High noon. Thursday, September 10, 1987. Yale University’s central lawn above the undergrad library. If you are a Yalie cutting across campus through that area, you have already noticed the mild warmth of an abundant fall sun that seems to dare all the planted campus areas to remain the right shade of green. What isn’t right is the sound carrying beyond the lawn area. As you approach, almost orchestrated laughter betrays the presence of a crowd, an audience.
It is an utterly exotic apparition without excuse or explanation. Centered on the span of lawn is a tiny circus: shrilly-striped ring, flags everywhere—even atop the trapeze rigging—a tightwire, and two white-faced clowns engaging that audience, several hundred students seated on the grass, some right at the edge of the ring. There is attention in the air. These Ivy Leaguers are sitting at the feet of clowns. Of course there is attention. The students know they are students and the clowns know they are clowns. Full circle. Complete consciousness. Open and free.
A Chief Clown is setting a table with dishes. Like his huskier companion he wears a crisply tailored tunic in the style of a very trim Elizabethan doublet. What hair he has left is shoulder length and matches his reddish blond mustache and goatee. He is almost skinny, and completely intense in every gesture. In the charged silence of very focused pantomime, he makes it more than clear that he can pull a checkered tablecloth out from under the dishes he has set on a table. His partner encourages him with the dare of a child. No reference has to be made to the welfare of the dishes. Everyone knows what is not supposed to happen. Everyone also knows that buried somewhere in this so crude playlet is something they don’t know. That’s clown comedy. That’s the anticipated surprise that conjures attention in circus entertainment. Both these guys move with a bravado and surety that immediately reveals the hundreds of times they’ve done this for audiences they still hear laughing. They are also deceived, willingly, by the self-trickery that allows actors to believe in utter nonsense.
The setup complete, the audience complies with a silent request to provide a massive drum roll, infusing textbooks and backpacks with new usefulness. Utter nonsense. The cloth is pulled and the dishes remain in their respective, expected positions. From somewhere behind a large backdrop there is a mighty alarm of simultaneous whistles as the clown takes his bow and accepts ready applause—even from his accomplice. Too good. Everyone knows they are supposed to be suspicious. Nonetheless, Chief Clown begins to speak, professorially, chest out. Get ready to take notes.
And just then it happens.
The accomplice nonchalantly picks up the table. And in tipping it to carry it out of the ring, he reveals that all the dishes are tied in place. Explosive laughter covers the professor’s opening phrase. No matter. Oblivious to anything out of order in the ring, he pursues his topic, knowing full well he will repeat the opening structure on his way to a revelation: the nonsense just enacted was not only innocent but cathartic. It contrasts with a much larger arena of nonsense that has pervaded the atmosphere of our lives.
“…machine-gun fire fugues have out-cadenza’d all the possible logic of
your favorite computer concerto…
Just when the haughty entrechat of well-timed lies has outdanced the
delicate but oh-so-muscled pas de deux of heart and truth…
Just then, between reports of last shell emptied and falsehood delivered,
Hope finds even in the geography of today, promise for tomorrow.
Now then, with you we enter this just-then now-space to stretch and
In this humble ring, the logic of the snare drum and the clumsy dance
of clowns and dogs
Seize our sense of time, till ‘just when’ waltzes ‘just then’ to ‘just now.’
And suddenly all of the truly exciting things all of you—even you.—
could be doing right now…
Give way to the bold and gold, round and red, totally-useless-somehow-
necessary world of— THE CIRCUS.”
And the mighty whistle alarm loads the ring with three more clowns, all speaking at once with such diction and pressure that although they are each saying something different, you know they are making even syntactical sense. And so begins fifty-five minutes of rapid-fire entertainment that is really a hybrid of theater and the rarefied repertoire of circus. It is a seamless parade of juggling, balancing, parables and acrobatics that only a trained ensemble including four men, two monkeys, a dog, a prancing miniature horse, and a waltzing bear could muster.
The audience can’t be more present to this brash and humble ceremony. Of course there is the conventional punctuation of applause, laughter, and downright cheering. But there is more. On both sides of the ringed performance space there seems to be an almost tangible thrall. Unspoken, there flashes in everyone’s eyes an acknowledgement of presence, of all to all. I see you. I see you seeing me. I am so happy to be here. And so it goes. Of course it ends. The central lawn empties. By late afternoon it is bare. Till next year.
That was over thirty years ago.
I never got to see what those students saw. I saw those students, though. I was that Chief Clown. The Royal Lichtenstein Circus was the bold and risky realization of a vision I’d had in the late Sixties. It lasted for twenty-two years of performing throughout most of the United States in shopping centers, on college campuses, in high school and elementary school gyms, and church halls. That circus meant I went to Yale for five years. I also went to Princeton, Cornell, Beloit, UCLA, Emory, Purdue, Tulane, Louisiana State and Stanford. I never managed to graduate from any of them because I couldn’t stay long enough. But I reaped the treasure of a priceless education.
Retirement is also priceless. The distance of time and the perspective of finally staying in one place have been additional gifts. For what it’s worth, I think that little circus was the best thing I ever accomplished. That may or not be true. It may only be a biased guess. No matter. What does matter is my rock solid conviction that those twenty-two seasons, that circus, and that day at Yale University would never have happened had I not been both a practiced circus clown and an ordained Jesuit priest. Finding such an electric amalgam, trouping through its best and worst energies, and arriving at late life’s more challenging horizons is the story of this book.