Written and previously published in Dec. 2018
SEND IN THE CLOWNS,
what “mostpeople fear most:
a mystery for which i’ve
no word except alive
–that is, completely alert
and miraculously whole;
with not merely a mind and a heart
but unquestionably a soul—”
(E.E. Cummings, “one winter afternoon”)
SEND IN THE FOOLS,
alive in “vulnerability and openness,
easily destroyed by the world,”
(C. Collins, “The Vision of the Fool and other writings”)
alive through “jests and madness that make the clergy a mockery”
(A report on Feast of Fools, 1194, cited in Jung’s Collected Works)
SEND THEM ON HALLOWEEN
TO TEACH US ABOUT DEATH AND HER RULES.
Death and Delight
As I walked down North Philip Street on October 30th towards the Open Kitchen Sculpture Garden, I was greeted by two clowns. They wore colorful layers, dresses, shawls, hats, and of course, bright red noses. They asked, simply, “Feast?” I nodded, smiled, and proceeded. That was the only english word I’d hear from a clown that night.
Once inside the garden, a live accordion melody knocked some distant door of familiarity in my brain. I approached a group near the campfire, but was stopped by the heart-wrenching wailing of a clown donning a black mourning veil. Back stooped in grief and hands shaking, they held out a silver tray of hors d’oeuvres, namely two long gummy worms. I didn’t feel a bit guilty for laughing at what I now understood to be the beginnings of a funeral service. Who knew death and delight could go so well together?
Memories and Pumpkin Guts
“Ah, cota hruyts mawah poh. Ah. Zleep Slop. Zleep Slop!” The clergy host called the first guest, Zleep Slop, to the podium. Through tears, laughter, and gibberish rambling, they recounted memories of the deceased clown Phudenhart, while audience members “aww”-ed and giggled. As the host called up each clown for a total of seven eulogies, I realized that although I didn’t get all the specifics through the gibberish, I was surprised how much I was able to get through our more primal and/or universal realm of communication.
One clown named Nerm the Worm was so overcome by emotion that they climbed into the casket to kiss the feet of Phudenhart. One clown had a very special offering inside a box but couldn’t find the key to open it. One clown named Shmetlana had a bag full of bags full of bags, and in the teeniest bag, they pulled out a stuffed animal that they offered to Phudenhart. One clown named Babah Selia grumbled their way through a newspaper obituary and made fun of Phudenhart. All the clowns and audience booed. One clown named Sneff brought a pumpkin, tried to carve it with a spoon, broke the spoon, carved it with something that looked like a miniature sand shovel, ate some pumpkin guts, dropped some guts onto Phudenhart, and then left the pumpkin, with a wig on top, by Phudenhart’s head. Even in such an idiosyncratic offering, Sneff captivated the audience with their exuberance and innocent vulnerability. Plus, in order to honor the spirit of a dead clown, it only makes sense to have offerings that break with societal “appropriateness” and effortlessly combine sorrow with jest. As an audience member, I felt totally included in the play-world, largely because of director Donna Oblongata’s choice to have the audience be literally part of the funeral service, but also because of the clowns’ openness and interactivity.
Sacrilegious and Sanctified
“Feast of Fools” refers to a Medieval celebration of power inversion, whereby low-ranking folks took on the roles of dignified priests, and the high-ranking clerks could be “seen wearing masks and monstrous visage at the hours of office,” (Max Harris, Sacred Folly). Not surprisingly, the church eventually banned these festivities, which were likely inspired by earlier pagan traditions.
The theme of power inversion plays out during Philadelphia’s Feast of Fools. Most obviously, we’ve got a clown as a dignitary inviting other clowns to deliver gibberish eulogies that undo expectations of acceptable ways to memorialize somebody. Donna states on her website that she is “committed to theatre as a vital and populist medium.” As someone who often declines attending shows due to lack of funds or wariness of kinds of theatre traditions a piece might perpetuate, I appreciate theatre that is “for the people.” Theatre that blurs the old binary of “low art” and “high art.” Feast of Fools was accessible, community-centric, and a lovely combination of chaos and elevation into magic and metaphor.
Death and Delusion
In the final portion, the clowns invited us to sit with them at a dinner table. Sneff led us through difficult-to-repeat whispers and tirades of prayers, which were interrupted by outbursts of tears demanding consolation and Zleep Slop drinking from their hilariously gigantic flask. The series of interruptions and annoyances led to the outbreak of a food fight involving lots of shaving cream pies. Thankfully, audience members were given complimentary ponchos.
The twist: Phudenhart doesn’t know they are dead! During the eulogies, Phudenhart cuddled the toys, waved to the audience from their casket, gave Babah Selia the middle finger, and seemed altogether alive. During dinner, they happily observed the festivities. But Phudenhart can’t evade the reality of their death for long. A skeleton-costumed being hovered all around Phudenhart, making the infamous “come hither” gesture. Phudenhart ran, hid, and even subverted power by pointing back at the skeleton and making the same gesture. Alas, inevitably, the show ends with Phudenhart submitting and climbing back into the casket, which is carried away by the clowns into a puff of smoke.
“one winter afternoon
( at the magical hour
when is becomes if )
a bespangled clown
standing on eighth street
handed me a flower.”
(E.E. Cummings, “one winter afternoon”)
The Pochinko clowns, wizards of ritual and joy, certainly gifted us a “magical hour” at this year’s Feast of Fools, where contemplating death and loss went hand in hand with total aliveness.