by Anthony Waldstock
The Clown from whom all clowns have come to be known as “Joey” died in London on May 31st 1837. He was born 58 years earlier to the mistress of a 58 year-old dancer and pantaloon. The father was both cruel and ambitious and had the young child make his first stage appearance as an infant dancer in 1781. For the next seven years the young Joey endured a harsh upbringing. Never seeming to live up to his father’s he was beaten regularly. In later life he attributed one of his earliest triumphs to the tears that followed a particularly harsh beating. He went on to become one of the greatest and best-loved figures in the history of English Pantomime.
Joseph Grimaldi 1779 – 1837
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Joey Grimaldi was the greatest clown of them all. Today we associate clowns with the circus but for almost a century “Clown” was the principal and best loved character of the original English Pantomime. There simply was no Pantomime without Clown. His roots lie in the Harlequin of the Commedia dell’ Arte which flourished in mediæval Italy.
Joey Grimaldi’s own roots were firmly in the theatre of Restoration England. His father was Giuseppe (Iron Legs) Grimaldi a dancer and Pantaloon who was well known for his agility and bad manners. At the age of sixty, triumphed in the energetic role of Harlequin Friday or Robinson Crusoe which had a record run. In December 1779, two years before that triumph he was at the centre of a backstage sensation at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Just as the dress rehearsal for the Pantomime was reaching its denouement news arrived that his 25 year-old mistress had just presented him with a son. Joey Grimaldi’s entrance into the world was truly a fitting one.
During the ribald merriment that followed the unexpected announcement Giuseppe boasted to his fellow performers that he would have the boy on the stage as soon as he could walk. He did. The young Joey made his debut at the age of two years and four months on April 16th 1781 as an infant dancer. It was the beginning of a long and triumphant career. But the boy’s upbringing was a harsh one and the beatings were regular. But even here, the adult Joey could recall that some good came out of them.
He attributed his first real success to one of those beatings. It had been a particularly brutal one and he was still sobbing bitterly when he had to make his entrance. The tears had made deep runnels in his make-up and his grotesquely comic appearance when he faced the audience reduced the house to a general roar of laughter. Old Giuseppe was furious and set about the child again. The audience thought it was all part of the performance and bursts of applause and howls of laughter filled the house. A newspaper report on the performance noted that “it was perfectly wonderful to see a child perform so naturally” and found it highly creditable to the talents of his father as a teacher!
Grimaldi senior died in 1788 but Joey was by then engaged in regular appearances at Drury Lane in the winter, Sadler’s Wells in the summer and at Hoxton. The latter is perhaps now forgotten but the fields in what was then a rural area were licensed to be open each year from Easter Monday to September “for the production of dancing, singing and musical pieces”. For the rest of his working life, Joey was to spend all but one of his summer seasons at Sadler’s Wells
The Wells did not always treat the man who was to become one of their greatest assets as well as they might. In fact, as soon as Grimaldi senior died the management cut Joey’s salary from fifteen shillings a week to a miserable three. He could not afford to refuse it and for the next three years his salary remained at that small pittance. During this time besides his stage appearances he was expected to work backstage “occasionally superintending the property-room, sometimes assisting in the carpenters and sometimes in the painters, and, in fact, lending a hand wherever it was most needed”.
Fortune smiled on the 20 year old Grimaldi when Charles Dibdin Jnr. took over the management of Sadler’s Wells in 1799. He later recalled that when he first took up the management of the Wells, his attention was called to the young man by the theatre’s principal director, Richard Hughes. “Mr Hughes had told me that I should find him to be a very clever lad, and begged that I would cultivate his talents as much as I possibly could”. In 1800 Dibdin gave him the part of one of the two Clowns in his Peter Wilkins or Harlequin in the Flying World. Grimaldi, who took the part of Guzzle “the drinking Clown” opposite Baptiste Dubois, a stage veteran of forty years, as Gobble “the eating Clown”. Grimaldi wore a costume which was more extravagant and parti-coloured than usual. He also changed the standard ruddy Clown makeup for a white face with two red half-moons on the cheeks – the make-up still worn by clowns to this day.
In 1806 Grimaldi left the Drury Lane theatre and move to the rival Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Here, in Harlequin Mother Goose or The Golden Egg, he had his first great success. He had now developed the Clown character as a greedy, amoral schoolboy who was out to satisfy his appetites. The character’s exuberant optimism was that of the survivor and Grimaldi drew great fun from the overthrow of every-day inhibitions. His entering cry of “Here we are again!” has come down as the catch-phrase of all clowns to this day.
In 1817, Grimaldi had a disagreement with the Management of Sadler’s Wells and was replaced for the summer season – the only one he missed at that theatre throughout his career. However, there was a public outcry when he failed to appear. The words “Joey for Ever” were chalked on walls al over the area and a demonstration of support was held outside his home. As a consequence the Sadler’s Wells theatre lost a total of £2,534 and is small wonder that Joey was back in triumph for the next season.
Like his father before him, Grimaldi was an energetic actor and over-exertion left him practically crippled by 1823 and he was forced to retire in 1824. Four years later he made his very last appearance at a special farewell benefit performance at Drury Lane. The Clowns of England, including his own son, arrived to pay homage and filled the stage with motley. Wracked with pain, Joey had to sit in centre stage in the familiar red, white and blue livery of Clown, with his whitened face, red painted cheeks and blue cockscomb to play his last scene and sing his last song. He died in 1837 just when a new era was about to begin with Victoria’s accession to the throne.
To his contemporaries, Joey Grimaldi was “The Garrick of the Clowns” – “The Jupiter of the Practical Joke” – “The Michelangelo of Buffoonery”. They said that he could achieve with one look more than any of his rivals could achieve with the most elaborate transformations. He seldom spoke on stage but every limb spoke a rich language. When he did speak it was usually no more than one word or a monosyllable and it was as if some overwhelming sensation had forced the word from his mouth.
His memoirs were edited by Charles Dickens: Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi