Sunday, December 6, 2015

On Pagliaccio



Pagliacci is an Italian opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo. The opera’s name may be translated in the plural as "clowns." In the show, a jealous husband suspects his wife of infidelity and stabs her to death on stage during a commedia dell’arte performance. The opera, an example of the verismo style pioneered by Puccini, embodies esthetic problems involving realism and the representation of the truth in art. The climactic series of killings occurs as a result of confusion between reality and the representation of reality by an artwork – in this case, the harlequin play stages a comedy of infidelity that turns out tragic when actually enacted.

A single clown is pagliaccio. However, in my imagination, Pagliaccio is the name of a character, the protagonist of an anecdote that I seem to have known since early childhood. In the story, an unnamed man goes to see a priest, complaining that he is terribly depressed and tempted to commit suicde. The priest tells the man to go to the circus where a famous clown named Pagliaccio performs nightly. "He is the merriest fellow in the world," the priest says. "Watching him will raise your spirits and make you happy." The man is distressed by this advice but says nothing. The next day, he goes to a brothel and tells one of the whores that he has lost his desire to live and that the world has become a grey, cold, and merciless place to him. The whore says that she went to the circus recently and saw a great clown, Pagliaccio. "I have had a hard life," the whore says, " but watching him perform, I forgot all my miseries and was happy for, at least, a time." The man shrugs his shoulders and seems to be disappointed by her advice. A day later, the man goes to his doctor, a psychiatrist, and unburdens himself: "I am oppressed by terrible fear and anxiety," the man says. "I need something to distract my mind from my sorrows. Do you have a medicine that I can take?" "Laughter is the best medicine," the doctor says. Then, he tells his patient to buy a ticket to the circus. "The funniest man in the world is performing in the circus," the doctor says, "the incomparable Pagliaccio. When you see him, you will forget all of your sorrows and laugh like a child." At this advice, the patient bursts into tears and cries: "But doctor, I am Pagliaccio."

My father told me this tale when I was very young. Perhaps, he acted it out. In high school, my father had won some distinction in the theater and I recall that he declaimed the final lines of the story with great passion. Perhaps, he was sad at the time he told me the story. For some reason, I have always thought that the anecdote disguised a certain melancholy afflicting my father, although this is purely speculation on my part. In the version of the story that my father told me, there is only one consultation between the patient and the psychiatrist. The whore and the priest are my innovations, my contribution to a tale that undoubtedly dates back to the Romans or before.

It would be interesting to know who first told this story. Internet sources suggest that the anecdote may have been true with respect to a certain George L. Fox, a famous comedian on Broadway in the years following the Civil War. Fox was a small, sinewy man who appeared in stark white-face. A photograph from the era shows a sinister-looking clown with something of the appearance of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films. Fox had fought with distinction in the Civil War. After he broke his nose in an accident on stage in 1875, his behavior became increasingly erratic – it was thought that the accident had affected his optic nerve. He died in that year at age 52. I find no accounts, however, linking him to the anecdote that my father told.

Another candidate for the original of the mournful clown is said to be Joseph Grimaldi. Grimaldi was famous for performing the role of Harlequin in pantomimes at Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and Sadlers Wells in London. A contemporary print shows Grimaldi in white-face with great scarlet wings painted over his cheeks. He was so famous that for many years that "Joe" or "Joey" (derived from his surname) was another term for a clown who performed the role of the jealous, and cuckolded lover, Harlequin, in pantomime comedies. Grimaldi, who died in the 1830's, suffered from depression and punning on his name once said: "I am not happy, no, very grim-am-I." But, although Grimaldi undoubtedly influenced the American clown, George L. Fox, I can find no account suggesting that the Pagliaccio story was ever told about him.

In modern times, depression dogged many great comedians: one need only consider the lives of Robin Williams and Jonathon Winters. Someone once remarked that Groucho Marx’ sadness was incurable because he had "no Groucho Marx to cheer him up with funny stories." The idea of the inconsolable clown appears in Watchmen, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. In Watchmen, the anecdote that my father told me appears as a tale recounted by a character called the Comedian to someone bearing the sinister name Rorschach. In that comic book account, the sorrowful clown is called "Pagliacci". I have read Watchmen and this may be the source of my calling the protagonist of the anecdote "Pagliaccio". However, I also believe that my father used that name when he told me the story, probably sometime in the sixties.

This anecdote has a curious gender identity. I have found several accounts of fathers telling this story to their sons. But I find no narrative of a mother ever recounting this anecdote to her son. Similarly, I find no account of a father telling the story to his daughter or daughters. Try this thought-experiment: can you readily imagine a woman telling this anecdote to her son or daughter? I believe that you will find this concept highly implausible, if not, exactly, unthinkable. Why should this be so? I think it is because men and women have a very different relationship to artistic creativity. All women are, at least, potentially biologically creative. Men, often, make the mistake of imagining that the creative impulse is born of rage or sexual frustration – that is, men regard artistic creativity as arising from the frustration of other more fundamental impulses. Great masculine art arises from suffering. The art produced by great female writers is, often, not considered in this way. (In my generation, of course, there was an exception granted for poetesses – both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were regarded as producing their art from suffering and, therefore, considered in the lineage of the great Emily Dickinson.) No one is likely to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein arising from the author’s personal suffering; similarly, I have never heard anyone argue that Jane Austen created her novels out of personal misery. The entire linkage between unrequited passion, suffering, and art is questionable in my view. But the anecdote of poor Pagliaccio implies that the great clown’s brilliance may have been rooted, somehow, in his agony – an idea that appeals to male hysterics.

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