Serious Play: Modern Clown Performance. By Louise Peacock.
Bristol: Intellect, June 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1-84150-241-0, $30. 224 pages.
Review by Christophe Collard, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
In May 2009, almost simultaneously with the publication of Serious Play, Bill Hopkinson, another British expert on clowning, gave a talk in which he called the clown “a complex of embodied unlearning.” Louise Peacock’s landmark study opens on very much the same premise with a title containing an internal tension. Both serious and frivolous, clowning to her uniquely succeeds in bridging contemporary Western society’s alleged undervaluation of play with our own visceral drive towards make-believe. After all, the clown’s subversive spontaneity is characteristically performed within a formalized framework. By analogy, therefore, a monograph retracing contemporary clown practice in the US and Europe over the last 50 years and which ambitions to establish the clown’s cathartic social function should also “embody” such tension between the frivolity of its subject and the seriousness of its theoretical implications.
A first look at the table of contents suggests just that: a lucid progression from factual presentation to more complex conceptualizations, followed by a straightforward reassessment of “the centrality of play in clowning.” Unfortunately, the remainder of Hopkinson’s formula equally applies to Peacock’s book. In a highly complex introduction stacked with rather unrelated and poorly integrated theoretical excursions, “unlearning” is rather the name of the game. What sets off as a promising and very intriguing intellectual journey very soon morphs into an almost “clownish” parody of academese, were it not for the author’s dogged, over-zealous discussion of performance theories by Huizinga (1944), Turner (1982), Schechner (1988 and 1993), Winnicott (1991), or Sutton-Smith (1997) from the particular perspective of clowning – a perspective which Louise Peacock paradoxically only clarifies further down the road. Granted, the actual definition she provides is a model of clarity. Nevertheless, the overall impression after reading the introduction is one of good intentions, an even better grasp of the material, but catastrophic presentation. Another illustration would be the repeated references to the advantages of a semiotic take on the subject which resurface in every chapter but, frustratingly, remain dead-letter. This similarly applies to the many a priori arguments, abrupt shifts, and/or ambiguous chapter endings.
That said, even if Serious Play is seriously flawed, it has everything to become a serious player in its field. For like the subject it so knowledgeably covers, the book trundles along, seemingly innocuously, before leaving the reader with a very precise understanding that, indeed, clowning is both serious and frivolous, and a deceptively important social force to boot. The clown, Peacock remarks, “deal[s] with what it means to be human” (26). And by “presenting an image of the physically malformed” he metaphorically places himself “beyond critical comment in our politically correct world” (32). Of course it would be stretching things to argue that Serious Play adopts a similar strategy to shield itself from criticism – and neither is this parallel significant enough to attach any more importance to it. Still, the effect remains, for better or worse. By providing her reader with a most unequal panorama Louise Peacock establishes a “clownesque” sense of complicité, which she defines along famous French mime and influential acting theorist Jacques Lecoq as “a silent communication, an unspoken understanding” (33).
The first chapter promises “a taxonomy of clown types” (19) while presenting a catalogue of famous and lesser-known clowns from past and present. Chapter 2 proposes a reconsideration of the frame-principle to tackle modern clowning’s progressive “re-framing” from the circus to the political arena, only to leave these amply documented switches without conceptual “frame” of what “framing” actually means. One could even argue that the distinction between chapters 2 to 4 is arbitrary, that no real sense of structural necessity exists to demarcate their various focal points, and that their comparable length hints at cosmetic interventions to accommodate the reader. To the point, even, that Serious Play emerges as an unorthodox reference guide, an encyclopedia of clowning that somehow ended up on the desk of the wrong copy editor. By end of the fifth chapter, though, none of these considerations subside except for a straightforward notion of the clown as a disruptive presence in a complex world. Extended case studies of the highly political Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA, Chapter 5) as of the so-called Clown Healers (Chapter 6), a psychosocial variant of clownish subversion, channel all the previous chapters’ factual overkill, theoretical skittishness, and structural ambiguity towards a seasoned understanding of the most concrete kind. Be it in the circus, in streets rife with political strife, or at the bedside of a suffering child, clowns “enable us to embrace failing as part of learning” (154). In the unlikeliest of ways Louise Peacock in the end proves her point. But credit where credit is due: “Clowns show us the way” (159).