01/09/2013 11:26 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

The Culture of Clowning: Discussion and Exhibit in NYC

On Thursday, January 10, 2013 at the Bard Graduate Center Galleries on Manhattan's Upper West Side, David Carlyon Ph.D will present a program on the culture of clowning. Carlyon's program, "Herman Ootics, the Clown: History, Culture, and Clowning," is designed to challenge the clichés surrounding this comedic art.

This guest lecture, held from 6:00-8:00 p.m. on January 10, is part of the Bard Center Galleries current exhibit, "Circus and the City: New York 1793-2010," an ambitious and superbly presented show.

"The circus clown is a worker, one increasingly buried in symbolism," says Dr. Carlyon. None of the stereotypes of clowns get at the heart of what a clown actually does. The caricatures of clowns---sad clown, happy clown, scary clown, kids' clown, and that academic pet, the trickster--have little to do with the work of a comedic performer.

"Like Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, or Bert Lahr -- a clown's vaudeville cousins who became known because they made the leap to the movies -- the circus clown uses the tools of verbal comedy, of physical comedy, and especially of human psychology to engage audiences. He is little-recognized for the art he practices.

David Carlyon was a Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown who later earned a Ph.D in theatre at Northwestern University. He has published scholarly work on performance, on nineteenth century culture and politics, and on Shakespeare. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Theatre at Iona College.

Dan Rice (1823-1900) was an early circus entertainer, and Carlyon has also written a book about him: Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of.

"Dan Rice is a perfect example of symbols burying performer, person, and work," says Carlyon. "Rice was one of the most famous people of the mid-19th century. When circus was adult fare, rife with sex, violence, and politics, he was celebrated for his lightning-quick wit, his political 'hits on the times,' and his sophisticated appeal to the emerging middle class, echoing their urge for an unnamed but potently aspirational 'something higher.'"

Carlyon's talk will explore the historical origins of the popular symbols and clichés that obscure the work.

About the Circus Exhibit

The exhibit itself has been described as one of best circus exhibits ever mounted and it continues at the Bard Galleries until February 3, 2013. Though the circus has usually been passed over in favor of dance, drama, or music when "the arts" are discussed by scholars, the Bard exhibit, as curated by Matthew Wittmann, uses the city as a lens through which to explore the development of the American circus. It also places the circus very much in the center of the cultural arts as they were developing.

In a tour through the exhibit, Carlyon notes what is available: "In addition to the traditional posters, costume pieces, and trunks that might be expected of a circus exhibit, there are candid photographs of circus audiences, a cane with a commemorative sword hidden inside, a 150-year-old wooden ball used for foot juggling on horseback, children's toys, women's scarves, a wagon wheel with a rainbow-burst paint job, a human-size frog disguise, and a two-foot high carved bust of Dan Rice, looking like an ancient Roman senator."

He also points out an amazing circus poster that is currently on display in the stairwell. The poster is rarely seen as it is too big for its home museum to display, so this giant marvel of lithographic art has been out of public view for years.

How Jumbo Changed the Circus

Until the arrival of Jumbo in 1882, the circus was a bawdy entertainment that drew a mostly male audience. The scantily clad female performers showed more "leg" than most performers of the time, and the entertainment had many acts that catered to that prurient interest.

But showman P.T. Barnum knew that if he could get families to come, he could sell more tickets, more food, and more merchandise. When he and partner James Bailey bought Jumbo from the London Zoo, Barnum billed him as "the children's giant pet." And just as Barnum hoped, families followed.

The exhibition features more than two hundred objects and images selected from both local and national collections, including the New-York Historical Society, the International Center of Photography, the Somers Historical Society, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the New York State Museum, the Circus World Museum, the Barnum Museum, the Library of Congress, the Witte Museum, and the Shelburne Museum.

Susan Weber is founder and director of the Bard Center and helped to organize the exhibit. The Bard Graduate Center Galleries are at 18 W. 86th Street, New York City.

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