I learned of Grock the Clown through the back door—Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V. Berio wrote of Sequenza V, “What weaves its way in and out of Sequenza V is the memory of Grock (Adriano Wettach), the last of the great clowns.” Sequenza V is an “homage to Grock and to the English version of his warum – why – which is the generative nucleus of the piece.” [citation]
Prompted by shoreacre’s intriguing comment in an earlier post, I wanted to know more about the “why.” A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound provided a clue in an explanatory note to Cantos LXXXVII. “The French dialog is typical of the non-sequiturs [Grock] used with his straight-man partner.” [A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, Volume 2 490] I nonetheless requested a copy of Grock, King of Clowns, Grock’s memoir, from interlibrary loan to see what else I could find out.
Grock opens the book with a brief précis:
I am a Swiss and belong to three countries. I speak German and feel I am German; I speak French and feel I am French; I speak Italian and feel I am Italian.
And I have three passions, too: motoring, boxing, and billiards . . .
I have been a clown too. Even now, in private life I can’t resist playing the clown. . . . it amuses me to pull people’s legs and make them laugh. I like to ask my famous “Why?” when it is least expected. . . .
Try it for yourself. Those puzzled faces will be a sheer delight.
But take my advice: don’t ask why when why is indicated. [Grock 9]
Grock once had a partner who wore “an outsize moustache” that Grock couldn’t abide. When the fellow refused to cut it off himself, Grock snuck up behind him and cut half of it off, thus forcing his partner finally to remove the other half. (Grock engineered things to assure all ended happily.) [Grock 125-126] Grock was also an astute businessman. This may seem like a Grockian non sequitur, but it’s actually not.
Grock was once informed by the Swiss Consulate that, as a “Swiss subject living abroad and excused military service,” his tax assessment had doubled. Grock commented on this, “I don’t know how it may affect others, but I feel the same about taxes as I do about moustaches. I cannot tolerate either.” [Grock 139]
Now, this may well be a non sequitur—Grock doesn’t indicate any connection between his aversion to mustaches and the story told next (and he was friends with Charlie Chaplin)—but in 1934, while performing in Munich, his producer rushed into Grock’s dressing room to announce that “Hitler has taken box seats for fifty—himself, Goebbels and the party chiefs.” To which Grock replied, “Why?” His producer “gave a start before he ran out again laughing.” [Grock 178]
At the interval, Goebbels summoned Grock to meet Hitler.
. . . the whole house craned their necks to watch Goebbels and me make our way along. It was indeed no ordinary sight.
First the little Minister for Propaganda, in brown uniform and swastika arm-band, taut with pent-up energy and the effort of disguising his limp. I suddenly saw him as a sinister marionette, devoid of human feeling. His jerky movements when, for example, he gave the so-called German salute, and the deliberately intense, piercing look of his large brown eyes, fixed on the distance beyond (or was it through?) his fellow-men, spread a clammy chill abroad of which I and, unless I am mistaken, the public was uncomfortably aware.
And behind him walked I, Grock, the clown, in my ample trousers and boat-like shoes. I gave a look at my public. Yes, even now, it was my public; and I gave them a smile; and even if they did not reply with a “Heil, Grock!” the relief and pleasure which lit up their faces was owing to me. I think I felt very proud at that moment, and very happy. . . .
[I]n Indian file we ascended to the first tier where Hitler and his guests were sitting, a phalanx of brown uniforms and laced shoulder straps. They all stood up as though at the word of command, and Hitler, whom I at once recognized, came forward to greet me.
“Herr Grock, this is the thirteenth time I have been to see you,” he said as he held out his hand, “and it will not, I hope, be the last.”
“Why?” I let slip unawares. [Grock 179]
Grock, son Grand Numero (1931)
Go to 2:55 for conversation in various languages. At 3:10, upon learning that his partner, in this case Max van Embden, is speaking English, Grock asks, “Pourquoi?” (“Why” in English). Another “trademark” phrase, at about 3:20, is “sans blague” (roughly “no kidding,” though Grock felt there wasn’t an English equivalent). [Grock 142] At 3:26, in an effort to determine Grock’s nationality, Embden asks, “Qu’est-ce que vous êtes?” (roughly, “what are you?”). Grock answers, “Catholique.” And all of this with a beatific smile on his face.
Go to 18:39 for a musical routine between Embden and Grock that requires no translation, and if you’re very short on time, go directly to 22:00-24:16.
Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V (Listening to the Berio on the heels of the Grock musical routine makes for a fascinating comparison.)