What Makes The Clown Tick?

by
Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
March 10, 2002


'Oh, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes.'
Shakespeare: As You Like It, Act V

Over the years, one of the enjoyable avocations I pursued was amateur musical theater. While we lived here in New England, I worked a number of musical societies and played several leading roles; Billy Bigelow in 'Carousel'; 'Tommy' in Brigadoon; The Poet in 'Kismet'; 'Pooh-bah' in The Mikado and a number of other lesser parts. I once sang the lead in Mendelssohn's oratorio, 'Elijah'. But the most difficult and demanding role I ever had was Jack Point, the jester in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera, 'Yeoman of the Guard'.

The reason it was so difficult was that the part called upon the player on stage to make huge mood swings from the comic to the tragic. Jack Point, guardian of Elsie Maynard, loves her and, at the same time, protects her from the real world. It is his job to make his ruler laugh while at the same time he was crying inside knowing that young Elsie will never be his.

Can some of you recall circus clowns such as Lou Jacobs or Emmet Kelly? They exhibited the same silliness and poignancy of a Red Skelton or the antics of the straight-faced troubles of a Buster Keaton.

They were one thing above all. They were clowns. Their job was to make us laugh. And they did. I still recall the center ring theatrics of Lou Jacobs with his huge shoes, being slapped silly by a smaller clown. I can still recall the image ofr Emmet Kelly trying sweep up a spotlight and then when completely unsuccessful, sitting, crying, on the circus ring. Or Red Skelton playing his various roles: Freddie the Freeloader, Califlower McPug, Willy Lump-Lump or Gertrude and Heathcliff. Or how about the antics of Laurel and Hardy. They, too, are in that class of laughing, crying wits who made us see look beyond the ordinary for bits of levity in the face of the human condition. And that's the place where I began this quest.

The Human Condition - is a fierce, never-ending combination of the tragic and the comic. The Clown - or Jester - or Court Fool looked at reality and, in making light of it, drew our attention to something far more serious than what appeared on the surface.
Here's a poem by Margaret Bruner that substantiates what I'm saying:

The Clown

A crowd was gathering beneath the tent –
The clown must keep them in a happy mood;
No matter if the jokes are rough and rude,
A circus is a place for merriment.
And one must be quick-minded and invent
New tricks and let no saddened thoughts intrude,
Nor let the public see him sigh or brood,
But banish care and seem indifferent.

There came a lull–I saw him lean awhile
Against a post and gaze with weary eyes,
As if he traveled backward many a mile. . .
And though his body wore a gay disguise,
For one brief space he played a tragic role–
There is no mask to hide a lonely soul.

The poem tells the reader a little about clowns; about how difficult it is to keep smiling when one is lonely or in some kind of physical or pyschic pain. Those avenues of insight are often hidden from the person who witnesses what he or thinks is the overt joy a clown offers to an audience.

At this point I would deem it wise to allude to the underlying reason why I have chosen this unlikely topic. People live in a real world. It is a world often bordered by strife, tension, violence, suffering and anxiety. When a person enters the world of the circus, however, a totally different view of the world is experienced. The circus is not the world of the usual; it is not dull or routine. It is a place of surprise and delight. Possibilities for joy emerge one never thought possible in that other world emerge at the circus.

The religious community can be an unpredictable entity. Since all are volunteers and many participate in the work and decision-making, very few are left out. It is a world where the unexpected and the unprecedented can happen. There may be laughter and there may be tears but at the base of it all we hope that it is a place of safety. So, I suspect, there would be those who would be surprised in my talking about clowns.

But wait. Clowns, by their presence and their ridiculous antics, remind us that work is not the only end in life. No matter how we strive, there is always the chance that our work will end in folly. As a result, we can appropriate the use of the clown to point to the reality of failure and the joy of being in religious community.

Surprisingly, too, we discover that in describing the work of professional religious leaders there are a number of parallels to the figure of the clown. Ministers love life; love people. Clowns seem to love life and give themselves away to bring delight to people. The musical, 'Godspell' pictured Jesus and his disciples as clowns looking upon the reality of life around them.

Take the analogy a step further. Clowns point to the human condition and suggest we make light of things. Their task is to assist the audience in transcending the difficulties life often places before us and 'put on a happy face', so to speak. Likewise, one of the many tasks we entrust to ministers is to assist us as individuals and as a religious community to survive life's traumas; even find understanding in the midst of them. September 11th and the days that followed were a case in point. Remember? We held three additional services that week to remember and to pray. The meeting house was open each day of the week following, a candle was kept burning on the memorial table, the bell was tolled at noon each day and there were always some who were there to meditate or to pray.

This is only one of several callings ministers endeavor to serve in behalf of their congregations. Like the clown who stands apart from society ignoring explicit rules and implicit norms, the minister sets his or herself apart to confront life's issues and try to make sense of them for others.

Shakespeare alluded to this when he had a character from Twelvth Night say:

'This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;
and to do so well craves a kind of wit.'

It seems to me, then, as I reflect on the profession of parish ministry, that any spiritual leader of any congregation can often find his or herself standing apart from the boundaries of reality in the same way. In doing so it allows one to step past ordinary norms andboundaries in order to question, to probe, to ponder and the provoke one's hearers to new ways, new ideas, new approaches to problems.

What if a clown were NOT a clown. Many of his antics would not be funny at all. In a circus ring two clowns can hit each other with huge rubber baseball bats and folks laugh. But two people fighting in public can get them arrested. Fifteen clowns gettng out of a Volkswagon 'bug' wouldn't work in a busy city intersection. But in witnessing the same thing in the circus we find ourselves released from the tensions of everyday living.

At one time, you know, clowns were thought to be servants of the devil. It was believed that the Prince of Disorder wanted clowns to assist him in throwing people into uncharted chaos.

In the court of any monarch the fool was able to point to issues which were very serious. But the clown could make fun of the monarch because that was expected of him. Thus, he could turn the king's attention to the possibility that another way of ruling might be considered. If the court jester would merely stand before the throne and demand such benefits he would most likely lose his head or at least be thrown into the dungeon. But with humor, with jesting, with jibing, the observation made to the ruler is softened.

Once a year in early times a medieval festival would ridicule and parody the ecclesiastical and political rulers. But the rulers knew the festival would end. And some of the messages brought home to them were later acted upon for the public good.

The Quaker philosopher/theologian, Elton Trueblood once wrote a book titled The Humor of Christ. In it, he suggests that Jesus often used humor to startle and to teach. There are many biblical passages where Jesus used subtle humor and ridiculous imagery. He spoke in parables. One comes to mind. 'It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.'

Another was the story of the Good Samaritan. But permit me to tell it in a different way. A member of the Ku Klux Klan was returning home from a rally. His companions had shouted their bigoted slogans, burned crosses and listened to hatemongering all evening lonog. This man had to travel through a part of town where the very subjects they hated lived. It was an African-American ghetto. Suddenly, the engine in his car died. And he couldn't start it. Another car came by. It was a white man with his wife as a passenger. The man asked for help but they sped away. Then another car approached. The Klanner waved them down. It was two couples returning home from the movies. They, too, refused to assist him. So there he was with his white cape, robe and conical hat and mask laying on the front seat beside him. And who should come along but a black man. A large black man. The Klanner said, 'I am lost. I am frightened. I am afraid for my life. The car won't start and I feel trapped!'

The black man got out. He asked the man to help him push the car to the curb. He told the Klanner to lock it. Then he gave him a ride out of the ghetto and got him safely to a motel. The white man had left his wallet in the car so the black man paid for his room. The next day he returned to give the man a lift to a garage where a mechanic was engaged to fix the car.

Ridiculous story, right? But it is precisely the way in which Jesus took a Samaritan, a figure scorned by most people in his day, and made him the one to reach out and assist the man who had fallen among thieves only to be beaten. It was not the priest or the Levite who gave assistance. It was the lowly Samaritan who gave the support so desperately needed.

Read any of the parables in the New Testament Book of Luke. They were meant to startle and surprise. They were intended to suggest to people that the old ways were not always necessarily the best ways.

The jester accomplished the same thing before the king. So you have the unlikely situation in which a minister might employ the medium of humor to make a point; to use gentle, friendly persuasion in order to move his or her hearers to try something new, or think of a problem from a different perspective. The minister is called to assist the congregation to 'give itself permission' to do things differently, to dream a little, to risk, to wonder, yes, even to laugh together.

This is what my presence here in Norwell has come to mean for me. It has been to join you in an adventure in considering new ways, new avenues of approaching problems. And you've done it all very, very well. You've succeeded in many ways. And you are on the threshold of welcoming a new minister into your midst in that frame of mind.

You will recall that there were times when I felt moved to play the jester in order to suggest a new idea; a new way. And though I would never suggest anything other than to praise the professionalism of Victoria Weinstein I can well imagine her vivacious personality resorting to the same procedure to more your thinking to a new level.

Lorna and I know that candidating week that is to begin next weekend will go splendidly and we pray that the result will be one in which both you and Victoria arrive at the threshold of a new life together so that you can confidently welcome her into your midst.

As I read some of her material I came to the conclusion that she has answered a calling to be one who lives for others. She will be there when you are full of joy and she will be there to share your tears. She has made this commitment out of a vision she has of a beloved religious community. She will need all the support and the care you can muster. For it is a difficult calling, I assure you. And many times it is a lonely one, too.

But every so often she will stand before you and employ the gentle use of humor to make here point. And how appropriate that will be. For be assured that it is a very serious, a dangerous world out there. Too serious and too dangerous to always be taken without the healing balm of humor, joy and laughter.

The poet, e.e. cummings kind of summed it up with these words:

...dam everything that is grim, dull
motionless, unrisking, inward turning,
dam everything that won't get into the circle,
that won't enjoy,
that won't throw its heart into the tension,
surprise, fear and deilght
of the circus,
the round world
the full existence...
dam everything but the circus!

So be it. Amen.