the blow goes wide.
What the Fratellini are doing here is, to be sure, whatevery great actor does-they are presenting their effectsindirectly. The difficulty for them is that in the end theymust give their effects with the maximum of directness-they have to strike a man in the face and make the soundtell. In the scene of the photograph the august is "he who gets slapped" (the phrase is a common one) and the sceneis carefully built up through his reluctance and stupidity inposing. At first it is only an exaggeration of the customarydifficulties between a photographer and a little child; but asthe august becomes more and more suspicious of theintentions of the photographer, the clowns become moreand more insistent that he, and nobody but he, shall havehis picture taken. Gradually an atmosphere of hostility isbuilt up; the august tries to escape from the ring and ishauled back; then
dragged, then forced to sit; the opposing wills grow more and more violent; the audience senses the good will of the clowns, the obstinacy of the august; not a push or shove is given without reason and meaning. And when they see that there is nothing else for it, the three hurl themselves upon the clown in a frenzy of destructiveness and he is rent limb from limb. (In actual fact only his exquisite evening clothes were rent, but the effect is the same.)In these scenes and almost all their others, the Fratellini escape the reproach of being nothing but violent, while they hold every good element which violence in action can give them. To them are comparable the best (and only the best)of Eddie Cantor's scenes-when he applied for the job of policeman and when he was examined for the army-where there is a play of motive and a hidden logic. In their world everything must be sensible, and the most sensible thing in the world is to hit out. Behind them is a dual tradition-centuries of laughter and centuries of refining the instruments by which simple laughter can be produced. For it is opposed to their sense of fitness (as it is to ours) that the clown should create an effect of subtlety.' The kind of laughter they produce must involve the whole body, but not the mind. They have to be active all the time, so that you are dazzled and cannot think; and they must 'They nevertheless played exquisitely, I am told, in the Cocteau Milhaud Boeuf sur le Toit.
shake the solid ground under your feet, so that you may
shake with laughter. What the critical observer discovers as method must
reach the - actual average spectator only as effect. All of this the Fratellini
have accomplished- "these three brothers who constitute one artist" are
the complete exemplars of their art. Seeing them week, and nearly two dozen
times sometimes twice an I find their actualities inexhaustible. Even in
the descriptions noted above it can be seen that they have a definite sense
of pace; their changes from fast to slow in the middle of an act, their
variations from violence to trickery, their complete mastery of climax,
their fertility of invention, are all elements of superiority. But they
are only elements in a composition based on something fundamentally right-the
knowledge that we have almost forgotten how to laugh in the actual world,
and that to make us laugh again they must create a world of their own.