A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I have a confession.
I hate clowns. I’ve always hated clowns ever since I was a child. I find them both unsettling and unfunny and, as far as I remember, I’ve never felt any differently. The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi was therefore not exactly the sort of book I would normally make a bee-line for, except that I am deeply interested in understanding what makes people tick. What makes someone want to be a professional performer – especially a clown? What drives them to seek applause and acclaim while hiding behind a painted face?
Given how many clowns over the years have been depressive, suicidal and/or just plain misanthropic my belief has always been that behind most clowns (and a good few straight actors) lies an unhappy human being. Nothing in Andrew McConnell Stott’s magisterial biography of Grimaldi has altered that opinion.
The difference between a good biography and a bad or even indifferent one is not the subject, but the biographer. A dead hand with prose can leave the most fascinating character belly-up in the water, but a good writer mines the gems from a life while passing lightly over the humdrum details.
Fortunately for us, Joseph Grimaldi and Andrew Stott are a match made in heaven: a man with an incredibly rich and varied life in the hands of a first-rate biographer who is truly interested in his subject. The result is an immensely entertaining journey through the chaos, feuds, riots and triumphs of London’s theatrical landscape in the late 18th/early 19th century with a cast that includes Byron, the Prince Regent, Sheridan, Edmund Kean and the horrendous, but ultimately tragic, ‘child prodigy’ Master Betty – all set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars.
Joe made his theatrical debut when he was just two, and was a seasoned professional by the age of five – and it came as no surprise at all to discover that his father was a violent monster. Know as “The Signor”, Giuseppe Grimaldi was himself born into a family of “forains” – travelliing entertainers who plied their trade across western Europe in the 18th century. A dentist and dancer (apparently not as uncommon a combination as it sounds), he became Maître de Ballet at Sadlers Wells and drilled his – and other people’s – children with a ruthlessness which, two hundred years later, would have found him in court facing child abuse charges. He died largely unmourned by everyone – but especially his nearest and dearest. Joe’s brother John immediately went to sea, so eager to leave England and the memories it held for him that he actually ditched all his possessions and swam out to a departing vessel. Many years later, he reappeared suddenly in Joe’s life, boasting of wealth and success, only to disappear again that same night, never to be seen again. The consensus of opinion was that he should have kept his mouth shut about how much money he was carrying, because he probably ended up dead in an alleyway.
Meanwhile, following his father’s unlamented passing, the young Joe took to the stage alone – slogging away in a stalled career, playing bit parts at both Drury Lane and Sadler’s Wells in one evening – running between the two and scattering the sheep in what was still a rural landscape as he went.
Finally, however, his comedic talent started to attract critical attention and gradually his star began to ascend. He steadily took on bigger and more prominent roles, culminating in his creation of the iconic Joey – the white-faced clown with which we are all now so familiar and which was to grant him immortality.
There is a (to me) chilling passage in the book where Stott describes Grimaldi experimenting with make up:
Day after day he sat before the mirror, brush in hand, marking his features, wiping them clean, and starting again, until finally a face emerged from the candlelight that bore a grin so incendiary it refused to be erased.
Grimaldi’s greatest triumph was in Thomas Dibdin’s pantomime Harlequin and Mother Goose – a theatrical confection so insanely convoluted that in spite of Stott devoting a good part of a chapter to a detailed explanation of the plot – and then adding the script as an appendix – I defy anybody to get a firm grip on what on earth it was actually about.
Pantomimes at that time were regular features of the London theatrical scene – not restricted to the Christmas season as they are now in England. They had a fairly standard cast of characters from the Commedia – Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon – with slew of supporting roles and the audience joining in enthusiastically. In fact, late Georgian audiences were rowdy, mercurial and entirely unpredictable. When the theatre at Covent Garden was rebuilt after a disastrous fire they tried to introduce new prices to recoup some of the cost and the resultant ‘Old Price’ riots – which included stage invasions. heckling and picketing – continued for over two months, until the management buckled and reinstated the old prices.
Eventually, pantomimes became the once-a-year Christmas events that they are today and clowns retreated to the circus ring – something I had never before appreciated – but in Grimaldi’s heyday, extravaganzas ruled the roost, with theatre managers competing with each other to stage ever more complex productions to woo the paying, baying public. Whole stages were tanked and filled with (increasingly foetid) water for re-enactments of sea battles. The child prodigy ‘Master Betty’ became a national obsession. At the age of 13 and at the completely unheard of fee of £100 per night (when the great John Philip Kemble was himself only on £35 per week) he was strutting the stage as Romeo, Richard III and Hamlet. Unsettlingly, the vast majority of his devoted followers were men – many of whom crowded into his dressing room after performances. Puberty felled him – along with the inevitable ennui that follows all crazes – and when his star had crashed, Joey the Clown was still there.
For all his public success however, Grimaldi’s private life was a disaster. Aside from the disappearance of his brother, he was completely feckless with money and preyed on by fraudsters. Because of his itinerant and unsettled childhood, he craved a stable family life, but his adored first wife died in childbirth, along with their unborn child, and his son by his far more robust second wife was a self-destructive drunk who perished squalidly under questionable circumstances. On top of that, the extremely physical nature of clowning – helped along by vindictive stage carpenters – took such a terrible toll on his body that even at the peak of his fame his poor health necessitated the creation of subsidiary characters to share some of the clown’s load, and he was a physical wreck before he was fifty.
The Pantomime World reveals Grimaldi as a wounded and driven man who was only truly at ease on stage, behind the famous painted face and that ‘incendiary’ grin – never more at peace with himself than when he was being somebody else: the paradox, in fact, that has haunted so many of the world’s finest actors for so long.
Canongate. 2009. ISBN: 978-1-84767-295-7. 433pp.