A story is told that in 1806 a man goes to visit a doctor who is acclaimed for his ability to treat melancholia. “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep,” says the man. “I feel constantly miserable. Please help me, doctor.”
“Laughter is the best medicine, my friend,” says the doctor. “Take yourself off to Covent Garden Theatre* where you will find The Great Grimaldi performing in Harlequin and Mother Goose; or the Golden Egg. It is exquisitely funny and will cure you of all your ills without any pills or potions from my cabinet.”
The man looks at the doctor for a moment. “Ah,” he says. “That won’t help.”
“Why not, sir?”
The man shrugs. “I am Grimaldi.”
Apocryphal or no, I have little doubt the story’s origins go much further back. It would not surprise me if it was first told in Ancient Greece about an actor performing in one of Aristophanes’ comedies. It is a tale that has been attached to several comedians since, not least Dan Leno, whose depression was also legendary.
Joseph Grimaldi came from a line of Italian dancers and performers but was born and brought up in London. It is he we have to thank for the prominence of clowns in entertainment and for British pantomime existing in the form it does. A master craftsman when it came to performing in Commedia dell’Arte, an Italian style that became popular in the 16th century, Grimaldi’s antics in 19th-century Harlequinades transformed the clowning to such an extent that the clown ended up replacing the character of Harlequin.
The It’s Behind You site says this about his performance in the doctor-recommended Harlequin and Mother Goose:
The lack of great theatrical scenes allowed Grimaldi to project himself to the fore ‘he shone with unimpeded brilliance’ once critic wrote. Another marvelled at his performance ‘whether he robbed a pieman, opened an oyster, rode a giant carthorse, imitated a sweep, grasped a red-hot poker……. in all this he was extravagantly natural!’
Next time you go to a Christmas pantomime and sing along, think back to The Great Grimaldi for it was he whose comic songs were so popular that they became a permanent fixture in pantomime. And if you’ve ever wondered why clowns are so often called Joey, think again of Grimaldi.
Andrew McConnell Stott, who has recently written a biography of Grimaldi — The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian — writes:
The audience was in hysterics. Grimaldi had been their idol since he first came to prominence in 1806, having been thrust into the highest sphere of celebrity with a virtuoso comic performance in the original production of Mother Goose, a show that took record profits and ran for longer than any other pantomime in history. Its success brought him national recognition, enormous fees, and a social circle that included Lord Byron, Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean, Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis and the entire Kemble family. The critics Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt sang his praises, the young Charles Dickens edited his Memoirs….”
Having retired in 1823 from ill-health and exhaustion — ‘I have overleaped myself’ — Grimaldi ran out of money in 1828, though he was then helped by a yearly pension of £100 from the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund, and various benefit performances were staged to help him. He spent his remaining years in great pain from a body that he had pushed to the limit.
When he died in 1837, The London Illustrated News despaired that audiences would ever look upon his like again. It’s Behind You quotes from the periodical:
Grimaldi is dead and hath left no peer… We fear with him the spirit of pantomime has disappeared.
Joseph Grimaldi is buried in the courtyard of St James’s Chapel in Pentonville and is commemorated every year on the first Sunday in February at the Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, The Clowns’ Church, with the Joseph Grimaldi Memorial Service. Since 1967, clowns have been able to attend the service wearing their costumes.
*Now The Royal Opera House
Take care and keep laughing!