The Immortality of the Grotesque

Commissioned by The New York Theatre Review, 2010

(Copyright ©2010 byTravS.D. All Rights Reserved)

One late night I chanced to be walking along Tenth Avenue– on some wholesome errand, I assure you – when I came upon the predictable yet oddly unsettling sight of a streetwalker on the make for customers. Her uniform was the usual one: stockings, high-heels, lingerie, and heavy make-up. What unnerved your correspondent however was the strangely mechanical, detached nature with which she shook her hips and beckoned passing men. The effect, the disconnect, far from being sexual, reminded me more of a puppet, a robot, or an animated corpse. There was something actually quite horrible about it.

The odds are about 100% that this was a case of “phoning it in.” On the other hand, her behavior was entirely appropriate not only to the hour and the place and the situation, but to her “character”. The streetwalker, in her capacity as streetwalker, is not on the clock as herself. She is playing a crude, deeply warped IDEA (one might say a parody) of a woman. The entire performance, then, is about advertising (the actual product is of no concern to us here). Through the miracle of costume, make-up and performance, the actual woman is hidden; all that we perceive is the rather broad cartoon that she intends.

The streetwalker is somewhat tangential to a broader theatrical and anthropological phenomenon I want to discuss. I begin with her because she illustrates the primitive power and danger and universality of this phenomenon; and because seeing her was the “Newton’s Apple” of this essay (That the sight of the prostitute led me in pursuit of a chain of ideas about theatrical symbolism – and not sex-for-hire – will undoubtedly reassure some readers, while disappointing others).

If the mainstream of dramatic theatre is concerned with faithfully mimicking the details of ordinary human behavior, at the same time, there has always has existed an army of malcontents, performers unwilling to be nor to seem to be “real”. Extreme fantasists, they make it their calling to so distort their given physiognomies it seems at times as though they have dipped into the serum that turns Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. It’s no exaggeration to say that I have been interested in this phenomenon since childhood, fueled by images that overwhelmed me in The Wizard of Oz, Captain Kangaroo and H.R. Pufnstuf. It’s what led me to an interest in experimental theatre, as well as vaudeville, circus, burlesque and related forms. It’s the liminal place where humor and disquiet meet, a common thread that loosely knots together the clown, the burlesque dancer, the drag queen, the blackface minstrel ** (and to a much lesser degree, other ethnic cartoons), the freak, and certain campy characters from Gothic horror. It is the realm we call The Grotesque.

The Grotesque in representational art – whether painting or sculpture or literature or theatre – refers to a quality of being simultaneously humorous and disturbing (and often disgusting). Artists it might be applied to are too numerous to mention but range from Aristophanes to Brueghel to Jonathan Swift to Terry Gilliam to Amy Sedaris. Why readers and audiences from time immemorial have appreciated art that simultaneously makes them laugh and recoil is a question as mysterious as the human response itself. But in the main suffice it to say that Grotesquery as a strategy has some sort of mysterious power, an allure.

As a term of aesthetic description it dates to the late Renaissance, when certain murals from the time of Nero came to light in excavations of an unfinished imperial palace. The chambers of the structure, now subterranean, were dubbed “grottoes” (i.e. caves), and thus was born the coinage we have used since. The murals featured ornate figures, part human, part animal or vegetable, and began to be mimicked by contemporary artists. Subsequently, the term was adapted to literature (this was the age of Rabelais after all) and still later, it became widely used to describe anything that was both gross or scary and productive of belly-laughs. (One notes that commedia dell’arte too was born around the same time).

But when you get down to it, in theatrical terms the concept must date to prehistory. Think of the ritual use of make-up and mask and costume, still used among tribal societies. Some speculate that the use of these techniques predates even cave paintings, bestowing power on the warrior, the rainmaker, the Priest and the Shaman. At this early stage in social evolution, terror only and not the bona fide Grotesque holds sway. In the culture of ancient Greece, however, the cathartic ordeal of Tragedy eventually gives way to the Old Attic Comedy. The power of Dionysus proves to be more ambiguous and poetic than previously imagined, as men learn that the horrors of war and other human idiocies can be laughed at as well as bemoaned. As the Old Comedy of Aristophanes and others morphs into the more realistic, episodic New Comedy, the irreverence and the scatology, the stereotype and the exaggeration remain. People continue to laugh, with hearty recognition, at the ugly. The concept flourishes in the Medieval era and even persists as a countermelody to the classicism of the Renaissance, as a quick contemplation of Shakespeare’s fools (and Hamlet’s comedy routine with a skull) will verify.

Kevin Kline as Falstaff, photograph by Richard Avedon

It’s in those muddy, largely unchronicled Medieval years that those specific theatrical categories I named above take root. What interests me as a scholar of vaudeville is how they were born and continued to flourish until about halfway through the 20th century, whereupon they were pushed to the margins in favor a new official voice that mandated a new vision of conformity, leaving no room for the older folk ways. But the old folkways refuse to die.

We’ll start with the broadest, most universally recognizable iteration of the Grotesque in action: the clown. That clowns are not merely garishly costumed comedians but rather full-fledged Grotesques can be attested to by the many people who are terrified of them. What the hell is a clown anyway? What in nature are they supposed to represent? If they are meant to exaggerate actual human features, the perpetrators have gone too far. No village idiot or fool has those overlong feet, the huge lips, the bulbous red nose. Clowns are in essence nightmarish monsters. If you woke up on an operating table and saw several of them staring down at you, you would not laugh, but scream. Yet, laugh we do — to the extent that most of our most popular comedians until well into the twentieth century, were essentially clowns. Artists like the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Ed Wynn, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton lived by the dictum that a comedian not only had to be funny, but strange, off-kilter, surreal.

This is especially evident to modern eyes in that sub-species of clown known as the blackface minstrel. Modern audiences contemplating the antics of Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor are apt to find them more disturbing than amusing, but I submit that that otherworldly, uncanny quality was always there. Do they look and act like any African American you’ve ever seen? There’s something else going on. As African American blackface artists like Bert Williams and Pigmeat Markham knew, their Grotesque makeup allowed for an alchemical journey to another plane, a dream realm where the painful questions of race had no literal bearing. It was outside the theatrical compact that society decided these capers were wrong, and (eventually) did something about it. But as Dale Cockrell points out in Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World, the origins of blackface predate American slavery by centuries, and can be traced to mummers and Morris Dancers of Medieval Europe, whose sooty visages were clearly meant to evoke Old Nick far more than any blackamoor. The real motive power of the blackface minstrel was the power of the clown. Jean Genet rightly acknowledges that relationship in his subtitle to his play The Blacks: A Clown Show.


Similar to the misrepresentation of the black onstage is that of the woman, as personified by the twin categories of the burlesque dancer and the drag queen. That I have paired these two categories may seem odd at first, but a little reflection will uncover this seldom-observed fact: apart from the presence of a penis, these types of performer are two sides of the same coin, a parody of a male adolescent’s idea of “woman”. It is a vision completely sexualized, devoid of nuance, a telegraph. If such a “woman” came to your parents’ house for dinner, it would be the end of you, the “woman” or dinner – but it would be the end of something. Furthermore, the portrayal, even in the case of the burlesque dancer, is comic, a parody. (Hence, the nettlesome ambiguity of that word “burlesque”, which  can mean both a spoof and a girlie show). The musical and visual eye-winking double entendres employed by the girls are comical, as is the interactive, playful art of the tease. The Grotesquery comes in through the use of exaggeration (feather boas, dyed hair, face paint, shape-enhancing dresses, etc) and the disquieting, dangerous presence in the room of sex. A moment’s reflection of the persona of the world’s best known burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee will you remind you that such performers are at least in part humorists. The fact that she and others play their roles until well into old age will reinforce our theme of Grotesquery. (Think of the inevitable if ungenerous comment usually overheard when an elderly woman is seen wearing too much make-up: “She looks like a clown.”)

While Mae West didn’t tread the burlesque stage, she worked harder than any other to bring its aesthetic to vaudeville, Broadway and the Hollywood film. West is sort of a hub or fulcrum of several of the characters we’re discussing. As a child, one of her favorite performers was the blackface artiste Bert Williams, whose larger-than-life mask undoubtedly provided a sort of object lesson in “how it’s done”, an example she was later able to translate into a form that made sense for her. As Williams, a black, played a “black”, West, a woman, played a “woman”. And she did so to such a degree that plenty of people actually mistook for her a drag artist, an illusion no doubt helped along by the fact that she trafficked with drag performers, emulated them, and even produced a Broadway show about them called The Drag.

To exacerbate the tension, burlesque artists can seem awfully close in conception to sex workers, characters who have existed around the fringes of theatres since there have been theatres and who catapult us from the realm of make-believe to the real. While, as we observed in the opening paragraphs, sex workers do give a kind of performance, it is strictly about the sex, and lacks the humor as well as the barrier of the footlights. But because burlesque artists evoke these related creatures of the demimonde, they summon forth real demons. And, as with my 10th Avenue specimen, they can occasionally be what scholar Philip Tomson calls “unintentional Grotesques”.

Walking a similar line between the theatrical and the actual is the performing freak. Contemplated on a purely aesthetic level (as with gaffed freaks or theatrical creations like the Hunchback of Notre Dame), this category falls into a slightly expanded definition of the Grotesque, one that comes to us chiefly from Soviet literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin in his study on Rabelais. Bakhtin’s Grotesque expands upon the merely humorous to embrace the joyful and the celebratory, as rooted in the physical body, a quality he dubs “Carnivalesque.” Like the fictional Hunchback himself, gross and “scarce half made up”, we elevate such characters into Lords of Misrule, and give them sway over us, parodies of our usual heroes and princes – perhaps because (Christ-like) they resemble us more than our actual leaders tend to. We enter a problematic new realm however when the freaks in question are actual “wonders of nature”. Names like General Tom Thumb, Chang and Eng, Johnny Eck and the Hilton Sisters have entered our lore as great stars of yesteryear, no less than names like Booth or Kean. But the bona fide freaks present us with a problem. Viewed as spectacle with a certain detachment, they entertain us. Yet after even a small amount of reflection, their exploitation offends our moral sensibilities (if we have any). Still, one wonders if the difference here isn’t one of degree than one of kind. Blackface and the objectification of women offend these very same sensibilities, and in many cases the perpetrators, like the performing freak, are born, not made.

Not to be omitted from our catalogue of the comically monstrous are the principle comic “monsters” (although they usually are): ham actors from Gothic horror who make us laugh even as they give us the creeps – matinee anti-heroes like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, John Carradine, and Vincent Price. Heirs apparent to Lon Chaney and the creatures of German expressionism, these ostensibly straight actors gained a certain self-awareness over the years, and learned to make us giggle even as they sought to put a chill up our spine. Capes, gold-tipped walking sticks, pale skin, the stove pipe hat of the undertaker are the typical accoutrements of these sorts of Grotesques, ambassadors of spooky fun.

If you have been picturing the artists we have been describing in black and white, there is a logical reason for why that may be so. Long about the mid 20th century, mainstream audiences seemed to lose their taste for traditional Grotesquerie, turning away from certain stock types in favor of ones more prosaic and “recognizable”. This is an unprecedented  development. The characters we have been discussing had been around for centuries, some as long as millennia. But the reasons for this “mass extinction” are not hard to locate given the unprecedented changes affecting the society-at-large at the same time. One, theatre in general suffered a major set back after the phonograph, radio and cinema came into being, siphoning off audiences for all sorts of live entertainment. Attendance at live theatre had been universal and frequent. Overnight, that evaporated. By the mid-20th century only an elite minority attended the theatre. For the most part, their taste was not for the primitive caperings of the kind of painted clowns we have been describing. These audiences sought instead serious dramas and wholesome musical comedies. [While a case can be made that the Southern Gothic plays of Tennessee Williams do indeed contain Grotesques, his is obviously a subtler, more naturalistic method, outside the scope of the specific physical phenomenon we are discussing – aside from a very special recent interpretation we will return to]. Audiences, even cinematic audiences, became deconditioned to older theatrical styles, and they died out. On the movie screen, the old face paint, and the big clownish characters struck younger audiences as artifice. Gradually, concessions were made. Groucho Marx ceased to paint on a greasepaint moustache and grew a real one. Chaplin abandoned his tramp. For a time, the reigning king of comedy was Bob Hope, who established a new template (one that obtains to this day): the comedian as healthy, normal American guy. This is not to say, obviously, that clowns died out. Rather, they became marginalized. Whereas artists like Joseph Grimaldi had been among the most important performing artists of their day, and as recently as the 1830 the Marx Bros. had been on the cover of Time, now clowns were relegated to the fringes: circuses, children’s entertainment and the avant-garde.

Simultaneously, moral attitudes began to change. Burlesque, which had always lived in a sort on uneasy truce with respectable society, was officially banned by the 1930s. Such efforts are always Quixotic, however. Sex and theatre had gone hand in hand for thousands of years. The best any reformer can do is change what form it takes. As with the earlier prohibition of alcohol, which resulted only in the illicit popularity of much harder, more virulent and unhealthy rotgut, the banning of legitimate burlesque meant only its degradation from a popular art form to a sleazy, backroom ritual of sex for sex’s sake, absent the richer joys of creative performance.

Fortunately, this was not be the case with performing freaks, although their absence from the scene does have to do with the death of yet another live performing art form: the side show. No doubt, moral repugnance did play a role in the extinction of exploiters of freaks, but the choice had to have been made that much easier by the dearth of venues. Likewise, while stereotype itself exists even to the present day, blackface (which nearly every American comedian and singer had resorted to until the early 20th century) was finished by the Second World War, to be replaced by the more positive physiognymies of the likes of Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, and the Nicholas Brothers.

This was the age of the photograph, the age of method acting. The clamor from the audience was for ever-greater authenticity and realism. Even horror films, a seeming last refuge for the Grotesque if ever there was one, eventually dropped the traditional Gothic trappings in favor of frankly unimaginative tales about serial killing slashers at summer camps and the like.  The ostensibly market-driven trend toward realism is ironic, because for millennia, the genesis for these many types of Grotesques had always been Folkish: of, by and for the common people. Now such folk traditions were indeed being kept alive, but generally by scholars and those with a taste for the arcane and esoteric. (I’ll always remember my confused consternation when, in my professional dishwashing days, I was castigated for listening to Leadbelly by a black coworker: “Turn off that white boy shit!”)

Be that as it may, “high culture” became the birthplace of a new era in the life of these ancient theatrical folkways. The Absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet became springboards for this new phase. By the 1960s,New York and San Francisco were homes for hundreds of avant-garde theatre companies and New Vaudeville circuses. Clowning, busking, street theatre and protest all became aligned in that age of creative and political ferment. The San Francisco Mime Troupe was in the vanguard throughout the era; at one point they even staged a controversial minstrel show. The gay rights movement gave the long underground drag scene and its camp aesthetic a new visibility. Charles Ludlam’s concept of the Ridiculous brought the pure theatricality of clown, freak show, and drag a dignity, political significance and acceptance that these forms had often been denied. Rock and roll and New Vaudeville were also closely allied.  Perhaps the biggest boost the Grotesque has enjoyed in mainstream culture in the past half century occurred in the 1970s in the form of Glam and heavy metal rock. Artists like David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Alice Cooper, Ozzie Osbourne and Kiss brought a high degree of showmanship to their costumed extravaganzas, adding an element of glamour not present since the vaudeville days.

By the 1990s, theatre and circus schools in the US and Europe were turning out thousands of graduates. Herb Gardner once wrote a play with the extravagant title A Thousand Clowns. Now there were a thousand clowns – and more – in cities across America. And not just children’s birthday party clowns, trained in centuries old traditions, schooled in commedia, clowns with that most dangerous of all things: a philosophy. In New York, Coney Island USA and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus gave a shot in the formerly discredited arm of show business known as sideshow.  Not only were fire eaters and sword swallowers back in business, but so were many bona fide wonders of nature like “little person” Koko the Killer Klown and London-based “flid baby” Matt Fraser. At the same time, in Los Angeles and New York (and now all major U.S. cities) New Burlesque started to explode, to the extent that there are now entire schools of strip-tease, entire festivals devoted to the art form. Surely, it is no accident that New Burlesque’s most famous exponent Deeta Von Teese is the once and future consort of Goth singer Marilyn Manson. If the 21st century has a power couple of the Grotesque, surely this is it.

The theatrical Grotesque reaches its ultima thule in the style known as bouffon. This style of playing originates in modern times with clown guru Jacques Lecoq of the L’Ecole International de Theatre Jacues Lecoq and makes its way to the western hemisphere through Toronto-based clown-teacher Sue Morrison, whose best known American acolyte is perhaps Eric Davis, a.k.a Red Bastard. Bouffon, so the story goes, has medieval roots, and represents a subversive inversion of the usual clown-to-audience relationship. The bouffon is a freak, an antic, angry outsider who exposes the audience’s ugliest impulses. In Bouffon Glass Menajoree, directed by Davis and starring the bouffon power trio of Audrey Crabtree, Lynn Berg and Aimee Lee German, Tennessee Williams’ already grotesque cast of characters becomes a springboard for an assault on everything we take for granted. The players, a hunchback, an obese woman and a mental patient travesty a seemingly sacrosanct masterwork from the American canon in a perverse effort to get a rise out of its complacent audience. Astoundingly, their audiences love to be abused.

Why? Why now, why then, whey ever? Your correspondent often wracks his brain about such questions, questions to which we can generate no answer from our vantage point inside the petrie dish of historical experiment. In the end, one can only observe and speculate. On the one hand, some people (some performers) want to be at once self-abnegating and defiantly outré. They seem to become obsessed and taken over by satyrs, and its been that way since the beginning time. On the other hand, other people (some audiences), are morbidly drawn to watch these potentially dangerous creatures, who tickle us but also have the potential to draw blood. Again, why? In my view, human beings, a rather new and strange species evolutionarily speaking, have not changed much at all over the millennia. Shave us, clean us up, tether us to electronic devices, but we are still rather superstitious apes. Scratch the surface of Civilized Man and you will find something wild, something primitive, a creature who embraces the night and all of its chaos. At present, the audience for clown, burlesque and so forth tends to be well-heeled audiences in major cities drawn to anything new, different and strange (little realizing how old and subconsciously familiar it actually is.) And the rest of the population? They attend their own Grotesque theatre. It’s called the WWE.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

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