A brief history of the clown…

According to many authors, the clown was born of an accident that occurred when the 18th-century English circus was spreading throughout Europe under the founding influence of Philip Astley, a former cavalry officer who developed equestrian acrobatic acts and created the circular ring as we know it today. There is an anecdote about the arrival of peasants in the circus world, recruited when English circus directors were short of staff. Whether by chance or by false coincidence, in the old English language, “claune” is a pejorative term for a peasant, comparing him to a buffoon or a boor.

Hired by the English circus at the very bottom of the social ladder, these peasants were there to look after the horses and, no doubt, to pick up the excrement on the ring between each act. One of the pretty versions that gave birth to the clown recounts that one day, a peasant who was tired of his work and had had too much to drink stumbled onto the ring in the middle of a performance, provoking the general hilarity of the audience. Another version tells of a drunk rider who once fell from his horse during his act. Seeing the success of the act, the circus director decided to introduce this character into the show, adding the symbolism of the nose. This red nose shows the audience the peasant’s drunkenness rather than hiding it. From the outset, therefore, the clown is a character who breaks the dramatic tension at the heart of the performance by praising the failure and the outcast. It is in this failure that the artist becomes grandiose and magnificent.

But clowns have to be authentic if they want the audience to follow them. He can’t pretend to be wrong, because it shows! To be authentic, the clown must speak of himself in the truest sense of what affects him, and play it with innocence. He must strive wholeheartedly for performance and feat, becoming the god of the emotion that possesses him in the moment, even daring to fail in the light of day. And it is paradoxically by plunging into the failure, the “flop” of his performance, that he manages to win back the audience and achieve redemption.

From failure to performance

There is a magnificent story that perfectly illustrates this notion of redemption, and it is found in the story of Charlie Chaplin when he took to the stage for the first time at the age of 5, following in his mother’s footsteps. Charlie Chaplin’s parents were both music-hall performers and had separated when young Charlie was still a child.

Left to bring up her son alone, his mother found herself obliged to give more and more recitals despite her frail health. From repeated colds to laryngitis, deplorable for her profession, the inevitable event was bound to happen. Charlie Chaplin himself tells the story in his biography:

“I remember being backstage when my mother’s voice broke into a mere whisper. The audience began to laugh, to sing in a falsetto voice, to whistle. […] When she returned backstage, she was distraught and spoke to the stage manager who, having seen me sing in front of my mother’s friends, said that I could be allowed to take the stage in her place. […] I was completely at ease. I called out to the audience, I danced, I did several imitations, including one of my mother singing an Irish marching song. […] In all innocence, as I took up the chorus, I imitated my mother’s voice breaking and I was surprised to see what effect it had on the audience. There was laughter and cheering, and another shower of coins; and when my mother came on stage to take me away, she received a thunderous applause. That evening marked my first appearance on stage and my mother’s last”.

Charlie Chaplin may not have had a red nose, but he is nonetheless one of the most extraordinary exponents of the clown. His very life is a telling illustration of this: from wandering childhood to dazzling stardom, from failure to performance.

Reinventing the business world

Who better than the clown to breathe new life and joy into the world of business, to the point of arousing in us the desire to create and explore new ways of being and working together? As the great Russian clown Slava says, The clown lives with such passion that he can draw everyone into this exciting and turbulent life. Our organisations as human communities need this clownish breath to reinvent themselves. They cannot reduce the individual to a “human resource”, forgetting that each individual needs to give meaning to his actions, that he is a being of language and desire, that his symbolic inscriptions are just as essential as his economic and financial needs.

The humanist clowning approach, combined with coaching, is a response to the current challenges facing companies, offering a form of support that is constantly reinventing itself, in line with the challenges facing modern society, and at a time when the X-Y-Z generation is entering the job market and the new information and communication technologies are revolutionising it. There is a lot of talk in companies today about these pilot units, test beds for breakthrough innovations. I’ve worked with a number of groups dedicated to business innovation, from the need to adapt to new market trends to the search for unusual solutions. In these units, management has to be atypical and performance indicators have to be reinvented. The right to make mistakes must be authorised and fully accepted by all.
The clown’s fundamentally humanist approach is the key to this reinvention of the old into the new, this leadership of innovation.