We’ve done a few clown posts, so this morning, we thought we’d do a post about the 10 top female clowns, (of all time!), but there were none.
We even looked on Wikipedia, but they were all – you guessed it – male.
That was mildly irksome, but it got me wondering why?
The terrifying clown of popular culture is a more recent phenomenon, quite probably birthed by horror movies. So the fact that there are no well known female clowns probably isn’t because we don’t want to see women in such a petrifying light.
Is it because clowning is seen as an art only men can perform well?
Although there haven’t been many female clowns – as we know clowns – many women were part of the Dorian Mimes Troupe.
The first documented professional entertainers are the comic (clown) characters of the Dorian Mimes who started performing in ancient Greece during the seventh century BC. Although called mimes they were not silent actors. Their name came from their ability to mimic others.
The Dorian Mime troupes included women who played the female clown roles. The clown tradition started by the Dorian Mimes lasted in Europe for at least a thousand years, and formed the foundation of most Greek and Roman classical theatre.
Quite some time later, in Medieval England, itinerant male clowns were called Gleemen. Many of them worked in partnership with a “glee-maiden”, a female clown who was a skilled musician, dancer, and acrobat. Glee-maiden’s also worked on their own or as an assistant to male troubadours burlesquing his skill.
Women were also jesters, believe it or not.
According to Dana Fradon, in King’s Fool, “In medieval days buffoonery was one of the few professions open to women.
The wife of Seneca, a great Roman philosopher, retained a female fool.
The most famous female jester was Mathurine, a seventeenth century jester who presided at the French court during the reigns three kings Henry III, Henry IV, and Louis XIII. Her costume was that of an Amazon warrior, including long flowing robes, armor, shield, and wooden sword. She was described as being pugnacious and outspoken. During her lifetime, satirists called themselves a Mathurine, and a specific type of burlesque writing is called mathurinade because it was associated with her style of comedy.
When Mathurine was accompanying a lady of the court to an audience with the king, the woman turned to her and angrily said, “I don’t like having a fool on my right side.”
Quickly moving to the woman’s other side, Mathurine said, “I don’t mind it at all.” (This joke would later be adapted for use by nineteenth century clowns and ringmasters.)
Women were also part of The Commedia Del Arte, which dominated European Theatre from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, also had female clowns. The Commedia Del Arte characters were divided into three categories, the young lovers, the masters, and the servants called the zanni. The masters and servants were clown characters. The zanni instigated most of the action of the plot. Each troupe generally had three zanni, a clever male rogue, his dimwitted male victim, and a female. She participated in the intrigues of the main story, and a subplot involved a love interest between her and one of the male servants. Most of the male zanni characters had female counterparts. For example, Harlequina was the female version of Harlequin. There were also zanni characters that were exclusively female. These female zanni included Columbine, Franceschina, and Smeraldina.
Commedia Del Arte served as the foundation for theatrical comedy. Many of the first comic plays created in Europe were based upon earlier Commedia Del Arte scenarios with characters based on the stock Commedia Del Arte characters.
Zanni is probably where we get the word zany from.
And let’s not forget panto! Role reversal is de rigeur in pantomime. A man plays the Dame, and a woman plays the main male character. However, it’s usually the Dame that provides the laughs.
The Commedia Del Arte was also the foundation of the English Pantomime that flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Three Commedia Del Arte characters were incorporated into the English Pantomime becoming stock characters. These three were Pantaloon, Harlequin, and Columbine. Other Commedia Del Arte characters were also sometimes used.
Late in the eighteenth century, a fourth stock character, the whiteface clown, was added to the English Pantomime. Joseph Grimaldi, the father of modern clowning, made the Whiteface Clown the dominant character in the pantomimes beginning in 1800. In his performances, he worked with female clowns playing the supporting role of Columbine. So leading up to the modern era of clowning, women were very much a part of clown history.
So while females were part of the history of clowning, the art is now dominated by men, and has been for a few hundred years.
Whatever the reason for this, it would be great to see more female clowns! It might even alleviate the ever growing coulrophobia…
What do you think? Would you like to see more women clowns?
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