Laughing at/with Posture-Masters:
Reflections on Eighteenth-Century Contortionism
“Posture-Master” as it circulated in restoration and eighteenth-century England, was quite the misnomer. After a century or more of continually well-regulated manners, gestures, carriages, and countenances, one might assume that the term posture-master referred to either a stern teacher of courtesy manuals or those few who had achieved the most “upright” position. These masters of posture, however, might be more accurately called contortionists, who, rather than exhibiting a tall, decidedly English countenance, could twist and curve their bodies into extraordinary and unusual designs. Most famous among the profession in England was Joseph Clark, who, being so skilled at contortionism, could re-figure his body into the shape of an “S.” These performers were often seen at community gatherings and fairs, participating in a larger history of festivity and carnival, and evoking from their audiences mirth and laughter, awe and surprise. Rather than lean on the troubled history of deformity, this project reclaims the act of variable body-forms as a kind of “(re)formity”—an endless mutability of design, shape, and being.
While the word “contortion” had not yet been used to describe these kinds of performers before 1800, it did have remarkable purchase in discourses and first-person accounts of laughter. The laughing body, much like the body of a posture-master mid-performance, is one that defies immediate legibility. The face contorts into a grimace, mixing joy and melancholy; a body in the throes of laughter bends over and leans back, trembling and twisting. This paper brings together performances of contortion and the affective audience response of laughter to ask: if posture-masters drew on aesthetics of disability and varied embodiment—and I argue they certainly did—then how do we reconcile and repair the role of laughter in such festive engagement? If laughter in the carnivalesque and grotesque sense is ultimately an “uncrowning” and “re-crowning,” as Bakhtin and others have suggested, then it may be that the laughter experienced during a disability, or “(re)formity,” performance is an uncrowning of the “standard” body. I term this instance of laughter “moral ascension.” By moral ascension, I mean precisely the opposite of the “sudden glory” found in Hobbes’s estimation of humor. Rather than a single feeling of superiority over the “non-standard” or “at the defects in others,”—although it is on occasion this, too—laughter psychologically flattens the communal relationships into a “gay totality.” Rather than being “too corrosive,” laughter is just corrosive enough to dissolve aspects of individuality and then, acting as a bonding chemical, turns a communal space like the theater or fairground into a more durable compound. Laughter, after all, is double-faced in all ways, a mixed and impure emotion. Using these early modern performances of variability as a case study of sorts, I argue that the guffaw itself might be a key to how we come to access others.