MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

Oleg Popov will make you laugh only in the approved communist manner

August 11 1962

MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

Oleg Popov will make you laugh only in the approved communist manner

August 11 1962

MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

Oleg Popov will make you laugh only in the approved communist manner

OLEG POPOV, a young aristocrat of the new Soviet society, comes to Canada this month as a cultural ambassador wearing the garments of a circus clown. But he’s no ordinary clown. In the Soviet Union Popov is as widely respected as Laurence Olivier and as popular as Bob Hope. He earns $900 a month, the same as a prima ballerina, and he occupies a place of importance in Soviet culture.

Popov was unknown outside Russia until six years ago, when the Moscow Circus began its triumphant tours of western Europe, Britain, and Asia. On those trips he quickly earned a reputation as the world’s greatest clown, and European critics began calling him “the Russian Chaplin.” This month Popov and the Moscow Circus come to North America for the first time, in a six-week tour (Aug. 28 to Oct. 7) of Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Quebec.

Despite comparisons with Chaplin, Popov isn’t much like any western clown or comedian. The Soviet clown, in accordance with communist ideology, is a good scout. He smiles and sings under difficulties. He never hurts people, only helps them. His costume, character, training and attitude towards the audience are all determined by the Soviet way of life.

Popov doesn’t paint a mask on his face, put on a red nose and wig, or wear the pawn-shop clothes of a hobo. His clown is neither irresponsible nor laughable to look at. He’s more of an eccentric; an awkward, wide-eyed waif.

He wears soft shoes, loud socks, striped

trousers, Sunday-best vest and jacket, blackand-white plaid sports shirt, butterfly bow-tie, and the mime’s badge of office, a cane. His roundly youthful face is gently retouched. Black underlines the roguish mobile eyes, and a blob of putty snubs the nose. His own carroty hair hangs straight about his ears, set off by a red-and-yellow checked mob cap. Nothing is exaggerated. Subtlety of gesture and effect is possible in the intimacy of the Europeanstyle one-ring circus. Besides, this Russian clown is a respectable character, not a creature ridiculous by nature.

Popov has a more important role to play than the star clowns of western circuses. In addition to his star turns he appears after each number while the equipment in the ring is being prepared. He functions as a kind of one-man Greek chorus: he bridges, comments, imitates, and parodies. After a lion-taming act he demonstrates his mastery over a goose; after a balancing act, he manages with the greatest of difficulty to balance a doll glued to a stick. He's teasing, curious, skillfully awkward, spunky, timid and brilliant by turns. Sometimes he’s a musician, sometimes a magician or a cook.

Popov also deals in social satire and topical jokes (space is the favorite topic since Sputnik I) though his main line is pantomime. He even made fun of Khrushchov in public, and got away with it. It was just after the Russians had sent a rocket around the moon, offering as proof a photograph of the far side. Popov sent up his own rocket, a hopeless dud that landed a few feet from the launching pad. In a shocked silence, he pulled a piece of paper from the wreckage and broke up with contagious laughter. Then, in a perfect parody of the triumphant Khrushchov, he waved his own moon picture.

The main difference between communist and capitalist clowns, Soviet cultural authorities like to say, is that Russian clowns are not so rude and not so sad. Popov does not lose his pants, get beaten with the slapstick or make vulgar noises. His adventures, not his misfortunes, make the audience laugh; so there is no reason for him to be a sad clown.

Popov has more in common with Chaplin than with the famous American clown Emmet Kelly, even though Chaplin works outside the traditional circus skills. But their roles are significantly different. Where Chaplin plays a lamb in a lion’s world, Popov is more like a friendly bear cub: mischievous, bumbling, endlessly good-natured. Or, as the Soviets see it, Chaplin is a good guy in conflict with a hostile society, while Popov is at one with his comrades.

Popov can talk ideology with the best of them: “The clown in the traditional mask,” he says, “is separated from real life by the very image he is creating. In capitalist circuses, a clown must accept the role of buffoon. The comedian, on the other hand, is much closer to real life. He is a truly living person close to every workingman.”

Pravda, the official communist newspaper, puts it another way: “The Soviet circus is cultured, herein lies its main distinction from any bourgeois circus.” The Moscow Circus actually has a lot in common with “bourgeois” circuses. The important difference is that the circus in Russia enjoys the same cultural prestige as theatre or opera; the artists rate high in society, and the audiences are sophisticated. Foreigners are often amazed by the change that overcomes even the most formidable Russians at the circus. My own guide in Leningrad, a university graduate with iron principles, giggled like a three-year-old every time Popov appeared in the ring.

Popov was born in 1930, the son of a doctor. He became a clown the way you become any-

thing in the Soviet Union: by studying. Originally apprenticed as a locksmith, he won a place in the National School of Circus Arts after mastering some tricks in private. He majored in tightrope-walking, minored in juggling, but on graduation was told: “Listen, young man, you’re not a tightrope performer, you're a clown.”

For three years he worked the rope, searching all the while for his own clown image. In 1952, when the Moscow Circus needed a clown, Popov was ready.

Like the Red Army Chorus, the circus tour is part of an official cultural exchange between Canada and the USSR. We get Popov and the trained bears this season; next season they get Walter Susskind and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. WENDY MICHENER