clown, a comic character usually distinguished by garish makeup and costume whose antics are both humorously clumsy and acrobatic. The clown employs a broad, physical style of humor that is wordless or not as self-consciously verbal as the traditional fool or jester. Clownish figures appear in the farces and mimes of ancient Greece and Rome as foils to more serious characters. Probably the most famous clown, the arlecchino, or harlequin, grew out of the Italian commedia dell'arte in the late Middle Ages. The acrobatic harlequin wore a mask and carried a slapstick, which he repeatedly employed on other characters. One of these, the bald-headed, white-faced French character, Pierrot, had by the 19th-century developed into the now classic lovesick, melancholic clown. The modern clown's costume developed in Germany and England during the 18th-century with the evolution of such popular characters as Pickelherring, whose costume included oversized shoes, waistcoats, hats, and giant ruffs around his neck. One of the first circus clowns, established by Joseph Grimaldi in the early 1800s, was the "Jocy" character, a comically self-serving clown who alternated between arrogant gloating and cringing cowardice. Hard economic times, as during the Great Depression, made popular the hobo clown, best exemplified by Emmett Kelly. By that time, however, motion pictures, especially the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, began to supplant the live clown acts, relegating clowning to a circus sideshow entertainment.
See H. Sobol, Clowns (1982); C. Gaskin, A Day in the Life of a Circus Clown (1987).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.