The Elizabethan concept of the “all licensed fool” provides contemporary artistic expression with a most powerful and essential justification and ingredient for its existence in a political and social framework. To ignore it is to risk stagnation and ultimately fragmentation and annihilation.
We don’t have to be philosophers to recognise the collision between artistic expression and controls exercised by political states. Among the first victims of draconian governments are the writers, artists, journalists and virtually anyone who expresses formally or informally alternative viewpoints to those that prop up those exercising power. Ironically then, the need for a safety valve for alternative “seeing” and revealing of the shadow effects of decision making and control may well be the very means through which any system of power and order might be guaranteed some measure of longevity.
Any system which only entrenches its culture through the reproduction of past affirmations or worldviews is doomed to ultimately fail and be overcome by another more aggressive system of control and subjugation. Fools and jesters, from the time of Queen Elizabeth 1, who were paid to entertain while offering insights and unpalatable truths to royalty, were engaged for good reason. They provided the eyes and ears for significant indicators of threats to power as well as of insights into their own actions and ideas. They were in effect licensed to mock and criticise the queen or king. But they weren’t official advisers nor were they inside the power structure of any government even while still being officially very close to the monarch … and they were on the payroll!
Trinculo, the fool from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” emerges over 400 years as an “all licensed fool” in “Trinculo’s Bathtub”
Just imagine you and I are kings and queens; let’s imagine our society is a monarch; that a culture is king or queen … Perhaps we can think in terms of metaphors here. But imagine if within our lives we live blinkered existences that blind us to possible truths and realities around us; image our societies doing the same; imagine our cultural propensity to see ourselves as somehow special while being blinded to the OTHER! Then imagine if there was this strange little creature called an All Licensed Fool that is also our artists, our theatre our writer … and this fool entertains while pricking our consciousness to realities outside of our limited range. This fool echoes and reflects and causes us to stumble and at times shudder … But it has our best interests at heart. It offends us. It mocks us. It challenges and makes us laugh. We cry and we feel strange empathy at times … and then we wonder if the historian or the journalist might do the same for us! We might wonder if in effect we really need this fool! Why can’t the fool simply be a distracting and entertaining fool? Why should it be concerned with history or reality in any way? Don’t we feel reality and wish to escape it? Why not simply go to the psychologist or to turn to the malevolent father to control every aspect of our confusing existence?
The answers are provided in this simple statement from Erasmus:
“They can speak truth and even open insults and be heard with positive pleasure … For truth has a genuine power to please if it manages not to give offence, but this is something the gods have granted on to fools.” Erasmus
In creating theatre, I like to think that we are attempting to evoke truths and at the very least examine our imagined truths in fundamental ways. Our theatre is then a fools enterprise seeking the absurd amongst the shadows of commonly held perceptions. Our society and friends might be wise to understand that our work is not necessarily a commonly accepted bargain. We may well be at odds with most people and may find ourselves accused of elitism or worse as our function is to prick sensibilities … not least of which are our OWN sensibilities. Seeing through our own narcissism is perhaps the most difficult function of all. It is this difficulty in learning to see that gives the concept of the shaman an edge over other approaches to theatre and art. It is also this aspect of creating within the art form that runs counter to much of today’s tendency towards grounding in one’s identity and one’s own “special” attributes.
Artists and those in power have thus a particular relationship that is at once antagonistic and necessarily paradoxical in the drive for survival. The individual likewise has much to gain from the licensed fool who can shatter the mirror of narcissism and special identity. The fool is thus not necessarily friend; but is definitely not an enemy …
Cover photo by Jorian Gardner
Middle Trinculo photo by Col Bennets