Clown : Parallels of Nogaku Theater and Clown

by | Jun 27, 2008 | Clown

Contemplating the relationship between one’s sense of humor, one’s sense of joy and one’s spirituality, and their relation to the word Clown has become a preoccupation of mine. Spirituality?  Laughter can be cathartic, especially shared in large groups in positive situations. Calling on one’s sense of humor demands this immediate presence and awareness so often associated with meditation,  with ‘the now.’ One is born with a sense of humor and joy, it is one of those ethereal qualities that connects us to THE juice.
Was I aware of this 27 years ago when I did my first juggling show in the old town of Annecy in France, and discovered that the audience laughed and I was making that happen? Well most likely not.
Now, is another story.

How about you, dear reader?
Does the word Clown conjure up an important person in society to you?
Images of bulbous red noses in striped pajamas running around with cream pies ? Do you look to clowns to offer a contrarian’s perspective within a somewhat heightened spiritual context?
Probably not if you are like the 94% of American children for whom Ronald McDonald is the first clown to come to mind.

On this  pathway of exploration, digging into the deep history of clown, fool and jester in human history, I dug into Benito Ortolani’s book about Japanese theater, focusing in on Zeami’s Aesthetics for the Noh Stage. Having studied Kyogen, the comic side of Noh theater, I have a certain understanding of the depth of their tradition that goes back at least some 600 years.

I recall watching my teacher’s teacher’s father, Shigayama senior, perform in Japan (1993), his comic presence was powerful,  without doing anything, just standing there on stage. It was defined by a deep mischievous grin that resonated in his voice as well. There was little doubt about his comic intentions. He embodied the humorous spirit, no superficiality in sight.

What follows below is a condensed look at the principles that Ortolani discusses in his book.

Zeami, with his father Kan’ami, established Noh theatre in Japan in the 1300’s. Nogaku comprises of Noh, deep theatrical pieces often tragic, and Kyogen, comic stories that come between Noh to relieve the tension.
Toraaki (head of the Okura school of Kyogen in 1646) distinguishes the two forms: Noh concerns mostly illustrious or even divine roles, while Kyogen aims at the ordinary -even reducing to an ordinary level people belonging to the aristocracy, or the supernatural world. …the function of the kyogen is to provide relief from the tragic atmosphere of the no, but not to destroy the dignified and refined no atmosphere of yugen.

Toraaki  goes on(courtesy of Benito Ortolani) :  “Kyogen should offer a sense of human equality, and a search for truth under the veil of the joke-practical and unpretentious truths of common sense…this search for truth eliminates the coarse, low, indecent comicality which elicits an easy but sick and superficial laughter, deprived of profound compassion and understanding for the human situation.”

What branch of clowning does that apply to?

One needs look no further than 2008, and an interview in a Chicago newspaper with David Shiner, great modern clown, and director of Cirque du Soleil’s latest production “Kooza”. Explaining the work and philosophies that went into the show’s creation, he is asked:

So what clown wisdom did Shiner take with him from all those many years ago on the streets of Paris?

“Wow, I guess it would have to be the importance of the human existence,” he says, contemplating his next words. “Not to let people feel isolated and alone. We need each other. It’s important to laugh, to have hope. That was the essence of what I did as a clown, what I still do, what I wanted this show to do. It’s all about finding what’s human in each person and connecting with them on that level.”

This role of the clown, or clowner ( I prefer to think of clowning as a verb), in connecting with the audience is the first of Zeami’s principles: Hana (flower). All of his aesthetics have strong resonance and relation to the world of clown. It is extraordinary how Zeami relates performance to the deepest, and lightest realms, once again all explanations all courtesy of Ortolani-san’s book:

Hana: flower. the most crucial concept in understanding the relationship between the actor and his audience.  According to Konishi, the Flower is an effect resulting from an excellent performance, when the audience is caught up  in the actor’s performance.
Zeami distinguishes between the temporary flower, that to do with the natural beauty and fascination of youth, and the true flower, which is the result of long years of rigorous training. “It manifests itself in a number of nuances and degrees of perfection reaching the peak in the mysterious flower of the miraculous that sublimely unites actor and audience in a unique experience of the Absolute.”

‘Kokoro is used by Zeami to indicate the ultimate foundation of the art of the no, the source of the greatest impact upon audiences, the ultimate source of genuine  yugen performances, and the explanation of the secret of the unique fascination of the moment of “no-action.”  According to Pilgrim, kokoro in Zeami’s use “encompasses such things as feeling and emotion, soul and spirit, mind and the objective knowing process, consciousness and self, intent and will, a pure and non-conscious mind, and a spiritual state representing the deepest levels of the total self.”

“The reality of kokoro is therefore rooted in the true essence of all things, or the all-encompassing, unchanging pure Buddha-nature…the artist eventually becoming one with the heart of everything, unconsciously and spontaneously following the rhythms of the One, the Absolute, the primordial Energy…. The great master in a real sense becomes its appearance on the stage, moving the  kokoro of the audience deeply in an indescribably way…Zeami used the image of puppets and strings Puppets are not self-moved; the strings effect the movement.  So it is for the supreme master.

Yugen   Originally yugen referred to the hidden meaning behind the surface of the sutras. In the tenth century in Japan, it was used in poetic criticism with the meaning of ”profound”. At first Zeami used the term to refer to elegant beauty, and later to a combination of elegance with depth and a touch of cosmic truth. Ueda writes: “if the term  yugen is etymologically analyzed, it will be found the yu means deep, dim, or difficult to see,, and the gen, originally describing the dark, profound, tranquil color of the universe, refers to the Taoist concept of truth…..Zeami perceived mysterious beauty in cosmic truth: beauty was the color of truth, so to speak.””

Rojaku Old age, tranquility. The quiet beauty of old age. The great challenge for the real master, the reduction to the real essence…being able to cause the flower while portraying old age ( without the elegance of a court lady, or the strength of a warrior)

What a thought that one can approach the cosmic truth through Clowning. Actually one can approach from an infinite number of directions and art forms. In this case the art form happens to be ‘the Funny’.

“Think Buster, not Bozo” (from 500 Clowns in Chicago)

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