Laughter and the Death of the Comic: Charlie Chaplin's The Circus and Limelight in Light of the Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas

Moshe Shai Rachmuth


Using the work of Emmanuel Levinas, this article sheds light on Charlie Chaplin's The Circus (1928), a piece that so far eluded the critics, despite its immense popularity with theater viewers. I show that it is not Chaplin's lack of inventiveness that makes the Tramp risk his life on the tightrope 'for nothing'. It is, on the contrary, Chaplin's intuitive sense that makes him believe, anticipating Levinas, that it is human and simple for a person to help another for no benefit. It is this point that cinema-goers understood more easily than we, scholars, may think. Starting with The Circus (1928) I demonstrate that this film, which critics have underestimated due to its 'pointless' ending, becomes meaningful once interpreted as promoting radical for-the-other ethics. My argument about The Circus is supported by close reading as well as Chaplin's own remarks and his later talkie Limelight (1952) in which similar ideas are expressed more openly through language and through the ending scene, with the protagonist dying on stage, to the sounds of roaring laughter of the audience.


Charles Chaplin; Emmanuel Levinas; Chaplin; Levinas; The Circus; Limelight; comedy; the gold rush

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