The Clown Egg Registry

Sara Holdren, the play’s director, casually dropped the phrase “clown egg registry” into one of our production meetings back in late March. For a dramaturg, this is gold, because it’s the kind of thing that essentially requires you to drop everything and find out as much as you can at that very moment. I was not surprised to find that there are virtually no scholarly resources on clown eggs; like so many things circus- and carnival-related, it’s nearly impossible to ascribe anything permanent to the clown egg phenomenon, and wild and varying tales abound. Nonetheless, some common threads do run through the story of these fascinating little monuments.

Essentially, when a clown finishes clowning school and assumes his or her clown identity, that clown registers himself or herself with one or many of the clown registries in existence. Included in that is the makeup that the clown wears, which at that moment is considered trademarked to that clown and cannot be used by anyone else. The makeup is then painted on an egg (blown-out, of course), giving physical evidence of the clown’s existence, and entered into the Clown Egg Registry.

The Clown Egg Registry is kept by the organization Clowns International in Great Britain, which touts itself as “the oldest established organization for clowns in the world” – it was founded in 1946 under the name “International Circus Clowns’ Club”. It changed its name to Clowns International in 1978, and has affiliated members worldwide. It keeps a museum near Wells in Somerset at the delightfully named “Wookey Hole” entertainment center, which contains the Egg Collection depicting the faces of members of the club.

I really, really wanted to include images of the eggs that I found on the Internet in the dramaturgy display, but they are all copyrighted to their photographer, and as such, I had not the time to obtain permission in time for opening night to use the images. But, you can view them on the photographer’s photo stream on Flickr, linked to here:

More information on the eggs can be found here. Since that site is a bit hard on the eyes, I’ve reproduced verbatim the site’s page on clown eggs here; what follows in quotation marks is their work, not mine.

From :

“The tradition began in the U.K. around 1946 at what was then the International Circus Clowns Club but is now called Clowns International.

A member named Stan Bult started recording clown images on chicken eggs with the insides blown out. It started as a hobby, and, like many hobbies, it just grew.  Mr. Bult kept his collection at home, occasionally loaning it out for show, such as at the 1951 Centenary Exhibition of the Crystal Palace.

The collection continued to be lent out after Mr. Bult’s death but sadly most of the eggs were destroyed in an accident at one such exhibit around 1965.

Clown Bluey became chairman of Clowns International in 1984 and resurrected Mr. Bult’s practice of recording clown members’ faces on eggs. This time a professional artist was used and the faces were painted on china-pot eggs instead of chicken eggs. Over the years, many of the lost older eggs have been reproduced, and new eggs are added frequently.

The current U.K. egg artist is Kate Stone, from Bournemouth, and the collection ion display, with clown-associated pictures, portraits and artefacts at Wookey Hole Caves near Wells in Somerset. Further information may be obtained from the Curator, Mattie Faint, Tel. 0207 608 0312. (UK Phone number)

According to Clowns International, ‘The eggs are not just a record of the clown’s facial makeup, but an actual portraiture in miniature.’ In addition to paint, the artist uses samples of the clown’s costume material and wig-hair to produce an eggs-act match. A photo of the egg collection may be seen at the Clowns International website.

About twenty-five years ago, Leon ‘Buttons’ McBryde heard about the British practice of registering clown makeup using eggs. He and his wife Linda eventually met the caretaker of the British clown egg registry, and around 1979 started a similar registry for clowns in the U.S. This collection now includes over 700 eggs, covering clowns of all types from around the world. Linda McBryde is the artist and co-creator of the registry.

In the U.S. collection, the faces are hand-painted on goose eggs (more durable than chicken eggs), and decorated with various materials (such as clay, wire, felt, tiny flowers, glitter, etc.) to obtain as accurate a representation of the clown face and costume as possible.

Though not an official registry, the collection is meant to preserve the uniqueness of each clown’s face makeup. Quoting from the Department of Clown Registry information sheet: ‘It is an unwritten law among clowns that one must never copy the face of another.’ Linda McBryde told us, ‘Although this is not a legal institution, the collection is a record of the person’s name, the makeup design, and the date it was submitted. In one case that I know of, a person used the registry in a court case in which someone was infringing on his makeup design.’

The U.S. egg collection is currently in storage.   Pictures of the UK collection, however, can be seen at the International Clown Hall of Fame.”

The McBrydes live not far from here, about 90 minutes southwest off I-81. Attempts to contact them to arrange a viewing of the egg collection were unsuccessful, as one might almost expect – this is carnival life, after all… !

Ideas on Myth, Truth, the ‘Other’, and the Inside-Outside Tension (WARNING: SPOILERS)


Here I’ll address some of the heavier, abstract concepts that formed a good deal of the last few weeks of my research.

First, a few words on myth. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, myth is “a traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology [cause], or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.” According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is “a symbolic narrative, usually of unknown origin and at least partly traditional, that ostensibly relates actual events and that is especially associated with religious belief… Myths are specific accounts of gods or superhuman beings involved in extraordinary events or circumstances in a time that is unspecified but which is understood as existing apart from ordinary human experience.”

Breaking that down a bit, HE has elements of a myth, but is not strictly a myth per se; one can argue that HE is a God-like figure and that his arrival at the circus is an extraordinary event indeed, given that the play itself fits under the escapist subset of Neo-Romantic plays that are set in otherworldly or exotic locations in another time. The play is set in France in a prior century, but the realism of the play is such that one can’t quite qualify it as ‘existing apart from ordinary human experience.’


The critic Harold Segel finds much in HE that is mythical, pointing out the end as the play’s mythic substructure now made over-structure (that is, it dominates rather than hides) – death, last words, challenge flung, action moved to a metaphysical plane (that is, the afterlife). But, there is more just under that surface. Recall Consuela as Psyche, and HE as ‘an old god in changed garb’ come to Earth to rescue her, the goddess born of sea-foam much like Venus. While this element has been largely struck from the present adaptation, it is still important to keep it in mind; this very idea of HE as a self-made god coming from the outside into a foreign world brings to mind a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky – author of Crime & Punishment –  called “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”. (Dostoevsky, by the way, was quite an influence on Andreyev; Andreyev wrote in 1910 “Of past Russian writers Dostoevsky is closest of all to me. I consider myself his direct pupil and follower.”)

In”The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”, the protagonist describes a dream in which he infiltrates a society that lived more or less as a collective; all actions were performed for the benefit of the group, and the pronoun ‘I’ had no place among the people – all were one, and one was all. As soon as the protagonist enters the society and introduces the idea of an individual ‘I’ – he begins telling everyone that their way of life is false and only he has possession of The Truth – the society begins to break down; sin is committed, crime flourishes, and the happiness of the population is destroyed. The protagonist sees that he is responsible for this and asks the people to crucify him for his transgression, begging to be made a martyr. They refuse to kill him and instead take him to an insane asylum, at which point he wakes up from the dream.

HE echoes this story in that He, an outsider, comes into a world that operates under its own customs and laws and demands to be made part of it. In this way he is a self-made god, and a Christ-like figure whose purpose is not ascertained for some time after his arrival. Ultimately his arrival causes the disintegration of most of the world that he enters; he gets to leave it, but not as a martyr, and the reader never finds out what becomes of the rest of the characters. It is as if the reader is watching someone else’s dream of a ridiculous man, except the reader does not get to see him wake up.

Does He have the truth? The reader never finds out, because Andreyev ends the play with He taking his own life, thereby denying the reader a chance to see what happens in His wake. Raising this question is, however, a good segué into the idea of ‘the other’, because He is very much an ‘other’ who, in turn, raises questions of inside vs. outside.

Much has been written elsewhere – and on this resource guide – about Andreyev’s relationship with Gorky, which has been characterized as the relationship of a shadow to its caster; Andreyev was Gorky’s shadow, and then Gorky became Andreyev’s shadow, which the reader sees reflected in the relationship between He and the Gentlewoman. From the outset, it is clear to the reader that He is an Other; he doesn’t fit in with the circus at all, and has to ask to be made into one of them, which is a humbling and potentially humiliating experience – after all, the performers could have said ‘no’. HE immediately violates group protocol by refusing to play by its rules and learn its inner workings and dynamic, almost gleefully violating the rules before he’s even learned them, though he does submit to the self-conceived act of being slapped. Yet even when He is considered one of the group, He is still an Other – he gets special treatment and is allowed to get away with violating the group norms, which threatens people such as the Baron, who perhaps senses that this Other is indeed a dangerous being.

But why introduce this character of the Other in the form of He? James Woodward describes Andreyev’s career in elementary school thus: “Andreyev balked from the beginning at this fetish for rules and regulations, of which he was subsequently to deliver scathing indictments in his early feuilletons… He stood out against the grey student mass as a graphic protest. ‘His gloomy, proud appearance, for which his comrades nicknamed him so aptly the duke, his love of solitude, his contemptuous attitude to his studies… and to the rules and teachers, which expressed itself in everything, beginning with his persistence in wearing his hair long, which was persecuted and punished by the authorities – all this sharply singled him out.’” Perhaps, then, there is an autobiographical element to the play deeper than that of the shadow/caster relationship between Andreyev and Gorky; here we see Andreyev in his youth as a self-made Other, much like He. But later in his career, it did not escape the notice of critics that Andreyev could not detach himself from his heroes; Woodward says that “the imprint of his own sufferings is clearly stamped on those of his protagonists… the fiction of Andreyev is not only an indictment of the world in which he lived; it is also a work of self-castigation.” One of the indictments he made of his world was the “problem of individual isolation”, which we can maybe stretch to include self-made Others, who choose to isolate themselves and, perhaps, thus elevate themselves above the rest of society. HE is a bit late in Andreyev’s body of work to be really considered part of his literary attacks on solitude, but the echo is unmistakable: an individual who has removed himself from one society and thus isolated himself is a danger not only to himself but also to any other society with which he comes into contact. (Recall that Andreyev spent the last few years of his own life in solitude in Finland, which essentially destroyed any remaining relationships he had.)

This, of course, brings up the great tension in HE of ‘inside’ versus ‘outside’, which can be extended to include the internal vs. the external as well. Harold Segel wrote that Symbolist drama of Andreyev’s time “sought to shift emphasis from the external to the internal, which was now invested with a far greater and more universal significance… This intense preoccupation of symbolism with death led to a corresponding deemphasis of man’s physical life… the drives and ambitions of the physical life become ultimately inconsequential in the face of death.” It also has to “reflect [the spiritual core of the work] by pointing up the insignificance of the mundane before the awesome infinitude of the supernatural and structurally by either eliminating or greatly minimizing external action.” The reader sees this in HE with the outside world from which He comes being painted as almost evil, and the focus of the action instead is on the inside of the circus ring, on this inner world to which so few have access (so, in a sense, it becomes a sacred space just waiting to be violated). This inner world, recall from Segel, serves on its surface as a refuge of escape for He because He initially finds solace in this new world until the wonderfully ironic moment of yet another Other from the outer world intruding (and recall Segel interpreting this as Andreyev’s indictment of the very idea of escape – ultimately, it is futile, because whatever you’re running from will eventually catch up to you). It is no coincidence that poison is involved in the death of both Consuela and He, because the outer world itself is poison to both the play’s characters and Andreyev himself.

This idea of an inner and outer world could be related to Andreyev’s preoccupation with two planes of existence, an idea that he cultivated early on in his writing and that was time and again expressed throughout his career. Woodward notes that his works from the start “show a dualistic conception of reality… [this preoccupation] with this distinction between two realities, two levels of life, is confirmed not only by his fiction, but also by numerous passing remarks in his correspondence.” One of these remarks refers to a “first reality” which Woodward classifies as “employed by Andreyev to denote the ephemeral, the world of man’s empirical existence… On this plane man is a prisoner within the walls of his individuality, and his intellect is the instrument by means of which he endeavors to pierce them. But its struggles are eternally frustrated; its powers do not extend beyond the ‘first reality’. The whole impetus of Andreyev’s thought is towards the establishment of contact with the ‘other plane’, the transcendence of the empirical ego.” One can translate these two planes of existence into inner and outer; the inner world, the sacred space, is the ‘other plane’ towards which the reader – and his protagonists – must strive, and the outer world, the ‘first reality’, is the poisoned space from which the reader – and his protagonists – must escape.

Considering Andreyev’s background with depression, this idea of a dual life – inner and outer – makes perfect sense. Mental illness was a large part of the writer’s life; in the diaries he kept through 1909, Andreyev projected both an internal and external ‘I’, as the critic Frederick White notes. This could well have translated later into Andreyev’s keen desire to keep his depression a secret; recall that he very much wanted no one outside of his family and close friends to know that he was depressed (and even that is debatable, since he would let them know he wasn’t feeling well but would tell them that it was physical, and not mental!), and that he did not take kindly to anyone saying he – or any of his characters, many of whom critics pegged as autobiographical – had gone insane. As he gained popularity, he found himself increasingly the subject of scrutiny and criticism, which he did not appreciate; he struggled greatly to control how he was portrayed in the public eye – that is, how his outer self was perceived by others. The Russian writer Georgy Chulkov notes this ‘double life’ of Andreyev, in which “on one side was a large family, many acquaintances, publishers, critics, reporters, actors, and an endless procession of chance visitors: which means a lot of concern and fuss. On the other side, there was his internal excruciating anxiety, blind and grim, which tormented him: here, in solitude, his soul consumed itself.”

From this it is clear that at play is a conflict of inner and outer lives and selves; in his own world, Andreyev had an internal self, one that he would not show to the outside world for fear of having it poisoned somehow by that world. (This also brings to mind his reaction to the first performance of HE in Moscow, when he complained that they – the director and actors – had ruined his play; the outside world had intruded on his inside world, which existed only on the page until that point, and corrupted it irreparably!) He thus had to fashion an outer self – a shell – to present to the outside world in order to protect his inner self from this poison. This outer self became more solidly formed after Gorky’s constant rebuffs of his desire for deep friendship; having offered Gorky his inner self, and having had it rejected, he had to work harder at cultivating an outer self for both Gorky and the public at large. Ultimately, when he found himself no longer able to live in the outer world – the ‘first reality’ – Andreyev retreated into an inner world of isolation in Finland, training his gaze inward when an outward look would no longer fulfill him.

The reader sees what happens in HE when inside and outside meet – to understate, Very Bad Things. But can one argue that there is some good that comes out of this conflict? HE – and He – does force the reader to confront questions of loss, love, betrayal, life, death, and so forth, and none of these questions would even exist without the simple introduction of an Other – an Outsider – to an inside space whose inhabitants by definition are the Norm (you can’t have an Other without having a starting point with which to compare it!). But what does that do to the readers, performers, and audience members? When those people enter this inside world, they bring some of their own outside experience to it, which can either poison it or enrich it. By performing this play an inside world is created that is both inside and outside of the performers, but that becomes an inside world that the audience must enter from the outside in order to experience, bringing themselves their own outside world of experiences – again, possible poison, or not. And yet the world created becomes Inside for the audience as well; when they leave, they go back Outside – literally! – to re-join the world outside of the building, a world which knows nothing of the levels of inside and outside that have been created here. It is no coincidence that this play takes place inside of a circle, broken, which encloses the performers whose own individual circles have to overlap and crash into one another and attempt to remain whole. It is that tension – and the breaking of that tension and all of those circles – that forms the backbone of this play.

In lieu of closing commentary on these issues, I offer the following anecdote from a memoir that Gorky wrote about Andreyev for that volume; Gorky is “I”, and Andreyev is “he”. Emphasis in italics is mine.

“And suddenly he started, as though burned by an inner fire. ‘One should write a story about a man, who all his life, suffering madly, searched for truth. And, truth appeared to him, but he closed his eyes, stopped his ears, and said, ‘I do not want you even if you are marvelous, because my life, my torments have ignited in my soul a hatred for you.’ What do you think?’ I did not care for this subject. He said with a sigh: ‘Yes, first one must answer, where is the truth – in man or outside of him? According to you, it is in man?’ He laughed. ‘Then this is very bad…”

Brief Notes on Production History

He Who Gets Slapped was first staged in Russia in 1916, and in America in 1922.

This photograph is from a postcard distributed to advertise the first Russian stage production in Moscow in 1916.

Postcard, He Who Gets Slapped











(Of this production, the writer Boris Zaitsev recalls seeing Andreyev for the last time in his life at its opening night. Zaitsev recalls his impression of it: ““It is no masterpiece and it is far from perfect since Leonid Andreev produced little that was perfect. Chaos, haste, lack of restraint, fervor, excitability were too visible in his writing. These are the enemies of perfection. But as in all of the most important works that he wrote, there is in this play something very Andreev, caustic, very mournful, poisoned by bitterness… You can get angry, argue and criticize but you will not pass by indifferently.” When he saw Andreyev, Zaitsev noted that Z notes that Andreyev seemed fatigued and broken down; Andreyev’s only words to Zaitsev were these:  “They spoiled the play… They ruined it. The main role was misinterpreted. But look’, he pointed to a heap of clippings, ‘how happy all these asses are. It is such a pleasure for them – to kick me.'”)



This photograph shows the 1922 Theater Guild production at New York’s Garrick Theater.

He Who Gets Slapped, New York, 1922












Here are a few more images from that same production at the Garrick Theater.

Richard Bennett as He and Ernest Cossart as Briquet.

Richard Bennett as HE and Ernest Cossart as Briquet, New York, 1922












Margalo Gillmore as Consuela, Frank Reicher (center) as Mancini and Richard Bennett as He.

Margalo Gillmore as Consuela, Frank Reicher (center) as Mancini, Richard Bennett as HE, New York, 1922








Overview of entire set.

The Set of He Who Gets Slapped, New York, 1922










In 1956, Robert Ward completed an opera based on He Who Gets Slapped, named Pantaloon. An issue of the New York Times in April 1956 notes a “Columbia unit to perform Pantaloon at Juilliard” in May of that year, which was ultimately well-received by critics.

Quantaince Eaton’s Opera Production: A Handbook notes the following on Pantaloon: “Original tragedy has been mellowed to resignation, even with a suggestion of happiness to come. Highly melodic; arias and recitative; conservatively harmonized. No overture. Three acts, with short preludes to acts 2 and 3. Set is the same as the play; length 150 mins.”

This is a photograph from a production of Pantaloon at the North Carolina School of Arts, year unknown but likely between 1967-1974 when composer Robert Wardwas chancellor of the school.

Pantaloon, 1970s

Critics’ Notes on Myth, Christ, and Other Concepts. (WARNING: SPOILERS)


Behind the scenes of the play, the critic James Woodward says, there are “two levels of meaning: the social polemic of the work, and the metaphysical in which the action is presented in the form of myth.” The ‘here’ and ‘there’ distinctions are obvious; Woodward relates ‘here’ to talent and ‘there’ to culture, separating the two – talent is associated with innocence (beauty), and culture with corruption (intellect). Culture vulgarizes talent – we see this in the way HE approaches his craft – but “the mere existence of talent is a source of profound embarrassment to the purveyors of culture”.

On the symbolic meaning of HE, the Russian writer Fyodor Sologub likens HE to Christ, saying they both take on themselves the sins of the world; Woodward suggests that Andreyev had in mind Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man – the nihilistic, egotistic protagonist of Dostoevsky’s story “Notes From the Underground” – and the pleasure the Underground Man derives from being humiliated.  The following is quoted from “Notes From the Underground”:

“It is so subtle, so inaccessible sometimes to rational understanding that slightly limited people or even simply people with strong nerves will find it totally incomprehensible. ‘Perhaps those who have never received slaps will also fail to understand’, you add with a smirk, and thereby you politely hint to me that during my life perhaps I have also experienced a slap and therefore speak as an expert.”

But Woodward then goes on to claim that Andreyev “seems to interpret the role of his hero as a form of vengeance”, and says that HE’s willingness to be slapped by the other clowns “is a parody of his fate in the external world, a parody of the profanation of his ideas… he is presenting his audience with the spectacle of their profanation of their own lives.”


Woodward also notes that Andreyev himself – in a letter to the actress E.A. Polevitskaya (for whom he wrote the role of Consuela) – insisted that Consuela, and not HE, is the center of the drama. Woodward says that Consuela is the Gentle(wo)man’s antithesis, and “these two figures mark the two poles between which the other characters are grouped, and we might say that the path followed by ‘He’ runs from ‘The Man’ to Consuela.” When HE comes to Consuela’s defense, the play enters into the realm of myth, which more or less is absent in this adaptation – the idea of gods and goddesses rising from sea foam is touched upon, but not explored to the depth that it is in the original. Woodward likens Consuela to Psyche, and HE to ‘an old god in changed garb’ who descends to Earth to rescue her. He says: “The mystical relationship between them is intensified as the play progresses… [E]ven so, there is an absence of true harmony between them… The ornate, passionate rhetoric of ‘He’ leaves her breathless, but she is already yielding to temptation. Unable to elevate her above the evil which is about to take possession of her, ‘He’ poisons her.”

Woodward reads the final death scene as HE taking Consuela’s soul, and using the rest of the poison to speed himself along to heaven, where he can truly be one with her in the afterlife. But he ascribes the Baron’s suicide to the Baron having quickly ascertained all of this, and deciding to take his own life in order to get himself into the afterlife even faster so that he can ‘beat’ HE to Consuela and assume eternal possession of her first. Thus, when HE cries out ‘I am coming!’, he is actually saying it to the Baron, and not to Consuela. (!)

Gorky and Andreyev: A Troubled Friendship

Maksim Gorky was one of Andreyev’s contemporaries, and arguably the best-known Russian prose writer of the early 20th century. His full name was Aleksei Maksimovich Gorky, but he was known as Maksim, though I’ll refer to him on a last-name basis from now on. He was one of the founders of the Socialist Realist movement, which by 1934 had evolved to a form composed of four parts: 1) Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them; 2) Typical: scenes of everyday life of the people; 3) Realistic: in the representational sense; 4) Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party. (I confess: that was paraphrased from Wikipedia.)  He was a well-known revolutionary, more liberal in his leanings and generally more politically active than Andreyev, and he wrote frequently about the poor, concentrating on the great inherent worth and liveliness of the individual human being. He lived in exile from 1906 to 1913 due to health reasons and increasing government oppression of writers, but was allowed to return thanks to a grant of amnesty. His 1936 death is a contentious subject; those ‘in the know’ claim that he was killed by Stalin’s secret police, but Stalin himself denied this, even making sure that he was one of the pallbearers at Gorky’s funeral.

A photograph of Gorky:

Maksim Gorky












James Woodward opens Leonid Andreyev: A Study with the sentence “With the exception of Gorky, Russian prose writers of the early twentieth century have received scant attention in the West.  When Gorky, with his usual modesty, acknowledged the inferiority of his own artistic gifts to those of his friend, he was simply reiterating an opinion long held by most contemporary critics and literati, symbolists and ‘realists’ alike. Moreover, the general prevalence of this view, indicating that both camps found something to applaud in Andreyev’s works, suggests that in certain important respects he may be considered a more widely representative figure than Gorky of Russian literary and intellectual life of the two decades before 1917.” Thus, even though it seems that everyone up to and including Gorky and Andreyev themselves knew that Andreyev was the better writer, Andreyev still ended up in Gorky’s shadow.

As early as 1902,  Andreyev was quite aware of and thankful for Gorky’s assistance with his craft; he noted that Gorky helped him become more critical of himself as well as realize his own gifts and talents. Their relationship was not always smooth; as in any professional collaboration that also happens to be personal, they had their share of disagreements, no matter how indebted Andreyev remained to Gorky. When Gorky left Russia in 1906, he went to the Isle of Capri, inviting Andreyev to join him. Andreyev finally did so in 1907, but he described the experience of sharing a dark, humid villa with Gorky as one of the most trying of his life. He was dogged by thoughts of suicide, and wrote to Gorky later (in 1912) that during their stay together he wondered if he should perhaps sever all ties with Gorky then and there. Andreyev did eventually emerge from his funk and begin writing anew with a fresh onslaught of ideas.

Before he left Capri, Andreyev began work on the story “Darkness”, with which Gorky took great issue. The story is based on an incident in which one of Andreyev’s revolutionary acquaintances lectures a prostitute on morality; offended, she slaps him, and contrite, he kisses her hand in apology. According to Gorky, Andreyev distorts this incident into an implausible tale, perverting it beyond all hope. Andreyev defended his right as an artist to spin the incident as he saw fit, but Gorky (as stated in his memoir about Andreyev) felt keenly that “from that time on… something snapped between Andreyev and myself.”

Part of the writers’ relationship was collaboration on various literary journals. In 1916, the newspaper Russian Will was started, and its principal organizer announced that, among others, he planned to have both Gorky and Andreyev write for it. Gorky refused to participate, and Andreyev agreed to edit the literary, critical, and theater sections of the paper. He mostly agreed for financial reasons, though he did sincerely believe that it was a progressive paper and that he would be allowed decent freedom in his editorial decisions; neither of those turned out to be true, and he was quickly exhausted by constantly defending himself from criticism. He fled to Finland within two years of the paper’s birth, seeking refuge from an increasingly oppressive government in which he received no support – financial or otherwise – from Gorky.

While in Finland, Andreyev read with horror the reports of other writers going bankrupt and selling all of their possessions, and then begging Gorky for work, which Gorky gave to them. Reading this, Andreyev was disgusted, seeing Gorky not as a champion of the writer’s cause but as “a friend who has gone over to the enemy” – someone to whom he referred with “passionate indignation”. Gorky sent an emissary to Finland to offer Andreyev work – two million rubles’ worth, which is not by any means a small sum – which Andreyev immediately declined.

Andreyev died in 1919 of a heart attack, and before his burial, his coffin was stored in a chapel on the grounds of a house that Gorky had stayed in five years prior. Upon hearing the news, Gorky “remarked with tears in his eyes: ‘However strange it may seem, he was my only friend. Yes, the only one…’”.

The critic Frederick White in Memoirs and Madness, however, offers a different take.

White claims that the very thing James Woodward was doing above – that is, concentrating on the literary and political differences between Gorky and Andreyev that he says led Andreyev to be blamed for the failure of their relationship – is the wrong approach, and that much more important is Gorky’s own inability to “deal with people who could not play the role he assigned to them” combined with Andreyev’s great emotional neediness.

White outlines Gorky and Andreyev’s relationship as writers as Woodward has traced, adding that in 1911 Andreyev tried to reconcile with Gorky, but Gorky responded negatively, and though the two tried time and again to patch things up in the following years, they never succeeded. Andreyev’s agreement to edit Russian Will was the nail in the coffin of their friendship, as its ideas directly opposed those of the journal Gorky was editing – The Chronicle – and Andreyev at that point considered Gorky a literary enemy. (It’s here that Andreyev moves to Finland, where Woodward picks back up.)

White then goes on to discuss Gorky as an emotional entity – he grew up with a great degree of self-reliance, so he was often emotionally distant and “did not deal well with weakness or pessimism in other people”, which Andreyev immediately sensed and was often shocked by. Andreyev grew up “craving praise and acceptance” from others, which Gorky sensed and looked upon with disdain – but not at first, when he took Andreyev under his wing and helped him develop as a writer. Gorky was thrilled to have ‘discovered’ Andreyev, and Andreyev was ecstatic at having the help and praise of his new friend. “Gorky’s belief in Andreyev’s talent”, writes White, “was the one constant in their relationship”, but Gorky later came to regret that Andreyev never reached his full potential – most likely because Gorky himself thought he lacked talent such as Andreyev’s, and his protégé’s failure was doubly so his own failure. Andreyev was constantly thankful to Gorky for his patronage, but Gorky’s emotional distance caused Andreyev to wonder if Gorky was interested in him for his talent alone, or for something closer to friendship. As early as 1902, Andreyev was writing letters to Gorky claiming that he didn’t feel they were friends, begging him to accept him as more than just a pupil, pleading for emotional support; Gorky pulled away, stating a desire to only relate to Andreyev in literary terms, thereby setting the stage for an emotional coldness that would ultimately lead to the demise of their relationship.

By 1904, many had viewed Gorky and Andreyev as tutor and pupil, but when Andreyev published the story “Red Laugh” that year, White writes that “he… stepped out of Gorky’s shadow [emphasis mine] and established himself as a literary figure… This shifted the balance of power between the two writers”. Andreyev still sought Gorky’s opinion on his work, but was more willing to publish things against which Gorky protested for one reason or another.

White somewhat agrees that the time Gorky and Andreyev spent on Capri together led to the end of their friendship, but he argues that no single event led to a distinct fissure between them. Andreyev sensed that his emotional neediness was to blame for the separation, and that Gorky wouldn’t or couldn’t give him support, even though he constantly wrote to Gorky asking him for it.

Andreyev, then, sensed that they were both “ ‘too different’ in what each wanted from their relationship”, but Gorky couldn’t take any responsibility for this himself, casting Andreyev as the sole contributor to their separation. In his memoirs of Andreyev (published in 1922, three years after Andreyev’s death), Gorky likens Andreyev to a child when speaking of his depression and suicidal tendencies, and calls him a lazy and uneducated writer who got by on his talent alone. (Andreyev had a law degree from Moscow University and a very different – that is, much less regimented and much more sporadically manic – work ethic than Gorky.) Gorky goes on to paint a rather unflattering picture of Andreyev, calling him cruel for inflicting his emotional problems on others and accusing him of pretending to be suicidal so that others would reassure him that he was a worthy person. Thus, White says, was Gorky completely unable to grasp Andreyev’s deep depression and emotional issues; Andreyev laid himself bare, and Gorky never understood him – or even admitted to never having understood him.

Recall the quotation above from Gorky about Andreyev being his only friend. White says that “Gorky felt justified in making the argument that he had been Andreyev’s good friend. He had recognized Andreev’s talent and tried to encourage the use of this natural gift. It was Andreyev’s laziness, pessimism, and disrespect for the literary trade that had brought their friendship to an end. Gorky never seems willing to accept that Andreyev may have needed the emotional support and kindness of a friend, rather than the grimace of a disapproving older brother. For Gorky, Andreyev’s literary concerns represented the limits of his friendship.” Indeed, Gorky notes at the end of his memoirs about Andreyev that when they met in 1916, they could “only speak of the past; the present erected between us a high wall of irreconcilable differences. I shall not be violating the truth if I say that to me that wall was transparent and permeable. I saw behind it a prominent original man who for ten years had been very near to me, my sole friend in literary circles. Differences of outlook ought not to affect sympathies; I never gave theories and opinions a decisive role in my relations with people. Leonid Nikolaevich Andreyev felt otherwise. But I do not blame him for this; for he was what he wished to be and what he was capable of being – a man of rare originality, rare talent, and quiet courageous in his quest for truth.” Nonetheless, White notes, it was his overall tone of damnation that led Gorky’s memoir to be the text by which critics remembered Andreyev, which unfortunately explains the scorned obscurity in which he laid for decades.

The Circus in Russia and France

Y. Dmitriev in The Circus in Russia notes that like the theater, the circus began in public squares for the enjoyment of the common folk. This dates back to the early 11th century, when Russia was a newly-christened country, so the art form has a long and storied history there indeed. An attempt to adequately address the entire millennium of Russian circus history is beyond the scope of this particular project, so this post will concentrate on the circus contemporary to Andreyev.

Clowns at the end of the 19th century tended to be joke-tellers more than anything else, since they possessed little to no proclivity (or capability) for physical feats. (Sample joke: Clown cries. “Why are you crying?” ask his fellow circus-folk. “How can I not cry, when after a long and difficult illness my aunt…” he pauses. “Died?” “No, got better.” This dark humor isn’t exclusive to clowns, though.)

Eventually they evolved to be more musical, and more physical, especially during Andreyev’s time when artists began to be censored. Censorship did not exclude circus performers and clowns, an as their jokes fell by the wayside, they concentrated on the more ‘traditional’ aspects of clowning that are familiar to modern audiences. Yet there was still an edge of the forbidden in their work; clowns in Moscow continued to tell political jokes knowing full well the punishment for offending a government official who might have happened to be in attendance.

In 1905, circuses started kowtowing to Tsar Nicholas II, and soon became known as vehicles of bourgeois art; the very word ‘bourgeois’ was scorned, so anything bearing that label was shunned. The circuses became watered-down, in a sense, and pursued “clean entertainment”. By 1913, the journal Organ was asking in editorials why audience interest in the circus was falling.

While audience interest in the circus was falling, the intelligentsia’s interest in the circus had just been piqued. In 1909, Filippo Marinetti published some contentious articles in the Italian newspaper “Figaro”; he was a key figure of Italian futurism, and he got quite a bit of attention in Russia in 1914 when his “Manifests of Futurism” were translated into Russian. In the manifests, he agitated against war as “the only hygiene of the world”, expressing a desire to raise “love for danger”. Music halls – especially those connected with circuses – were the first to heed Marinetti’s call; they were seen as “schools of heroism”, especially circuses, because they put forth a “strong and healthy atmosphere of danger”. Critics said that the circus stunts showed the greatest character of circus art because of their daring and nerve. The intelligentsia saw this and immediately paid attention; here, perhaps, was something new and exciting to breathe fresh air into stale art. Pantomime and clowning – two things essential to the circus – interested the intelligentsia the most, since they offered the greatest opportunity to mock the regime and agitate ‘safely’. Art had to progress as part of the sweeping changes occurring across the country, and the circus was no exception.

This might explain why Andreyev chose the backdrop of a circus as the vehicle for telling HE’s story; in exploring a world of myth and fantasy, misery and beauty, pain and pleasure, he could use the circus as a setting for these risky exercises in liminality. (“Liminal” refers to a person or thing that is caught between two worlds; that space is magical in Russian culture, and imbued with all sorts of meaning and superstition. The circus might have been such a space for Andreyev, given that it is neither of the outside world nor completely apart from it.)

Wikipedia – ever that fount of well-sourced knowledge – notes: “In 1919, Lenin, head of the USSR, expressed a wish for the circus to become ‘the people’s art-form’, given facilities and status on a par with theatre, opera and ballet. The USSR nationalized the Soviet circuses. In 1927 the State University of Circus and Variety Arts, better known as the Moscow Circus School, was established where performers were trained using methods developed from the Soviet gymnastics program. When the Moscow State Circus company began international tours in the 1950s, its levels of originality and artistic skill were widely applauded, and the high standard of the Russian State circus continues to this day.


My history of the French circus is brief, especially as it pertains to early 2oth-century circuses beyond the posters and programs seen elsewhere on this site. The first ‘closed’ circus (i.e. in a tent or other enclosed space, as opposed to outdoors) was started by an Italian in Paris in 1782. Following that, French circus artists generally followed the trends of the circus in the rest of Europe, which meant that by the early 1900s their main attraction was equestrian artists. Exotic animals had been introduced to French circuses in the early to mid-1800s, but were overtaken in popularity by the equestrian acrobats in leaps and bounds. But, as the automobile began to replace the horse, the equestrian artists started losing ground to the exotic animals and their trainers, as well as acrobats, aerialists, and clowns, who had re-gained the upper hand in popularity by World War I.

The Social and Political Climate of Andreyev’s World


This is a very, very basic summary of the world in which Andreyev lived; it is not intended to be comprehensive, as entire tomes have been written on these subjects. Rather, this is simply to give the reader a glimpse into Andreyev’s social and political surroundings.


Russia had been operating on a landowners-and-serfs society until the serfs were emancipated in the 1860s. The government was autocratic (ruled by a tsar), and had long been ruled by a mere handful of family dynasties. Once the serfs were set free, people began questioning the need for an autocratic rule, which persisted for several decades. After the disastrous Russo-Japanese war of 1904, national sentiment ran very much against the autocracy; finally, in 1905, then-tsar Nicholas II signed a decree establishing a constitution for Russia and establishing a democratically elected parliament, called the Duma. Over the next decade, this system wavered and finally collapsed, when the Bolsheviks (Marxists in Russia who supported Lenin and his brand of Communism – opposite them, and opposing Lenin because they deemed him too radical, were the Mensheviks) staged a coup of the tsar’s palace and effectively ousted the government. This happened in 1917, two years before Andreyev died.


Andreyev was looked upon with favor by the Russian intelligentsia (writers and critics who were seen as ‘elevated’ above common folk). Most of them supported the Bolsheviks, but most of them were also deeply conflicted by their personal desire to move art forward and have it undergo its own sort of revolution. They constantly asked the questions “Where are we from? Who are we? Where are we going?” – not just in reference to themselves as artists, but to Russia as a country. To them, art and Russia were inextricably intertwined; to advance one was to advance the other, and if one moved forward without the other, chaos ensued. Several writers – and painters, and musicians, and thinkers – left Russia during and after the revolution for various reasons, one of which may have been that they felt they could not handle the enormous change sweeping through Russia at the time.


Andreyev was one such writer. In 1906 he declared himself free of all political affiliation, wishing to distance himself from the restraint he felt in aligning with a particular side. He was admired for this, which is why so many were shocked when he turned to conservatism after the 1905 Revolution, severing his ties with a revolutionary group started by his close friend Maksim Gorky. When the Bolsheviks assumed control of the government in 1917, his conservatism deepened even further. Disgusted with the turn of events in Russia, he left for Finland, saying that it was “no longer possible” for him to stay in his homeland. (It was his vitriolic anti-Bolshevism that later caused him to fall out of favor with Soviet critics in the 1920s and 1930s) Interestingly, Gorky was put in charge of the Ministry of Culture in 1918, and made one of his tasks the employment and housing of the Russian intelligentsia. He wanted them to flourish, so he did his best to create spaces and institutions that would support them, including publishing houses, one of which made available A Book About Leonid Andreyev. (When he heard of Andreyev’s death, Gorky was inconsolable, in tears saying that Andreyev was his only true friend!)


Andreyev was never censored, nor did he feel the fear of being censored or threatened by the government. Rather, his relation to the intelligentsia seems to be one of reluctant acceptance and then rejection, clearly marking his desire to forge his own intellectual path as an artist. His long history of mental illness may explain his sudden shift to conservatism, but it can be said with confidence that if Andreyev was ever truly happy, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 erased any trace of that happiness. He lived out his life in Finland mostly alone and disillusioned, feeling betrayed by his government and unable – and possibly unwilling – to see how even his own friends were working to effect changes that might have buoyed his spirits.