A Chorus of Clowns: The Roots of Masked Comic Theater

by Midori Snyder

In the middle of winter, when it is so gray I can’t take it any more, I rent as many Marx Brothers movies as I can find. There is something about the zany interaction of these "clowns" creating havoc in a department store,a racetrack, or the stateroom of an ocean liner that brightens the dullness of the day. Then there is that crackling, fast dialogue, most of it famously improvised; and the elaborate musical numbers, ridiculous dances, and absurd moments of slapstick.Perhaps because I know they are four brothers, I sense a kinship in their characters. Although each one of them wears a different costume and "mask," there is a synchronicity in their performance — for while each one constructs his own comedic business,they do not act alone, but form a madcap chorus of clowns. Watching them, I sense much older traditions layered beneath the surface of their film performances. It is easy to imagine Groucho with satyr’s hooves or Harpo in the round wide–mouth mask of an ancient Fool.Inspired by the antics of the Marx Brothers, I decided to review the roots of clowning in the early Southern European history of theater clowns — not the circus clowns — but those masked characters who rose out of early pagan cults and then developed into secular, irreverent tricksters and mirrors of human behavior.

The history of comic theatre and clowns reaches a long arm back to the ancient traditions of Greek mime. This early theatre derived its sources of inspiration from three cultural branches: the ecstatic revels of the Dionysian cults which celebrated Dionysus, the God of Wine and fertility; an abundance of rural folklore with an emphasis on crude humor;and a surprisingly secular perspective of life. The British theatre historian Allardyce Nicoll in his classic treatise on early theatre, Masks Mimes and Miracles, describes the secular aspect of the early comic theatre as "the glad acceptance of life’s brightness, the amused and untroubled realization that this world is nothing but a jest. . .[the mimes] basedtheir work on life itself, and never looked beyond; they ridiculed the legends of the old gods just as later they ridiculed the Christian rites. . .[T]hose who believed in the pagan gods could still laugh when these gods were reduced to ridiculous terms upon the stage." The origins of the clowns, like the trickster figures of myth, arose out of a burgeoning rebellious spirit,expressing the human need to challenge social propriety through figures licensed to refuse its strictures.

The Rural Dionysia, held in the month of Poseidon, (late December to early January), was a rowdy, earthy affair. This festival combined a host of country pleasures; fertility revels, drinking enormous quantities of wine, and singing songs to the God Dionysus. Rudimentary plays probably arose from the improvisational fun of drunken, masked revelers. Out of these cults came two strands of comic theater:the improvisational performances that developed among the Dorians in the Peloponnese of ancient Greece and the more formal, written plays for the classical stage. (Socrates and Euripides attended many of these festivals.)

In 500 B.C., as Athenian playwrights were creating tragedies, a few saw the theatrical possibilities in Dionysian revels. Play competitions were presented in the spring at the City Dionysia in honor of the God Dionysius. Each playwright composed three interlocking tragedies and one comedic "satyr" play. The satyr plays were short humorous interludes which lightly referenced the themes of the more serious plays.They found great favor with the audience, who regarded them as a much needed respite.

Actors in satyr Costumes

Satyrs in Greek mythology were servants to Dionysus. Half man, half goat, the creatures were known for their wanton and lascivious behavior, chasing nymphs and drinking freely. They were cunning but cowardly creatures, dangerous to humans on whom they enjoyed playing pranks. They are immediately recognized in Greek art by their shaggy pelts, horses’ tails, and enormous phalluses. In the satyr plays, men wore costumes of goat,deer, or panther skins, thrown over their naked bodies, along with grotesque masks, wigs of wild hair, and leather phalluses. Twelve to fifteen of the satyrs performed the role of the chorus, led by a round–potbellied Silenius, a water spirit. The settings for these plays was usually a lonely wood, under an open sky, and unlike the solemn formality of the tragedies, the actors delivered their lines in natural speech that was often full of vulgarities.The performance style was robust and mostly slapstick with plenty of obscene gestures.

The satyr plays took their themes from mythology and legends, turning gripping heroic tales into humorous, even silly, affairs through the antics of the satyrs. Cyclops by Euripides, for example, recounts the well–known tale of Odysseus’ encounter with Polyphemus, the one–eyed giant. In Homer’s gripping version, Polyphemus has imprisoned Odysseus and his men in his enormous cave, anticipating eating one or two of them a night.After secretly fashioning a stake, Odysseus succeeds in blinding the Cyclops, and escaping with his men by hiding under the woolly bellies of Polyphemus’ sheep. In Euripides’ satyr play, by contrast, Silenius and the satyrs have been forced to slave for Polyphemus. Silenius must rake clean sheep’s dung from the massive cave, while the satyrs work as disgruntled shepherds to Polyphemus’ sheep. They miss their woods, their nymphs, and above all, their wine.A storm–tossed Odysseus arrives in dire need of supplies for his crew. He bargains with Silenius, who is not at all cooperative until Odysseus offers payment in wine. With a cry of joy, Silenius heads for the cave to steal food for Odysseus and his men. While he is gone, the satyrs beg Odysseus to regale them with tales from the battle of Troy, interrupting him periodically to deride Helen as "the traitress. . .[W]ould there had never havebeen a race of women born into the world at all, unless it were for me alone!" (translation: Samuel Coleridge).

Drunk, Cavorting Satyr

The plot becomes complicated when Silenius returns with the stolen food, followed by an angry Polyphemus who demands an explanation. Silenius says he was beaten by the strangers while he fought to protect the cave, but the satyrs quickly ridicule him for his lies. Silenius, knowing the Cyclops’ taste for human flesh, points to Odysseus and says to the giant: "I will give thee a word of advice! As for his flesh, leave not a morsel of it, and if thou eat his tongue,Cyclops, thou wilt become a monstrous clever talker." Odysseus and his terrified men are herded into the cave, and the stone rolled in front of the entrance. Outside, the miserable satyrs wait, imagining the worst in a gruesome song and scisinnis, a frenetic dance that consisted of skipping and jumping. Soon, however, they have their chance to assist the hero in fashioning the stake intended to blind Polyphemus. But they are not brave enough to actually helpOdysseus do the deed and they scatter, watching the activities from a safe distance. Only when Odysseus and his men are free do they rejoin him, happy at last to be returning to their groves and their nymphs.

Sadly, only tantalizing fragments remain of Socrates’ satyr play, Ichneutai, (translated variously as The Trackers, The Hunters, or The Searchers). The play is based on the myth of the mysterious theft of Apollo’s cattle by the trickster Hermes. In the myth, Hermes has hidden the cattle in a cave on Mt. Cyllene. When the deception is discovered, Apollo and Hermes have it out in court before Zeus. As part of their eventual reconciliation,Hermes makes a gift of his new invention, the lyre, to Apollo, who is entranced by the sound and becomes the god of music.

Once more the satyr play offers a rougher version of this myth, complete with the usual mishaps, romping, and scatological humor one might expect while hunting lost cattle. Offered a reward of gold by Apollo, Silenius and his satyrs agree to hunt for the missing cattle. Alexander Gross describes the journey of the satyrs in his essay "Goat Singers and Scholars": "Apollo retires, and the satyrs begin their search — now rampantly wanton, now cowering andsquealing, they encounter the various hazards of the quest. Much of the time they scramble along on all fours, sniffing the ground like bloodhounds, as they follow the tracks of the missing cattle. A sudden sound is heard which frightens them, and they tumble to the ground in a rout. Silenius goads them back to their feet — this speech is one of the best–preserved parts of the play:

SILENUS: What — are you afraid and trembling from a sound? Are you puppet people molded out of wax? You turds of creation! In every shadow you see a bogey and make demons out of everything. You sprawled–out, muscleless, honorless lackeys! Look at yourselves — nothing but bodies, tongues, and pricks. How can you let this happen — you obey the words and you run away from the doing. Think of your father here — you degrade the lowest beasts.When I was young I adorned the hollows of the nymphs and left many memorials to my manhood lying at their bottoms. I never ran away, I never even wavered, nor did I cower in dread before the fearful bellowing of mountain beasts. I met them squarely with a spear. But now all of this is tarnished by you, because of a new song piped by a shepherd. How can you be such children — you fear before you see. Would you lose the shimmering gold the sun–god offered us? And what of the freedom he promisedyou — and myself as well? Would you go to sleep and give this all away? Back to the trail and take up the scent, find the cattle and the cattle–keeper, or I’ll make you cry out for your cowardice."

The satyrs and Silenius meet the mountain nymph Cyllene who scolds them for profaning the mountains with their raucous behavior. They, however, using their noses, have tracked the cattle to her cave, where they now begin a hilarious discourse on "bull shit." Cyllene remains prim, refusing to acknowledge the brown piles all around as the satyrs continue to sniff and prod. The manuscript breaks off here, and it is hard to know whether the satyrs’ comments on bull shitare aimed at Apollo, Cyllene, or themselves.