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The History of Clowns

Circus Clown

By: Molly Schwichtenberg

Performing to entertain people has a long and varied history, and clowns have been a part of this history for hundreds of years. Even in ancient times, people would wear masks and costumes and perform for the royal or imperial courts. Clowns are also associated with circuses, which have a long history as well. A number of famous clowns have been instrumental in developing the signature characteristics of clowns, such as their clumsiness and their white face paint with bright, broad smiles.

The clown-like characters who performed for royalty in ancient eras were often called jesters. These professional performers had the responsibility of amusing and distracting the kings and queens as well as other members of high society. Both men and women worked as jesters, and some jesters even accompanied kings and armies into battle to help calm the warriors' nerves. It was quite common for jesters to die on battlefields.

Philip Astley created the first circus in 1768, and his shows featured horses performing in rings. Astley also created a circus clown who was named Billy Buttons. In the Astley circus performances, Billy Buttons was a tailor who would try to ride the horses and would always fail in funny ways. The crowds loved Billy Buttons so much that his performances were expanded to become part of other circus acts.

The word "clown" was first noted in the English language in the 1560s, when it was used to describe a rustic, boorish peasant. Drawing on this origin, Charlie Chaplin helped to popularize the hobo type of clown with his "Little Tramp" character. He used this character in more than 50 films, most of them silent films. With the rise of movies and then television, clowns became more popular than ever, finding new audiences on screen.

Sinister clowns are a relatively recent creation, but there have always been melancholy undertones behind clown performances. Applying garish makeup and wearing bright, oversize costumes makes it possible for performers to hide a sad interior behind the loud exterior. Some researchers have theorized that the history of clowns as jesters might have paved the way for the development of evil clowns. If court jesters failed to make the king laugh, there was often a hefty price to pay. Some jesters had their facial muscles cut so they could no longer frown and had to smile all the time. An evil clown is a manifestation of the dark side of clowns, which have always flirted with manic behavior that bordered on perversion.