syllabus of the holy clown

this new syllabus on the hc homepage presents meditations on the role of the clown across time in poetry, painting, and performance. its starting point is the “harlequin” in “harlequin creature,” to critically contend with a history of the word that has recently come to our attention: that the Harlequin figure as first conceived in italian commedia dell’arte theater, and re-adapted in the centuries since, has ties to a history of racialized appropriation and stereotyping connected to blackface. several of the resources in this list interrogate the ways in which the clown figure has both been imbricated historically in racist, sexist, and classist performance. but the list also presents examples of how the figure of the clown or trickster in their many guises has been activated as a powerful tool of subversion and resistance.     

the year 2021 will mark ten years of harlequin creature. to celebrate this milestone — more details coming soon! — a special, final 10th issue will be published next fall, with the title “hcx.” the title represents both an end, and an openness to new possibilities. what might “hcx” stand for for you? we invite you to suggest new names in the comments, and add other resources to the list!


recommended by Meghan Forbes

  1. J. Douglas Clayton. “From Meyerhold to Eisenstein: Commedia dell’Arte in Russia,” in The Routledge Companion to Comedia dell’Arte. Eds. Judith Chaffee and Olly Crick. London: Routledge, 2014. 364-369.
  2. Madhuri Deshmukh. “Langston Hughes as Black Pierrot: A Transatlantic Game of Masks.” The Langston Hughes Review. Vol. 18 (Fall 2004): 4-13.
  3. Wiley Feinstein. “Reinventing Harlequin in End-of-the-Millennium Ravenna,” in ItaliAfrica: Bridging Continents and Cultures. Ed. Sante Matteo. Stony Brook, NY: Forum Italicum Publishing, 2001. 236-248.
  4. Martin Green and John Swan. The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia dell’Arte and the Modern Imagination. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986, 1993.
  5. Eric Lott. Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy & the American Working Class. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. Originally published in 1993.
  6. David Madden. “Harlequin’s Stick, Charlie’s Cane.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 22, no. 1 (Fall 1968): 10-26.
  7. Tom McDonough. “Black Dada Mime,” in Adam Pendleton: Black Dada Reader. London: Koenig Books, 2017. 21-28.
  8. Kate Newey. “Pantomime and Modernity: The Fairy and The Navvy,” in Theatre, performance and analogue technology : historical interfaces and intermedialities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 97-116.
  9. Seph Rodney. “Inventive, Mysterious Paintings that Exceed Expectations.” Hyperallergic. Oct. 24, 2017.  
  10. Hrag Vartanian. “The Largely Unknown History of Blackface in Canada.” Hyperallergic. Aug. 7, 2019.

recommended by Sherese Francis

  1. Black Elk & J. G. Neihardt. “Heyoka Ceremony,” in Black Elk speaks: Being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979. 149-155. Originally published in 1932.
  2. Vahni Capildeo. “Pierrot Grenade.” New Writing. 2016.
  3. George Chemeche, with essays by Donald Cosentino and Vagner Gonçalves da Silva. Eshu: the divine trickster. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd., 2013.
  4. Louis Chude-Sokei. The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora. Durham: Duke UP, 2006.
  5. Cixous, Hélène, et al. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs. Vol. 1, no. 4 (1976): 875–893.
  6. Darkest.Hue. “Why Do Clowns Look Like That???: Minstrel Ties.” Instagram. July 19, 2020.
  7. Iain Ellis. “Laughin’ Louis Armstrong: The Trickster.” Pop Matters. October 12, 2005.
  8. Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Originally published by Random House in 1952. 
  9. Langston Hughes. “The Black Clown.” Published online by The American Repertory Theater. August 1, 2018.
  10. Langston Hughes. “The Black Pierrot.” Published online by Song of America.
  11. Margaret Irving. “Toward a Female Clown Practice: Transgression, Archetype and Myth” (PhD Thesis, University of Plymouth, 2013).
  12. Zahra Kordjazi. “Gendered Bodily Postures: Body Clowning.” Sociological Images. July 23, 2011.
  13. Michael Lewin. “Scenes: Jab Jab.” Nowness. October 6, 2017.
  14. Kristin Moriah. “In the Shadow of the Negro: Minstrelsy, Race and Performance in Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno.” University of Leicester. 38-54.
  15. Philip Nel. “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Exploring Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination.” Children’s Literature. Vol. 42 (2014): 71-98.
  16. Sarah S. Ohmer. “In the Beginning was Body Language:” Clowning and Krump as Spiritual Healing and Resistance.” CUNY Academic Works (2019).
  17. Jade Patterson. “Unspeakable Monsters: Grotesque Bodies and Discourse in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris and L’Homme qui rit.” Australian Journal of French Studies. Vol. 55 (2018): 122-137. 
    • L’ Homme Qui Rit, or The Man Who Laughed, inspired The Joker character.
  18. The Pierrot Grenade. Written by Asha King and Dalia King. Directed and produced by Asha King. Feb. 21, 2011. YouTube.
  19. Jason Richards. “Melville’s (Inter)national burlesque: Whiteface, blackface, and ‘Benito cereno’.” ATQ. Vol. 21 (2007): 73-94. 
  20. Keomi Serrette. “Pierrot Grenade in “Elementary and Country Men” – #UnveilingThePoet. NALISTT. Oct 23, 2018. Youtube.

left image: Pierrot-Grenade. Mas Jumbies J’Ouvert. 2013. The Pierrot Grenade is a traditional masquerade (called Mas in the Caribbean) character from Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival celebrations. It is a satirical descendant of the Pierrot and Harlequin characters, commonly wearing a costume of multi-colored pieces of cloth with either its face painted or wearing a mask, and carrying a whip. The Pierrot Grenade is described as a supreme jester and scholar with the ability to spell any word.

right image: Míra Holzbachová in “Madame Europa.” Published in Pestrý týden (March 12, 1938): 20. In this pantomime dance, Holzbachová wears the diamond-patterned costume adapted from Harlequin, and performs as the body of Europe, becoming increasingly ill with fascism. She first performed this dance in Spain in 1937 as part of an anti-fascist delegation there.

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