Pierrot, a diminutive of Pierre (Peter) or Pedrolino as he is known, is the sad clown among one of the most likeable stock characters of pantomime and Commedia dell’Arte. His character in postmodern popular culture (late 20th century) – in poetry, fiction, the visual arts, as well as works for the stage, screen, and concert hall, is that of a sorrowful jokester.
Performing unmasked, with a traditional white powdered face, Pierrot is constantly downhearted over Colombina’s rejection and infidelity. From his first appearance in the second half 16th century, he paints a tragic picture of insecurity and naivety.
To cover up this apparent failing, he often puts on a false front playing silly pranks on others and using insulting behaviour to disguise his hurt feelings. Despite his improper conduct and dejected facial expressions throughout his stage performances, Pierrot was at that time genuinely considered to be a witty, playful and charming member of the cast.
Later, in the early 19th century, Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Deburau, a celebrated Bohemian-French mime artist who acted the part of Pierrot gradually metamorphosed him into a softened and more sentimentalized personality.
Deburau still portrayed him as the traditional lovesick clown, but now Pierrot’s personality was seen to be more youthful and playful. He no longer spoke with a Bergamasque dialect but instead, he mimed his parts allowing him to use a range of emotional artistic expressions to act out a story. He also drew in enthusiastic audiences through his grand gestures and rhythmic movements.
Pierrot is one of the few unmasked male characters that was not an Innamorati (lover). His face is always whitened with powder which later inspired, in part, the makeup of the modern-day white-faced clown.
In the 17th century, dressed in oversized loose-fitting clothes with comically long sleeves, a large neck ruff, and a large wide-brimmed hat, Pierrot was often confused in early illustrations with Pulcinella, a stock character in Neapolitan puppetry. After Deburau’s interpretation of him, however, Pierrot’s appearance also somewhat changed; gone was his high ruffled collar and instead of his overly large hat, he wore a small close-fitting peakless skullcap.
The character of Pierrot can be traced back to 1547 where records of a ‘Piero’ and later a ‘Pagliaccio’ (1570), and ‘Pedrolino’ (1576) which was used throughout the 17th century re-emerged. Although his exact origins are not entirely clear, we do know that the character became very distinctive after finally being adapted in France, by playwright Moliere from a minor variant, Pierrotto, into Pierrot in 1660.
In his comedy ‘The Feast with the Statue’, based on the legend of Don Juan, Moliere creates the role of ‘Sganarelle’, a sissy manservant who he plays himself keeping many of the features from the early characters.
Though the character began to appear in performances in European centers outside of Italy and France, the Pierrot on display often featured in lesser and disparate roles: the basis of the character, his unrequited love for Columbine, who is in love with Harlequin, was sometimes lost, and he was frequently portrayed in a purely comic, or even bumbling and foolish manner.
Through the 1700s, Pierrot found new life in the visual arts with his fellow Commedia masks but as mentioned earlier, Jean-Gaspard Deburau is credited for recreating the role of Pierrot in the 1820s with his son, Jean Charles and most notably, Paul Legrand taking over the role after his death.
Paul Legrand, a highly regarded and influential French mime and a member of the Cercle Funambulesque, a theatrical society that promoted work, especially pantomime, inspired by the Commedia dell’Arte, transformed Pierrot into the tearful, sentimental character that is most familiar to post-19th-century admirers of the figure.
Still, it was Deburau who enshrined Pierrot within French culture and established the sense of Pierrot as a sensitive and anguished artist. This conception of Pierrot was celebrated, explored and entrenched in 1945 with Marcel Carné’s film, ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’, often considered one of the greatest films of all time.
In the 1800s, Pierrot began developing in literature with highly influential writers such as Flaubert, Verlaine and Huysmens incorporating him into their works. Also, poets Albert Giraud and Jules Laforgue were huge fans of Pierrot and wrote poetry about him extensively. Not only did he become immensely popular through future mimes, visual arts, fiction, poetry and film, but has also exerted his influence on music too.
The most celebrated piece being ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ an instrumental by Arnold Schoenberg and now an important ensemble in 20th – and 21st-century classical music.
The atonal melodrama was later recorded by jazz singer Cleo Laine in 1974, followed by Icelandic singer, Björk, who sang it in a one-off performance at the Verbier Festival in 1996.
Rock star, David Bowie played a role in the 1967 theatrical production ‘Pierrot in Turquoise’, and appeared as Pierrot in the video to his 1980 song, ‘Ashes to Ashes’.
However, perhaps the most bizarre representation of Pierrot has been with the releases of ‘Thank You Pierrot Lunaire’ in 1969 by the British rock-group ‘The Soft Machine’ and ‘Pierrot the Clown’ in 2006 by ‘Placebo’. Their song about destructive relationships involving an abused male was inspired by an obsession with sad clowns.
For the first two centuries of his history, Pierrot as a ‘second Zanni’ generally is a likeable simple character. He is seen as naive, a fool, often the butt of pranks but childlike in his retaliation.
Although he is honest and self-effacing, he is cunning enough to avoid punishments that others dish out to him and equally, his estrangement and isolation as Columbine laughs at his advances however comic, evokes a respectful, sympathetic attitude towards his character.
Pierrot is assigned the most diverse roles often confusing his real traits and personality. Nevertheless, his audiences will see him differently when Jean-Gaspard Deburau plays the part. No longer seen as a tragic figure trying to secure a place in the bourgeois world, Pierrot under his white mask assumes the airs of a master and is no longer tolerant of the intolerant behaviour towards him.
The worm has turned and the sad clown is occasionally seen as a confident lover prone to tenderness and sensitiveness; worthy of the love he so desires.
Whenever encouraged by Harlequin to play tricks on Pantalone, Pierrot is inevitably caught and gets the blame. He is then beaten as punishment and dissolves into tears of self-reproach for sins he believes are not justified.
His self-esteem is so low that he also holds himself accountable for not being an adequate lover for Colombina. He is a loner, living in a world of Commedia, his one aim in life is to remain loyal to his wife and his masters.
He has several traditional poses, either with his arms hanging loosely at his sides enabling other characters to tangle and tie his long oversized sleeves or with them up in the air as if a string puppet or marionette.
He also walks directly in a straight line staring at the ground with his head bobbing like a chicken. As part of his act, he is always energetic performing sudden acrobatic turns, then toppling over due to his baggy costume.
Depending on his role in the scenario and inconsistencies in character and behaviour, he is instantly recognisable as the willing servant, the wily slave who survives in serving others.
Pierrot became tremendously popular as the naive, pathetic but appealing white-faced clown. Today, Pierrot lives on through modern-day circus acts, street-mime sketches, TV programs, films, Japanese anime, comic books and graphic art novels.
It was his job to be Pierrot and he kept up his end of the bargain.