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The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott


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.

11 comments on “The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott

  1. annebrooke
    July 29, 2011

    What a fascinating story – and an obviously very complex man! This sounds gripping …


  2. Lisa
    July 29, 2011

    Gosh, what a life. I agree with Anne that it does sound gripping, but also very sad. I’m not a fan of clowns either, and think I would have given this book a miss in a bookshop (the cover creeps me out for one thing) but I would’ve missed out on a real gem it seems. Great review.

  3. ChrisCross53
    July 30, 2011

    I’ve always found clowns rather spooky, but this does sound fascinating.

  4. Philippe
    July 30, 2011

    “…….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……”

    Given that the life of an 18th/19th clown would be hardly anyone’s cup of tea, a biography of such a personage would, arguably, never find a publisher unless it read like a well-written novel, which this particular biography appears to be like.

  5. Hilary
    July 31, 2011

    Excellent review, Moira – thank you! Count me in as another finding clowns sinister, frightening and desperately unfunny, I’ve shunned them since childhood. Incendiary – what a brilliant, unlikely word to describe that smile. It had never occurred to me to wonder where the archetypal clown came from, and I’m surprised to find out that it is from the stage, and only later from the circus.

    Poor, poor Grimaldi – what a sad and painful life.

  6. Moira
    July 31, 2011

    Is there ANYBODY out there who likes clowns?

  7. Philippe
    August 1, 2011

    The sad lot of the clown was sung of in “Death of a Clown”, by *Dave Davies of The Kinks*.

    My makeup is dry and it clags on my chin
    I’m drowning my sorrows in whisky and gin
    The lion tamer’s whip doesn’t crack anymore
    The lions they won’t fight and the tigers won’t roar……..

  8. Jackie
    August 1, 2011

    This sounds like a very dark book, but very realistic about the time & place. CGI is much easier on the actors than those stage sets must’ve been. I wonder if the white makeup on clowns/European stages developed simultaneously or after the Kabuki theatre in Japan? Is there any connection, either time-wise or in meaning between the two? Yes, I know my question is a bit off subject & probably something that needs to be researched; just a random association, really.
    Count me in with those who dislike clowns, or circuses. I know why I don’t like circuses, but not clowns. I believe I found clowns phony, their forced gaiety irritating. When I was little, Emmett Kelly was very popular on variety shows on TV, such as Ed Sullivan & the contrast between the clown make-up & his sad demeanor was supposed to be funny, but I found it off putting. I also wonder if the clown make-up makes it harder for me to read expressions, which is essential for a hearing-impaired person, so maybe there’s something unconscious about it too?

  9. Moira
    August 2, 2011

    I somehow doubt that Kabuki had any influence on the European white-faced clowns Jax. Unless I’m mis-remembering, Japan didn’t start to open up to the West until the end of the 19th Century – and then not very much, so in Grimaldi’s time (1778-1837) it’s highly unlikely they would even have known about Kabuki let alone seen it. I suspect it’s more connected to masquerade and the Commedia dell’Arte … the white pancake make-up being a painted-on mask. But I am quite prepared to be put right by someone who actually KNOWS.

    And I’m pretty sure the reason so many people are uncomfortable with clowns is the painted face – the expression of which can be completely at odds with the expression on the face underlying it.

  10. Hilary
    August 3, 2011

    What an interesting observation, Jackie, that hearing-impaired people are so aware of the importance of being able to read expressions. I think that could be a very strong sub-conscious reason to find clowns disconcerting. I wonder if for some children there is a time before this awareness becomes fully developed, when the smile of a clown is genuine, and not something to raise doubts and confusion in the mind.

  11. RosyB
    August 8, 2011

    I always hated clowns as a child but I think it’s the brash British clowns that can be so alienating. The most beautiful piece of theatre I ever saw in my life is Slava’s “The Snow Show”. It is beautiful and funny and sad at the same time. It deals with loneliness, sadness, imagination and isolation- and when I saw it was one of the most profound theatre experiences I’ve ever had.
    And that is a whole different sort of clown – he’s Russian I think and his clowns have the moving quality of animals or small children – although still anarchic and outsidery – it’s hard to describe – but not the more brashly cheerful but violent and anarchic clowns we know from the circus. Absolutely amazing show.

    Also Lecoq clowning from France has inspired other brilliant clowning that I think would make all the clown-haters on here reconsider.

    “Dublin by Lamplight” by Corn Exchange in Dublin was a brilliant example of a show that used facial “masks” and commedia-inspired technique to produce a really powerful piece of theatre. and the darkness of the clown is part of what they use to get this powerful dark feel.

    There is a lot of absolutely brilliant “clowning” and “clowns” in the theatre and I think the kind of children’s party clown is just one type – and shouldn’t be thought of as what clowning is all about.

    Clowns also can touch on poverty and the isolation of the outsider – which I think Snow Show does. Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp character is very much a commedia-inspired clown. In its early manifestation his was a slightly violent, anarchic clown that kicked police men up the bum (this stuff was MASSIVELY popular with audiences of the time) but in films like The Gold Rush, the same character is starving and so poor he fantasises that his boot being a hearty meal and treats his shoelaces like spaghetti – twirling them joyously with his fork with such elegance…it is very funny but horribly sad and poignant. And in Modern Times and The Kid and those big Chaplin films, he uses this sad funny clown to really say something about society and about poverty and takes the other side of the clown – the poignant sad profound side – and does something truly great (as well as funny) with it.

    So – unlike everyone else, I’m a clown fan. Because all of the above constitutes some great parts of culture and the examples I’ve listed (and many more) are on a level with any art-form. And that’s from someone who never enjoyed circus clowns or children’s entertainer clowns.

    My thought for the day, though, is that the anarchic violent happy circus clown is as important an image/cultural figure though. I think it is no coincidence that a lot of these figures were massively popular when people really were stuck in situations, hierarchies, poverty, under oppressive authority bearers…I doubt anyone would laugh at kicking a policeman up the bum now, but in times gone by that would be a really big statement and a reversal of the hierarchy for people who didn’t have much power. I think it is no coincidence that this kind of clown can be popular with kids who are also rather powerless and probably enjoy seeing their authority figures mocked and those rules overturned for a bit. There is a touch of the violent and maleavolent about this sort of clown – they aren’t totally “safe” and I think that has always been part of it. There is a maleavolence and perhaps they do express an anger under that painted mask (back to kicking policemen in the past – there is an anger in that is there not?

    (On a side note – think of things like Punch and Judy – also for kids and also using commedia types or commedia-inspired characters. A kids show about dreadful domestic violence? About battering and cruelty? And – oh yes – a policeman again is a stock character who gets beaten up too. And not to mention the baby. It’s fascinating what the history of Punch and Judy must be and why so many kids loved and related to it – just for the overturning of hierarchy and the battering? Or did many kids in those times see a lot of domestic violence and our audience “revenge” on the appaling wife-battering Punch is pleasing as a way of expressing anger and seeing him punished? Does the audience actually relate to Punch as an anarchic figure or do they want to see him get a come-uppance?)

    I think the comedia clown tradition has gone into modern comedy in different ways and is still very much there and is a requirement we have of our comedians – to express our anger as well as making us laugh.

    Vic and Bob would be the equivalent of lovable anarchic clowns now, I suppose (of the not particularly disturbing variety). Although we use them to clown about with celebrities rather than anyone important – but still people put on pedestals. But there can be darker anarchic equivalents -and perhaps all comedy is like this at the end of the day – painted smiles and deeper realities…just to varying extents.

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