What is the origin of Bouffon?

Bouffon dates back to Roman times where it was a very popular form of comedy. Nowadays, we are not supposed to laugh at people who are ‘different’.  It’s cruel. But bouffon is in a league of it’s own; bouffon creates a fake grotesquery: characters that are so outrageously bizarre that they can’t relate to anything or anyone real. No one is offended because these absurdly contorted actors do not bear any immediate semblance to any human that we recognise; they are at too extreme. But, we still feel uncomfortable to be around someone who has an appearance like this……


Philippe Gaulier, the maestro of bouffon, explains the history thus:

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo - The Swing of Pulcinella - WGA22397

“The Bouffon is a crippled out cast, a lame person, a legless or one-armed cripple, a dwarf, a midget, a whore, a homosexual, a witch, a heretical priest, a madman.  He has not been chosen by the gods.  He has been chased into the swamps and ghettos by the children of god in fact, who have seized the opportunity to announce that in view of the bouffon’s physical and moral ugliness, the father could not be a great artist of international fame.  So his father was the opposite of God, his father was the devil Lucifer. The Bouffon was elected son of the devil and he was happy about this.  He was happy to be the son of the first Tempter and of the first women seduced: Eve.  In the Bouffon workshop we learn to be a big person who enjoys being small, with a special additional pleasure enjoyed by those people: the blasphemy.”

Bouffons are the descendants of Pulcinella, made famous through the commedia dell’arte. Pulcinella is the stock archetype of the bouffon: a personification of the grotesque; too ugly and deformed to fit in. He has a deep mistrust of authority, resents the beautiful ones and is out for revenge on those who have made him the mutant he is, with the hump on his back and pot belly.

Medieval carnival witnessed troops of Pulcinella with humped backs, beak noses and tall white hats mocking crowds, up to mischief and entertaining with their misdemeanours.   There is a story that Pulcinella was a hunch back who was tricked by witches who promised to remove his hump.  Instead, they cursed him with a second hump on his belly. Once a year, at the ‘Feast of Fools’, it is said that, the outcasts were invited back inside the city walls so that the ‘beautiful ones’ could feel superior and look down on these misfit miscreants. Rules were turned upside down and an outcast was crowned King of Fools.

I found this lovely piece in The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review from 1847. It tells the story of Pulcinello, the bitter, aggressive bouffon who came to fame through the commedia dell’arte in the 16th century. This perfectly sums up the tragedy of this bouffon character, heartbroken and rejected:

The Feast of Fools was celebrated annually on January 1st throughout Europe and particularly France from 13th century right through to the 16th century. It was a day when Christian morals were abandoned and the people were allowed to create parodies of church rituals and openly mock the clergymen and the church. The origins of the festival are thought to date back further than the Christian church to ancient Rome and the pagan festival of Saturnalia, celebrating the harvest god, Saturn. Bet you didn’t know that Saturn was worshipped as a God!

Saturnalia took place in mid-December and was the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas. It was the most popular holiday on the ancient Roman calendar, derived from older farming-related rituals of midwinter and the winter solstice, especially the practice of offering gifts or sacrifices to the gods during the winter sowing season. All class distinctions and laws were temporarily suspended during the festival. It is believed that The Feast of Fools was an adaptation of this pagan celebration.

If we define it further, we could say that it is a brief social revolution in which those with power, wealth and dignity were usurped by the common people.

Whether King Lear’s fool or the Victorian misshapen ‘freak’, the fascination with the grotesque and ‘unnatural’ remained; for centuries the public’s voyeuristic tendencies have kept the bouffon vibrantly alive for the audience. The image of the bouffon as the underdog or the embodiment of evil is a recurring theme throughout literature and art: Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays, Robert Louis Stevenson personifies evil as ugly and mutated in Jekyll and Hyde, in art we can turn to the works of Breugel, Bosch and Picasso, to name but a few. Today, we still see the bouffon on stage and screen in the grotesque characterisations of, for example, Sacha Baron Cohen; in comedies that celebrate gallows humour, like Blackadder; in the extravagant drag of the late Divine and the more recent transvestite, Down’s syndrome drag of  Drag Syndrome.

Nowadays we live in a society that is more aware of political correctness and how laughing at the those less fortunate is unacceptable but there is still a place for bouffon as an antidote to the diseases that grip our society today: consumerism, capitalism, Trumpism… Brexit …  It is arguable that we desperately need a little unproductive, carefree play and festivity to unleash and admonish the demons.

Perhaps the Balinese have got it right. The ancient dance-drama, Topeng, is a satirical form that is still played today, wearing half masks in Bali, originating in around AD 840.  The clown characters of this theatrical form, known as bondres, parody the idiosyncrasies and disabilities of the local villagers using slapstick humour, obscenities and grotesque half masks that feature hair-lips, buck teeth and other facial deformities. The audience delight in these parodies of villagers who they recognise from their community; no offence is taken – in fact it is an honour to be pastiched in this way by the highly skilled performers for whom there is a deep respect.

It is said that black comedy has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors… “to be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them.” It is good to face your demons from time to time. Bouffon has a cathartic, purging effect, I find. Plus it makes me laugh like a banshee.

If you’d like to see some photos from my most recent bouffon workshop, click here.


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