The Fool as Entertainer and Satirist, on Stage and in the World
By Glenys McMullen
Dalhousie Review, Volume 50:1 (1970)
Introduction: As an entertainer, the fool has always been a prime target for laughter. But it is through the jester in man that the riddle of his nature is approached in the twentieth century; and possibly the fool may lead us to discover his true glory. Whether dancing in the komos of Attic comedy, leading the morris, jigging on the apron stage, conducting the singing at a children’s pantomime, or just gazing vacantly into a television camera, the fool can always make his audience merry. They wait for his entrance so eagerly that sometimes they will burst out laughing before he has had time to do, say, or even look a joke. The laughter is often kindly, occasionally sympathetic, but usually tinged with derision; it goes with a delightful feeling of superiority which may well lie behind our love of the fool. Yet it is the experience of a complacent audience that suddenly its laughter turns back upon itself, forcing it to ponder for the moment just where the real fool is to be found.
The public have always liked to suppose some deeper significance to the fool, apart from his talent for making them laugh or look at themselves askance. He has been made to represent some of their basic assumptions about life. For instance, in the Middle Ages he symbolized the vanity of human pretension, whereas the lord he served represented divine perfection; it was a neat image of the antithesis within man’s nature, as they conceived it, sublime and ridiculous together. The twentieth century, which refuses to see any tidy or unified order in life, has made the fool a symbol of meaninglessness, or else an enviable dropout from the pressures of a worried, over-involved and conformist society.
Perhaps because of this, most modern fools have no voice; they make comments rather by what they are and through the crazy fun they have, turning the world’s values on end. In fact, a cult of the crazy has swept the modern world off its feet, largely through the work of such artists as Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, Jacques Tati, and Giulietta Massina, who make such magnificent global village idiots that they dominate the movies in which they have appeared. It would not be surprising if some theatrical tycoon were to re-name Twelfth Night “Feste the Jester”, as Charles II called it “Malvolio” for another age.
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