In 1976 Michael Ende wrote Das Gauklermärchen (‘The Entertainer’s Tale’), a play conceived for puppet theatre. Although escapism was still frowned upon in mid-1970s Germany, characters such as the circus performer, the clown or the tightrope walker played a crucial role in Ende’s fictional universe. While critics called for art and literature to fulfil specific social functions, such as educating the public, Ende used the figure of the circus performer to establish an alternative artistic vision. A tightrope walker risked his life every evening to be recompensed with only a handful of coins. What, asked Ende, was the social function of tightrope-walking? Art, in his opinion, should not be expected to fulfil practical purposes. Its task was quite different, as Ende demonstrated in the circus play, Das Gauklermärchen.
In Ende’s view, any activity involving play was a shared activity. This was especially true of circus performances, since they were grounded in a specific type of communication. The activity of playing necessarily involved at least two people, each of whom intended to play according to an agreed set of rules.
Ende believed that the rules of a game could not be forced upon the participants - the players had to participate of their own free will. Michael Ende was fascinated by the way in which ‘there are certain rules that we invent that allow us to communicate with one another and to experience something that we would never experience without these rules’. He saw it as a mysterious and wonderful process. For Ende, one of the most impressive things about man was the way in which: ‘we play, and in so doing create and inhabit an entirely new world.’
His interest in circus performers led him to place the figure of the entertainer at the heart of his artistic vision. The German term, ‘Pagat’, refers to the first card played during tarot and to the role of the ‘Joker’ in card games. The entertainer is also a kind of conjuror.
Michael Ende became increasingly interested in the entertainer’s dual role as a joker and conjurer. For him, the figure of the joker embodied the playful element in art that served to bring people closer together. In Ende’s own oeuvre, the purest example of the joker is the character Jim Button. The role of the conjurer was rather different. Ende believed that every artist, writer or creative person was a kind of magician, conjuring something out of nothing by creating fictional worlds and people, inventing stories and experiences and making new connections. The joker was the facilitator, while the conjuror was the creator. Both aspects were united in the figure of the entertainer, the artist par excellence.