The mime and the clown - or Samuel Beckett as comedian

Seminar Paper 2008 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Development of Pantomimes and clowns
2.1. Pantomimes
2.2. Clowns

3. Pantomimes and clowns in Beckett`s plays
3.1 Waiting for Godot
3.2 Endgame
3.3 Act Without Words

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
5.1 Primary texts
5.2 Secondary texts

1. Introduction

Clowns and mimes have been accompanying theatrical work since the ancient world and they have not lost their comic effect until today. They may have undergone a certain development during times but their basic originalities have never changed and this circumstance make clowns “the low comic entertainer par excellence“.[1] The clown per se originates from the silent pantomime and has separated from mime play about the Middle Ages. Nevertheless have clowns and mimes affected each other and are consequently still closely connected. Marcel Marceau has put it in a nutshell:

With these mimes and others [clowns], we enter the temple of the Theatre of the Marvelous, where mime reveals Eternal and Ephemeral Humanity in its most secret and profound aspirations. Mime throws full light on man alone in an instant of truth, torn among space, silence, and time in an attempt to capture love, life, and beauty before the supreme moment of death. The mime is also one who, after giving brilliance and significance to attitude and action, throws out the inner cry of the soul. It is the mime in this dark world who, having sewn up his mouth and torn out his tongue, has received in exchange the grace of silence; that is why the mime will remain the true witness of the human condition.[2]

The citation above shall be the basis statement for my attempt to point out Samuel Beckett`s clown-like figures which he created in his plays, primarily in Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Act Without Words. Beckett who easily reduced everything to absurdity always persisted in saying that he would just write what he sees without a certain meaning and exactly this fact makes him a “true witness of the human condition“ mentioned above. Even when Beckett has never admitted explicitly that his clown-like characters were intended his plays do, however, show a considerable influence of comic elements. These clownish and mimetic elements shall be examplified in this term paper. Hence I like to give a short view over the history and characteristics of mimes and clowns and will then try to embed the results into the plays mentioned above. But first of all it is advisable to take a brief look at the origin of the clown which lies within the beginning of the Greek and Roman mime and is presented over the course of the following two chapters.

2. Development of Pantomimes and clowns

2.1. Pantomimes

The term pantomime derives “from the Greek pantos, meaning ’all’, and mimos, meaning ’imitator’“ and was, in ancient Greece, adapted to any artist of the former times, be it a dancer, actor or a writer. In Rome, the mime - a performer with different masks - had to be entirely mute while “playing all characters and portraying objects and animals by means of rhythmical movements and gestures“ .[3] As far back as the ancient world the mime-genre knew different forms:

1. Saltation, from saltare (to leap), which combined mime, dance, music, poetry, and dramatic art.
2. Mime, a play with a spoken text accompanied by gestures. Popular mimes were destined to be performed, while literary mimes were recited or read.
3. Pantomime, especially known in Magna Graecia and more popular in Roman

culture, which subordinated all elements to the solo mime-dancer`s movements.[4]

In the Middle Ages the mime tradition fused with Christian chivalry and put religious plays and church drama back on the map, thanks to such mime performances like Beowulf.[5] The mimes and so called jugglers of the period made also use of songs, dance and gestures to illustrate recited dramatic pieces in their performances, and thereby contributed to the further development of the pantomimic art. Their performances took place in churches and at monasteries under the stern surveillance of the clergy who ensured the correctness of the biblical stories illustrated.[6] Great influence on mimes and clowns exerted the Commedia dell`Arte which was founded in Venice during the Renaissance. Masked Italian street mimes performed brief and homespun action full of acrobatic scenes with burlesque stage business. Typical for the art was the tendency to combine improvisation with a ready-made stock character like Arlecchino “with his shaven head and flat feet, his multicolored coat and black mask [...] who daubed himself with soot“ and “often wears a phallus and resembles a dancer– or clown-acrobat“.[7] Based on the Italian Arlecchino the first circus-like clown developed in England in the eighteenth century with his well known external features: “enormous nose, large mouth, exaggerated hips, and thin legs“ which still exists today in his “red wig“.[8] Throughout the nineteenth century, theatre turned to a more text-centred performance and dislodged pantomime in its original sense from the stage, which led to a specialisation of the mime in recollection of its basic principles: silence and non–literariness combined with movements and gestures. This separation entailed mime school foundations during the mid-twentieth century. Great mimetic masters - like Etienne Decroux, Marcel Marceau, Jacques Lecoq and Jean-Louis Barrault, just to mention the most prominent ones - built up their own schools, predominantly in Paris. These so-called French-school pantomimes have built up a reputation by strictly negotiating verbal communication on stage.[9]

The specialization of the mimes during the mid-twentieth century also had an impact on theatre or better antitheatre which challenged verbal communication. Influenced by the famous silent-actors Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, playwrights like Beckett picked up the idea of silence and incorporated it in plays or movies like Breath, Film and Happy Days.[10]

In Happy Days, Winnie, to fill a dreaded, empty silence, ceaselessly speaks to Willie, who, for the most part, remains mute and immobile. The play culminates in unbearable silence.[11]

The use of silence achieved its peak in the two mime-plays Act without Words I and II which I will discuss later in chapter 3.3. As we have seen in this paragraph the history of pantomime is inseparably conncted with the development of the clown-figure. The next chapter will briefly deal with definitions of clowns in general and some of their typical characteristics before I take a closer look at Beckett`s plays.

2.2. Clowns

Many definitions for the “clown“ have been given but none of them is able to describe the character precisely because there exist oodles of different realisations of the clown established through times. Winkler comes thus to the decisive conclusion that a “definition of the clown is at once deceptively simple and confusingly complex“.[12]

She uses a historical approach to explain the origin of the clown-figure and mentions different synonymous expressions which are closely connected with the clown: fool, buffoon and jester. Whereas the fool who formerly “wore the traditional motley, a many-colored suit with cap and bells and bauble“[13] seems to be most common and is often mixed up with the clown, if anyone speaks of a fool nowadays, one most probably alludes to an empty-headed person who is due to his mental disposition unable to deal with a certain and easy-to-handle situation. A fool can insofar be compared with the clown as the latter`s acting is often characterised by failure and deficiency. But this characterisation of the clown does not do justice to its multifaceted nature. Winkler takes into account the clown`s physical characteristics, mental traits, language and slapstick-elements. She points to the possibility of clothing which contributes to the comic effect by wearing either too tight or too large costumes and can be underlined both by a mask or just certain facial grimaces. One trait of the clown is his unconsciousness of his physical limitations which often leads to hopeless situations in which he tries to struggle against the universe. Another feature is his conscious disregard of moral standards and his disrespect of authority. His language ranges from the “use of incorrect grammar, misunderstandings of foreign words and languages and malapropism“ to the “[r]epetition of words and phrases and verbal mimicry“[14] and he can also use text signs or act silently like a mime. Slapstick is applied, as well, to create physical action in order to make words redundant.[15] McManus emphasises a political and philosophical nature of the clown and his “anti-authoritarian character “ as “a voice for a reactionary, oppressive ethos [and] for underprivileged proletarian culture “.[16] According to McManus the clown is able to adress and to interact with the audience as in “Shakespeare`s The Taming of the Shrew (1593), Petruchio turns to the audience and asks them the frank question; ’He that knows better how to tame a shrew, Now let him speak – tis charity to show.’“.[17] This ability of the clown to bridge the gap stresses as well his rebellion against authority even though it is the authority of dramatic or fictional convention. Müller, however, generates a more common picture when he writes:

Der Begriff „Clown“ wird notwendigerweise im assoziativen Zusammenhang mit der Vorstellung von Lächerlichem, von Humor und von Komik verstanden. Diese Erscheinung entsteht durch eine charakteristische clowneske Wesensart: durch die Abweichung von irgendeiner bestehenden Norm.[18]

This deviation from an existing norm, be it a social, clothing or behavioural norm, is as a matter of course the most elementary feature of every clownesque figure. To complete the general explanations over clowns I want to add the list of clowntypes distinguished by Winkler:

the boorish lout and the naive simpleton which do often overlap. [...] The comedy of the lout is derived primarily from his social deficiences, whereas the comedy of the simpleton is derived from his mental deficiency. Although not completely deranged like the fool, he is of simple mentality, slow of understanding, and unable to see through the wiles of others. In certain respects the simpleton shows affinities with the child: his responses are those of the moment, his moods may change abruptly, he is unable to foresee the future consequences of his actions. The simpleton belongs to the most ancient of clown types. [...] Both are apparently impersonations of stupidity.[19]

Two more types are the braggart and the pedant which are quite alike characters. Boughner defined the braggart appropriately enough as “the vainglorious boaster who struts and brags of his merits in utter disregard of truth“[20] which means that he just shows off with achievements he has not ever made and diserved. The pedant has often occured in comedies of all kinds since he mostly occupies a profession of high social status for which he is not qualified, like Groucho Marx of The Marx Brothers – especially in The Marx Brothers Radio Show - who pretends to be a lawyer named Firefly but does nothing else than cause confusion at the cost of his clients supported by his imbecilic companion Ravelli. The last two types to be mentioned are the parasite and the tramp. The former exploits his environment by using his sharp-witted mind and lives at other people`s expense. “He intrigues, cavorts, jests and flatters, and sometimes degrades himself in order to gain a free meal, a drink or shelter“[21] and is therefore probably not the most likeable. The latter - also named August, at least in circus surroundings - has reached his perfection and stardom thank to Charles Chaplin. As his name implies he is dressed like a hobo or vagabond and “has no permanent home, no regular job, no family, no role in society, and as such he must inevitably come into conflict with authority merely by making an attempt to live, to procure food and shelter“.[22]

It is not by accident that the types of clowns were mentioned in pairs because they often occur in contrasting pairs such as “the quick-witted clown of the modern circus“ and “the stupid Auguste as his butt“.[23] The clown-figures can be found in more or less the same manner in Beckett`s plays. In Waiting for Godot personified by Vladimir and Estragon and Pozzo and Lucky and Endgame, namely Clov and Hamm. But they also appear as single as in Act Without Words I where the clown is even introduced as a mime beforehand. The approaches of McManus and Winkler will be decisive for the analysis of the clown-figures in Beckett`s plays in the next chapters following.

3. Pantomimes and clowns in Beckett`s plays

3.1 Waiting for Godot

The most clownish play at all of Beckett`s whole work is most probably Waiting for Godot which does not even try to hide its intention to be a comedy, although it is subtitled as a tragicomedy. Nevertheless it gives reason for the assumption that there could be found comic elements in the play and its characters. One of the first proofs that the immerse into the action is at the same time the entrance to the environment of a circus might be seen in the following dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon:[24]


[1] Winkler, Elizabeth. The clown in Modern Anglo-Irish Drama. 1977. p. 12

[2] Lust, Anette. From the Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond. 2000. p. ix

[3] Lust. 2000 p. 1.

[4] Lust, 2000 p. 22.

[5] cf. Lust. 2000 p.17.

[6] cf. Lust. 2000 p. 33f.

[7] Lust, 2000 p. 39.

[8] Lust, 2000 p. 50.

[9] cf. Lust. 2000. p. 65-79.

[10] cf. Lust. 2000. p. 261-265.

[11] Lust. 2000. p. 265.

[12] Winkler. 1977. p. 12.

[13] Winkler. 1977. p.15.

[14] Winkler. 1977. p. 26f.

[15] cf. Winkler. 1977. p. 19-29.

[16] McManus, Donald. No Kidding! 2003. p. 15.

[17] McManus. 2003. p. 14.

[18] Müller, Rolf. Erläuterungen zu Heinrich Bölls Clowneske Wirklichkeit. 1980. p. 12.

[19] Winkler. 1977. p. 34-36.

[20] Boughner, Daniel C. The Braggart in Renaissance Comedy. 1954. p.3.

[21] Winkler. 1977. p. 41.

[22] Winkler. 1977. p. 44f.

[23] Winkler. 1977. p. 46.

[24] cf. McManus. 2003. p. 74.


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Samuel Beckett Proseminar Samuel Beckett



Title: The mime and the clown - or Samuel Beckett as comedian