So, last weekend I took a three-day workshop in Buffoon, at the Center for Movement Theatre, taught by the wonderful Dody DiSanto. And now I’m seeing things. Specifically, I see the grotesque. Everywhere.
Dody teaches Buffoon as it was developed by Jacques Lecoq, the late great teacher of movement and physical theater in Paris. Lecoq’s buffoons literally embody the grotesque. Huge balls? Check. Six foot arms? Check. Big puffy body on tiny feet? Check. All limbs and no head? You get the idea.
Buffoons are outcasts. We don’t like to look at their grotesque-ness, but they love to watch us. They watch society from the outside, and from that perspective they see truths that the rest of us can’t. But once you investigate the world of buffoons, walk a mile in their size-17 (or maybe size 2) shoes, you start to see them everywhere.
Yesterday, at a stoplight, I watched a magnificent one shuffle across the street right in front of me. She had a tiny head, an unruly shock of Einstein hair, and an impossibly stocky body, thanks to a thick, royal blue down coat a few sizes too large for her little frame. The coat descended almost to the pavement, stopping just short enough to reveal a pair of stick thin ankles attached to small sneakered feet. If I had to guess, she was about 85. She waddled over the crosswalk with the gait of a wind-up toy robot.
In Winesburg, Ohio, long before Lecoq began his work, Sherwood Anderson foreshadows the birth of the buffoon in chapter one, “The Book of the Grotesque.” In it, an old writer dreams a procession of figures worthy of a buffoon parade:
They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.
The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness. When she passed he made a noise like a small dog whimpering.
Anderson goes on to explain the old writer’s theory regarding the origin of these grotesques:
…in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.
The old mad had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds of truths and they were all beautiful.
And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
It’s not the truths that distort; it’s the individual folly that someone can claim a universal truth for him/herself. The truth of Fatherhood, say, will encompass all that a father could possibly be. We can aspire to the truth of Fatherhood, but we can never live up to all it entails.
If a man tries to cram the universal truth of Fatherhood into his limited self, he will distort. He may say, “I am a Father, and everything I do is for the sake of Fatherhood.” But personal beliefs, prejudices and a limited world view twist him into a grotesque of Fatherhood. His real truth, perhaps, is that he has turned into a tyrant, or an overprotective doter, or a workaholic provider. Whatever he does, he is certainly not living the ideal he imagines Fatherhood to be.
For the rest of the book, Anderson’s characters appear normal on the outside; the grotesque distortion is to their souls. But imagine if you could see the distortion that comes from cramming a universal truth into an individual body. If we could, it might look something like Leqoc’s buffoon.
Buffoons are the inverse of Anderson’s characters: grotesque on the outside, and rejected from society because of their appearance and behavior; but all truth on the inside. They do not aspire to ideals. Their needs and interests are base, primitive. Buffoons are like innocent children – brutally honest in their needs and desires, heedless of social constraint. They only repeat what they hear, and act out what they see.
In recent Beertown meetings, we’ve been talking about the idea of the grotesque, and how it might serve us. How do we bring life to the grotesque of these small-town American archetypes? How can we gain the buffoon’s perspective? How can we see the grotesque in ourselves, and perhaps even change it?
One possibility we‘ve talked about is that Beertown is a show-within-a-show: a fourth-wall look at our Beertonian’s inner grotesques, and a chance for the show to step through the fourth wall, where characters turn inside out and become more like their buffoon selves.
I can’t help but think there’s something to this dichotomy between the grotesque and the buffoon, something worth exploring further. Perhaps as we keep turning these buffoons and grotesques inside out, we’ll find some truth of our own.