The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi

In between immersing myself in the Martin Beck series, I was taken by this new biography of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott. Grimaldi is not widely known of outside the circles of those interested in theatre history, but he is one of the most significant figures in British theatre history and, specifically, in British popular theatre history and, even more specifically, in the history of pantomime.

At the end of the eighteenth century, when Grimaldi first graced the staged, the pantomime was a form very different from what we know today. The pantomime was divided into two parts, the ‘opening’ and the ‘harlequinade’. The opening was a story, fantastical in nature (often set in classical times and later in the ninenteenth century in the world of the fairy tale) in which mortals and immortals (played by actors with large full-head masks, known as Big Heads) performed. At the end of the opening these characters were transformed into the the four characters of the harlequinade – Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon and Clown. The harlequinade was a fast-paced slapstick romp of acrobatics set-piece physical and visual gags in which the lovers Harlequin and Columbine were commonly chased by Pantaloon and Clown. These four characters evolved from the Italian Commedia dell’ arte and actors would typically specialise in one of the roles.

Joseph Grinaldi followed in his father’s footsteps to play Clown and during his career became the most famous clown in history. Not only did he transform the figure of Clown from a realtively minor character in the harlequinade (a kind of appendix to the main action of the pantomime) to the most important character in the pantomime, he also set the pantomime on course for4 its development throughout the nineteenth century into the kind of pantomime we would recognise today. The four characters of the harlequinade have since evolved into the Principal Boy (Harlequin), Principal Girl (Columbine), Villain (Pantaloon) and Dame (Clown), the main characters of the modern pantomime, with the Dame arguably the most important of them all. Furthermore, Grimaldi reinvented the figure of the Clown into the character seen in circuses today. It is testament to his influence that the word ‘Joey’ is commonly used as a synonym for a clown.

McConnell Stott’s book is a jauntily written narrative which engages the general reader, but is nonetheless scholarly for all that. There is plenty here in the way of historical and scholarly detail for those who want it, and also he successfully captures the flavour of Georgian London and of theaytrical life at the time. It is also a story not without tragedy and, if anything, it is also the story of a career cut short through injury and physical exhaustion caused by the relentless and cruel demands of the profession. Grimaldi, like many other child stars of his generation, was subject to a harsh training regime that left its physical and psychological stars. When Grimaldi retired from the stage at the age of fifty, he was in great physical pain and only able to perform whilst sitting in a chair – a far cry from the acrobatic performer of his youth, who had set new standards in physical comedy. As such it is a story that raises questions about the nature of being a performer and, especially, a ‘star’ and carries resonance for our own age with its apparent obsession with celebrity. This is a book that deserves a wider readership that just theatre historians.

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