Rare is it now for us to add new posts to our section on the different forms of variety arts, for there can only be a finite and not very large number. But we recently learned about another type which throve for a few decades in Britain, and so we must include it.
Pierrot was a late addition to the commedia dell’Arte cast of characters. There had long been a “Pedrolino” but his personality was quite different from the one we know from lore. In 1665 Moliere had a character named Pierrot in his play Don Juan (1665) and this seems to have been absorbed into the repertoire of French and Italian commedia troupes, with the quickly established story template of Pierrot being in love with Columbine, unrequitedly, losing out to Harlequin in his bid to win her affections. (This triangle arrangement seems awfully like the main theme of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. One wonders if this was the inspiration?) And thus do we have the origin of the “Sad Clown” motif so popular thereafter, in every art form known to man, from opera to fiction to film to black velvet paintings. In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin said that Pierrot specifically was the model for his project to add pathos to the Little Tramp’s comedies. The Hanlon-Lees incorporated Pierrot into their vaudeville and circus act. The specific look of Pierrot was different from most of the other commedia characters. He was a whiteface clown, sans mask, in an oversized, billowy pajama-like outfit, with large pom-pom buttons, and sometimes a conical shaped hat. Nowadays most people continue to encounter the image without knowing its specific derivation.
In 1890 Michel-Antoine Carré brought a pantomime called L’enfant prodigue to London, and it inspired banjo maven Clifford Essex to create an entire troupe of Pierrots, who sang, danced, joked, tumbled and juggled. They presented family friendly variety shows especially at seaside resorts like Brighton, Blackpool. etc. The form quickly caught on and others adopted the style as will happen, and soon there were numerous Pierrot Troupes presenting their Pierrot Shows, or concert parties (kindred, one suspects to the Italian caffe concerto we wrote about here). Pierrot shows began to reach peak popularity in the 1920s, and flourished until the 1950s, when television struck all variety entertainment a hard blow. Cue music for the sad clown — his love unrequited again! But good new: there is at least one British troupe keeping the memory of this bygone form alive; learn about them here.
To learn more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,
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