Farewell to the Clown: A Tribute to Charlie

by Conrad Hyers

Dr. Hyers is professor of comparative mythology and the history of religions at Gustavux Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 22, 1978, pp 190-194. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chaplin, like all great clowns, was in a peculiar way a religious figure. He revealed to us in the clown’s inimitable way certain truths about ourselves; he poked fun at our pride and pretension and reconciled us to one another and to a common humanity.

I am always aware that Charlie is playing with Death. He plays with it, mocks it. thumbs his nose at it, but it’s always there. He is aware of death at every moment of his existence, and he is terribly aware of being alive. . . . And he is bringing more life. That is his only excuse, his only purpose [Charlie Chaplin, as quoted in The Great God Pan, by Robert Payne (Hermitage House, 1952), p. 20.

On Christmas Sunday, Charles Chaplin died at the age of 88. Many eulogies to Chaplin’s artistry and genius have been given by playwrights, critics, comedians and journalists. But a religious eulogy may also be in order. For Chaplin, like all great clowns, was in a peculiar way a religious figure. Though he denied having much knowledge of religious doctrines and affairs, he nevertheless displayed a deeply human sensitivity that made of his comic artistry something considerably more than an occasional tickle on the periphery of our existence. Charlie revealed to us in the clown’s inimitable way certain truths about ourselves; he poked fun at our pride and pretension and reconciled us to one another and to a common humanity.

Once seen, he was unforgettable: Charlie the Tramp with his clipped moustache and soulful eyes set against a pallid face, his shabby but once-elegant clothes, his jaunty penguin gait, his dusty dignity. Charlie the Vagabond didn’t seem to belong anywhere or to anyone: he had nowhere to call home and nothing to call his own, yet he seemed to fit in everywhere. For several decades, Charlie was probably the most widely known and beloved figure in the world -- not only because he was a master clown communicating through the universal language of pantomime, but because he grappled comically with universal human problems. He touched the heart of the human condition in a way that was as profoundly religious as it was profoundly humorous. And we could identify with him. He was vicariously human in a way that few clowns have ever been. In all those little rituals played out again and again on the silent screen he stood for us, represented us.


Halos, however, are not becoming to clowns. Clowns are too iconoclastic and blatantly human for that. Even Chaplin’s recently bestowed knighthood -- however much deserved and belatedly granted -- sat rather awkwardly on a figure whose greatness lay in his portrayal of a tough but tender little tramp who stood at the bottom of the social order, if not quite outside of it, and who in real life had come from the slums of London. Sir Charlie had appeared before us in dust and rags -- a knight of sorts perhaps, but a knight without armor come to battle without sword and disarm us all.

Chaplin’s parents had also been performers -- though they were separated from the time he was a year old. As an actress, his mother was at first able to provide for Charles and his older step brother. But gradually she lost her voice by performing during bouts of laryngitis and was no longer able to find employment. Charles, at the age of four, substituted for her when her voice gave out during a performance. The tiny child’s ability to mimic his mother’s gestures and to recall every word delighted the audience. It was his first stage appearance: but it was also her last. His father, whom he had seen but once and who drank heavily on the theater circuit, was summoned to provide meager -- though sporadic -- support. His mother was reduced to sewing for pennies, with Charles and his brother selling newspapers and doing odd jobs.

But as their situation continued to decline, she found no alternative to committing herself and her children to the workhouse. Charles and his brother were separated from her and sent to an orphanage. And when Charles was only seven, they received the stunning news that his mother had suffered a mental breakdown and had been taken to an asylum -- the first of two such committals.

Chaplin knew what it meant to be poor. And he knew what it meant to be a nobody. He knew what it meant to wear cast-off and mismatched clothing, to eat cheap herbs and stale bread and doubtful eggs, to walk slum streets, to live in one room, to have creditors come to carry off whatever few possessions one had. And he never forgot this experience in his films. Even though in his 20s he enjoyed meteoric success, and was to become the highest-paid actor in the world, he remembered what it meant to be hungry and cold, jobless and penniless and alone. Most of his films (1915-1940) started from that premise.

Charlie was never the clown who simply enters the arena in the midst of gala celebration, to bring laughter to tables already sumptuously laden with holiday feasts, where everyone is already singing and dancing in the finest of attire. Charlie entered the world of his films in the lowest and darkest hour, where there was poverty and suffering, where despair was easy, hope hard, and joy almost impossible. It was here that he came to bring a little light and love and laughter.


In City Lights he is homeless and jobless, sleeping where he can. In Life he is in a flophouse. In Police he is an ex-convict, with nowhere to go. In The Vagabond he is a wanderer. In The Circus he is left alone in a littered field when the circus has moved on. In The Kid he rescues a boy who is being taken away to an orphanage; in Modern Times he eludes the law with an orphan girl. In The Gold Rush he is so hungry that he boils his old leather shoe for dinner. In The Champion he shares his last sausage with a bulldog. In TheImmigrant he is just off the boat and penniless, longingly pressing his face against the window of a fine restaurant, watching a fat man gorge himself. In Easy Street he helps distribute food in an orphanage -- as if he were distributing birdseed to pigeons, which is how charity must have impressed him as a child.

But in the midst of all this poverty and misery the little clown came, with his antics and his human tenderness and his magical transformations. He came with a plucky spirit that refused to be dismissed or ignored. He came with a sense of individual worth and personal pride for the lowliest of the low -- for who could be lower than Charlie? He came with a measure of hope that might give in to tears, but would not give in to despair. He didn’t philosophize. He didn’t stand there waiting for Godot. And we saw in him what stout and resilient people we were, or could be. As Chaplin said of the Charlie he had created:

Here is a man like himself, only more pathetic and miserable, with ludicrously impossible clothes -- in every sense a social misfit and failure. . . . [Yet] he has a protective air of mock dignity, takes the most outrageous liberties with people, and wears adversity as though it was a bouquet. In emergencies he even triumphs over those imposing characters whom the average man has always visualized with so much awe [ibid., pp. 21-22].


Chaplin first arrived at the tramp-figure in 1914 -- not entirely by happenstance. The tramp was like a character out of the London slums of Dickens’s Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol; yet he was miraculously transformed into a figure as comic as he was pathetic. True, his creation had started with the playful donning of Fatty Arbuckle’s huge trousers and a contrasting tight-fitting coat. To these were added shoes too large and a hat too small, and the shuffling, laborious walk of an old cabman Chaplin had once seen hobbling along in London. And there was the pale face accented by darkened eyes and a chopped moustache, and a flexible cane that was itself a contradiction. But in the process of putting the tramp together, he was also putting himself together. Chaplin the now-successful and monied actor and Chaplin the shabby, undernourished, lonely little boy were being reunited.

It was more than a personal symbol, however. Touching as that might be, the resulting figure also had universal currency and validity. For in putting himself together, he was also putting his world together. What Chaplin had done was to combine the fastidious bowler hat, dress coat, starched shirt, black tie and walking cane of an English gentleman with the baggy pants and floppy, well-worn shoes of the gutter bum. The paradoxical unities which such combinations made possible were so many and profound that, even to Chaplin, the tramp was a mysterious, fully formed being that seemed to have been revealed to him, a character that he would have to spend much of the rest of his career exploring. As Chaplin recalled his first interpretation of the character to Mack Sennett:

This fellow is manysided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy [My Autobiography, by Charles Chaplin (Simon & Schuster, 1964), p. 144].

In the little tramp the top and the bottom of the social order had suddenly been thrown together in one person who was henceforth both gentleman and tramp, and neither gentleman nor tramp. This was the secret of his being and success. In Charlie the alienating oppositions of rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged, powerful and powerless, were poignantly contained and united in one slender individual, stumbling and dancing before us. He was, as Robert Payne said. "the whole human comedy wrapped in a single, frail envelope of flesh."

As the tramp per se, he was very close to the level of sheer animal survival much of the time, where elegance is irrelevant, and where one easily disposes of most of the niceties and artifices of "polite society." Yet even at the extremity of the social order, he gave a sense of renewed importance and individuality to the most forlorn insignificance. In his very tatters and tumbles he was still endearing and very human.

This was his strange and oft-repeated ritual of redemption for the human race. In Charlie those who had exalted themselves were humbled, and those who had been humbled were exalted. There was something instinctively Christian about his contempt for the high and mighty, and his identification with the poor and disinherited. In film after film the proud aristocrat in his fine clothes and suave sophistication was revealed as being something of a bum underneath. And the bum, despite his crumpled appearance and ill manners, was revealed as having a certain dignity and grace. And in their mock union a common humanity was affirmed which lay beneath all those distinctions to which we ordinarily give such importance.


Chaplin’s comic ritual was played out in many ways. In City Lights a rich man, who in his drunken state has decided that life is not worth living, is rescued from suicide by the tramp who presumably should be the one committing suicide, and who ironically lectures him on hope. The rich man then insists on taking Charlie home with him to his mansion. In his drunkenness all the distances and barriers between them are broken down, and they celebrate life and friendship together. But when the rich man sobers up the next morning, and returns to the world of social distinctions, he no longer recognizes Charlie, and has him thrown out on the street.

In The Pilgrim Charlie is an escaped convict who, disguised as a clergyman, is mistaken for the eagerly awaited pastor of a small southwestern church. Charlie makes a valiant effort at preaching and otherwise playing the role. But he has certain bad habits, such as lighting up a cigar during the service. And once the convict/clergyman’s double-identity is discovered, we are introduced to a further conflict between law and lawlessness, order and freedom. Rather than face a return to prison, Charlie is escorted by the town sheriff to the Mexican border to freedom/exile. Yet no sooner does he cross the border than he finds himself caught between Mexican bandits in a shootout. The film ends with Charlie running along the border, hopping back and forth from one side to the other, waddling off with one foot in Mexican "lawlessness" and the other in American ‘‘law and order," trying his best to mediate between the two.

In The Great Dictator, an anti-Nazi parody, Chaplin split himself into the ruthless, mad dictator and the defenseless Jewish barber, "united" by virtue of being lookalikes. Through mistaken identity, the barber, fleeing with fellow ghetto Jews, is thought to be Der Führer on his way to a Nazi rally. There he delivers an impassioned oration against hatred, greed and war. Though Chaplin later said that, had he known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, he could not have made the film, the truth and hope of the film were no less important or authentic. The rituals of comedy deal with more than the superficial arenas of human conflict. Comedy at its best arises out of the central struggles of our existence, as was always the case with Chaplin at his best.

These were not the only oppositions with which Chaplin grappled. Part of Charlie’s genius was his embodiment of so many of the tensions and contradictions of our lives. This, no doubt, is one of the reasons why Charlie had such universal appeal. He was such a nobody, yet everybody all at once. There was a handsome, polished and graceful side to the tramp, no matter how disheveled and uncouth he might be. But he was not the noble hero or the tall, handsome film idol. In him were juxtaposed beauty and ugliness, grace and clumsiness, courage and cowardice. He could put on airs and order people about, and become terribly self-important as occasion might permit. But in a twinkling he was knocked back into the dust again, if he did not leap there himself. Now and then he made some heroic attempt at saving maidens in distress, but defending maidens was usually mixed with hiding behind them. His heroism involved a strong aversion to pain and a distinct preference for running. It was always abundantly clear that he participated in the total human condition.


In Life, Charlie, finding himself in a flophouse, puts fellow tramps to sleep in the most direct manner by striking them on the head with a wooden mallet, then dutifully and maternally kissing them good-night. Or he carefully disposes of his cigar ash in the open mouth of a snoring drunk in preparation for kneeling beside his cot to pray. In The Tramp he thoughtfully helps another farmhand off with his boots; but when one boot does not slip off easily, he kicks the fellow in the face to help dislodge it. Or he "helps" his partner carry feedsacks by letting him do the carrying, and prodding him in the rear end with a pitchfork, as if it were a cattle prod.

"Self-contradiction," as W. M. Zucker has argued. "is the clown’s most significant feature. Whatever predicate we use to describe him, the opposite can also be said, and with equal right" (Holy Laughter, edited by Conrad Hyers [Seabury, 1969], p. 77). Yet the self-contradictions and incongruities which the clown incarnates are held together in a single, mysteriously particularized human being. The clown displays our individual and collective schizophrenias. Yet he is doing more than simply coming apart. At the same time, he seems awkwardly unified. He expresses what we all are: meticulous and sloppy, polite and crude, clever and foolish, rational and irrational, bully and coward, clothed and naked. But he does so in a way that does not leave us broken apart.

In an episode in City Lights Charlie drives a Rolls Royce convertible owned by the rich man who momentarily has befriended him. For a time Charlie’s trampishness gives way to the opposite which is already prefigured in his top hat, coattails, vest and cane: aristocratic snobbishness. He drives the Rolls about the city with his head cocked back in a look of haughty superiority, and with all the marshaled dignity of a nobleman -- or at least the chauffeur of a nobleman. But as he turns a corner, he spies a cigar butt on the sidewalk. He sees it in fact at the same time that another tramp, busily patrolling the gutters, has spotted in. Charlie’s other self makes no hesitation in returning. He brings the Rolls to an abrupt stop, leaps out, and just as the gutter bum is leaning over to pick up the cigar butt, Charlie kicks him aside, grabs the prize, jumps back into the limousine, and speeds off to the utter astonishment and bewilderment of the hapless and incredulous bum.

The clown insists on putting side by side many of those things that we spend considerable time in keeping in separate drawers of the mind -- altruism and selfishness, reason and impulse, religion and sex, Rolls Royces and cigar butts. The clown identifies our tensions and ambivalences. Then he suddenly puts us back together in the most straightforward manner by slapping opposites together. This is his peculiar form of salvation. In this odd figure the complexities of our being and the cross-purposes of our lives are patched and pinned loosely and playfully together. We are judged and accepted, chastised and healed, divided and united, all in hilarious slambang fashion.


Sir Charlie? It was the final, crowning contradiction. It was, in fact, the very contradiction that gave birth to the little tramp some 60 years before. And it was that contradiction that he acted and reenacted in an ingenious multitude of variations: Sir Charlie, tipping his bowler hat, not only to portly mayors and rich tycoons and society ladies, but to children and dogs and trees and milk cows.

Charlie was more than an iconoclast or a satirist. He did more than invade sacred precincts and puncture high-flying balloons and kick pompous asses. There was also an element of celebration of this common humanity of ours, a fundamental acceptance and enjoyment of the curious business of being mortal creatures of this earth. Being "all too human" was not seen as necessarily a great weight that drags us down, or a curse that has been placed upon us, but as something potentially delightful. For those who are proud and pretentious it may not be so delightful. But for those who are not pretenders to thrones that are not theirs, or to a divinity that they have not yet attained, the clown enables us to embrace ourselves and each other as the luminous lumps that we are.

The concluding words of The Great Dictator are as revealing as anything of the real Charlie and his comic brotherhood. The refugee Jewish barber, mistaken for the dictator and taken before the waiting crowd at a Nazi rally, hesitantly begins:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone -- if possible -- Jew, Gentile; black men, white.

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness -- not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone [Chaplin, op. cit., p. 399].

The film was conceived in 1937, produced during 1938 and 1939, and released in 1940 -- despite the opposition of pro-Nazis, anticommunists, and certain overzealous officials in the Hays Office. The New York Daily News accused Chaplin of being a communist sympathizer and of preaching communism -- a charge that haunted him after the war, and contributed to his being refused re-entry into the United States in 1952.

It was Chaplin’s first sermon. It was a long sermon, and one quite out of character for Charlie. Perhaps it was not the best of sermons, nor -- from the standpoint of filmmaking -- the best of endings. But it was Charlie, who up to this point had been silent in his films. It was Charlie, trying haltingly to put into words what, for 25 years, he had been saying in one way or another in pantomime.


Still, it is the concrete figure of Charlie that will always be remembered and loved, along with the little clown rituals and fool’s feasts which he celebrated. It is here that we see, as Nathan Scott once wrote, "a richly particularized and wonderfully eccentric human being living out his life -- a little hobo whose every gesture somehow manages to redeem the human image . . . Here is the real human thing itself -- clothed not in the unearthly magnificence of tragic heroism, but in the awkward innocence of essential humanity" (The Broken Center, by Nathan Scott, Jr. Yale University Press, 1966], p. 186).

It is a fitting epitaph to a rags-to-riches clown who, in his films, always seemed to start over again in the difficult world of a small boy from Kennington, with his poverty and playfulness, his simplicity and his dreams and, above all, his rock-bottom humanity.