Bert Williams and the (Funny) Sadness of Clowns

WC Fields described his fellow Ziegfield Follies mate Bert Williams–‘one of the pre-eminent entertainers of the Vaudeville era and one of the most popular comedians for all audiences of his time…the best-selling black recording artist before 1920′–as ‘the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.’ Williams certainly made no secret of the melancholia in his work; as Jervis Anderson notes in This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait 1900-1950 (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1981):

Williams once said that nearly all his songs were based on the idea that he was getting the worst of it….If he had any sunshine in his heart, only his friends and family saw any evidence of it. Onstage, it seldom broke through the overcast of his face, the melancholy of his voice, and the other inclemencies of his style. [pp. 41]

Anderson quotes a critic of the time remarking that:

Williams is the…butt, the abused one. He manifests…a pathetic knowledge that something is wrong somewhere with the eternal scheme of things. [pp. 38]

Funny and sad; how can those afflicted with the wrong kind of humors be humorous? The ‘tears of a clown’ trope tells us that in fact we are quite familiar with this seemingly incongruous blend. We are not unfamiliar with the proximity of laughter and misfortune; it’s only a short journey from snickering at banana peel slips to full-blown schadenfreude. It might even be that our awareness of the grimness partially visible behind the facade put up by the performer makes us laugh just a little harder as a protective measure, a warding off of the black clouds that might roll over us too.

I learned myself once, quite dramatically–literally perhaps–how close together laughter and tears run. A few years ago, I attended a clown workshop taught by the brilliant Matt Chapman of Under the Table Theatre. One of our final exercises was a partnered effort: we paired off with fellow students, sat down next to each other, and then, one of us began laughing while the other one began crying. We were asked to raise the intensity of our laughing and crying from one to ten, and at the ‘ten’ mark, to abruptly switch over to the other: the ‘laugher’ would become the ‘crier’ and vice-versa.  The pair would then wind down from the ‘ten’ to the ‘zero’ mark.

I expected this to be difficult. I didn’t see how was I going to ‘fake’ laughing and crying so hard and how I could switch over from one mode to the other. But it wasn’t. Turns out, when you are laughing really hard, you’re close to crying anyway. (Remember that bit about ‘I laughed so hard I cried’?) And interestingly enough, when you force yourself to laugh, you find yourself overtaken by a great embodied chuckle that further fuels all the guffawing and chortling. The converse held true too: my crying made me genuinely sad and shaken for a while afterwards.

Perhaps William found the laughter of those who appreciated his act infectious; perhaps he found it easy to summon up a chuckle as the outward manifestation of an inner lament.

Perhaps, hopefully, he found his own routines the best palliative for the pain he felt.

CLR James on the ‘Surprisingly Moderate’ Reprisals of the Haitian Revolution

Here are two very powerful passages from CLR James‘ classic The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution (Vintage Books, second edition revised, New York, 1962, pp. 88-89):

The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood their lot would be to labour on  them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them. From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and at the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind. For two centuries the higher civilisation had shown them that power was used for wreaking your will on those whom you controlled. Now that they held power they did as they had been taught. In the frenzy of the first encounters they killed all. Yet they spared the priests whom they feared and the surgeons who had been kind to them. They, whose women had undergone countless violations, violated all the women who fell into their hands, often on the bodies of their still bleeding husbands, fathers and brothers. “Vengeance ! Vengeance” was their war-cry, and one of them carried a white child on a pike as a standard.

And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. They did not maintain this revengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased. As the revolution gained territory they spared many of the men, women, and children whom they surprised on plantations. To prisoners of war alone they remained merciless. They tore out their flesh with redhot pincers, they roasted them on slow fires, they sawed a carpenter between two of his boards. Yet in all the records of that time there is no single instance of such fiendish tortures as burying white men up to the neck and smearing the holes in their faces to attract insects, or blowing them up with gun-powder, or any of the thousand and one bestialities to which they had been subjected. Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligible, and they were spurred on by the ferocity with which the whites in Le Cap treated all slave prisoners who fell into their hands.

The italicized line is footnoted as follows:

This statement has been criticised. I stand by it. C.L.R.J.

I can imagine some of the contours of this criticism: How could you defend rape and murder and pillage? The killing of babies? The savage treatment of prisoners?

James offers a defense in the same passage and it is interestingly plausible.  The slave revolt, the uprising, was bound to be a convulsion, a shaking-off, one that could not but, given the history of their oppression–described in gruesome detail in Chapter 1–result in some reprisals. But this striking back would not be, and perhaps couldn’t be, anything more than a brief spasm of cruelty and anger, a cathartic and horrible outpouring of accumulated anger and grief. It would not be followed by enslavement and the systematic, prolonged brutality the slaves had been subjected to. The violence inflicted on the slaves was directed at the perpetuation of a very particular system of control; that which the slaves directed at their masters was a momentary outburst.  The mutilations, floggings, rapes, and live roastings–among other humiliations and obscenities–the slaves had suffered were to ensure the breaking of their spirit, the assertion of owner privilege; they were the visible features of an ideology of utter and total control. They broke bodies and minds alike. The cruelties of the retaliation meted out by the slaves, in contrast, appear as a momentary expression of revenge, the passions underlying which, hopefully, would soon subside. There is nothing systematic, nothing codified, about them.

These considerations do not, I think, condone the violence but they do put them into some perspective.