I first found the book in my local library. Having an interest in theatre history, and especially such folk theatre traditions as the Italian Commedia dell' Arte, which helped to inspire the English pantomime, I was intrigued to discover a biography of the most famous and influential English Clown. What I wasn't expecting was a story that would move and inspire me. Joseph Grimaldi instantly became one of my heroes.
Richard Findlater had little to go on when he decided to research the life of the great Clown of the Sadler's Wells theatre who became the leading light of the Regency pantomime. Grimaldi himself had written his Memoirs, later in life, and these were edited by none other than Charles Dickens, but the Memoirs are a curious blend of make-believe and misremembered anecdotes. They don't really tell us who Joe Grimaldi was.
Joseph Grimaldi, without the distinctive grease paint
Findlater had another problem: the theatre is an ephemeral art, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the performance of comedy. A few scripts might remain; prints and portraits might survive (some prints of Grimaldi in action were hugely popular in the London of the early 19th century), and the occasional recollections of someone who saw the Clown at the height of his uproarious powers might give a hint of his genius. But how to capture that lightning in a bottle - the particular improvisational skills that, along with his ferocious energy, made Joe Grimaldi such a star?
Somehow or other, Richard Findlater achieved the impossible. Although we can still struggle to imagine precisely what it was that Grimaldi did so well, the atmosphere of the theatre at the time is conjured up so expertly that the reader can almost see Joey the Clown in his element. He is muscular and elastic, as if he had no bones in his body. His whitened face, daubed with reddened cheeks and wearing a coxcomb or bobbing antennae, is a lugubrious combination of twinkling, mischievous eyes and a great, wide oven mouth. He "mugs" - grimacing and winking - and he bounds across the stage in enormous strides. He transforms himself, and anything else around him, challenging every rule in the book. He fights, he dances, he tumbles. He makes you laugh - King George IV once burst his stays laughing at Grimaldi's antics - and he can make you cry. And in that, Findlater's charming biography matches the stage genius: his life of Grimaldi inspires admiration, sympathy, excitement and heartache.
Born into a theatrical family, just a week before Christmas in 1778, young Joe first appeared on stage when he was barely two and a half years old. His father - a tyrannical, melancholic character, obsessed with a phobia of premature burial - introduced him to "skin work", which required the child to perform as a monkey, cat or dog. During one performance, "Old Grim" was swinging his young son around the stage by a chain attached to his waist. The chain snapped, and the boy was flung out into the stalls, landing on a very fat gentleman in the audience. Young Grimaldi was, fortunately, unhurt - but it was the first of many theatrical accidents which, combined with the unimaginable exertions that made Grimaldi's act so extraordinary, eventually conspired to ruin him physically.
For all his tremendous success, and the fondness of the theatre-going public in that volatile age, tragedy and misfortune dogged Grimaldi's life and career. Fastidious in refusing to fall into any "tears of the clown" traps, Richard Findlater covered the emotional blows which struck Grimaldi so often with a neat combination of directness and delicacy. Moreover, his portrait of Joe the actor, and Joey the Clown, assembled from a thousand minor details, is such a winning picture of a gentle, kind and unassuming man that the reader's sympathies are surely aroused. We celebrate his triumphs, and we feel his agonies.
Among the high-points is the story of a seaman who, after suffering a bout of sunstroke, had been deaf and dumb for several years. His friends took him to see Grimaldi on stage. Partway through the hilarity the seaman turned to his nearest companion and remarked on what a "damned funny fellow" the Clown was. His companion gawped - "What? You can talk?" "Aye," said the seaman; "and I can hear, too!" A great cheer went up from the sailors. Grimaldi's fooling had cured a deaf and dumb man.
There are so many gems in Findlater's loving biography that one is spoilt for choice. The juxtaposition of the farcical and the dramatic, the uplifting and the downright tragic, makes for a very special read. Whenever I have immersed myself in Grimaldi King of Clowns I have warmed to Joe Grimaldi, often without realising it, and before I know it I am suffering along with him the loss of his loved ones and the physical incapacity which cut short his astonishing career. So I will sign off with something that is only touched upon at the end of the book.
Every year, in January, clowns gather at a London church to celebrate the life of the King of Clowns, who died 180 years ago. The rest of the world might have forgotten him, but the professional fools of the circus still honour Joe Grimaldi, the greatest clown that England has ever known. And thanks to Richard Findlater, who combined detailed research with an easy narrative touch, the life of this wonderful, fascinating man is available to anyone who fancies a trip back to that ludicrous, gluttonous, chaotic period in our country's past and a few evenings spent in the company of a man who gave everything to make people laugh.
The grave of Joseph Grimaldi,
Joseph Grimaldi Park,
St James Churchyard,
(photo by Cassiato)
This is the first of an occasional series in which Simon Andrew Stirling discusses historical nonfiction and those biographies that have most impressed and inspired him. Simon is the author of The King Arthur Conspiracy and Who Killed William Shakespeare?, both of which are available from Amazon. He is an experienced public speaker and lecturer, a trained actor and professional dramatist who also works as a script consultant.
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