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Reblogged to commemorate Grimaldi’s death on this day, 31st May, 1837. Click through to buy the greeting card or postcard and to get the joke!

Joseph Grimaldi, Clown 1778-1837 © First Night Design

Joseph Grimaldi, Clown 1778-1837 © First Night Design

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…

via First Night Design | Joseph Grimaldi, Clown 1778–1837 | First Night Design

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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.”

Grimaldi in 1819 by J.E.T. Robinson

Grimaldi in 1819 by J.E.T. Robinson

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.

Grimaldi by John Cawse

Grimaldi by John Cawse

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's grave

Joseph Grimaldi’s grave

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!

Sarah

Related articles

‘By the time this post appears I’ll be in Italy preparing to direct Jack & the Beanstalk for the biennial Venice pantomime, so it seems an appropriate time to write about the man who shaped the pantomime dame as we know her today: the great Dan Leno.

Dan started life as George Galvin, the child of two struggling music hall performers and if he wasn’t quite born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre, he was certainly soon a part of his parents’ endlessly travelling, bread-line existence. At the age of three he made his stage début as Little George, the Infant Wonder Contortionist and Posturer.

In the 1860s childhood was a brief affair in even the most comfortable of families. In show-business it was over as soon as a child could walk onto a stage ….’

via The History Girls: There is Nothing Like a Dame, says Laurie Graham.

******

For fans of vintage theatre, visit my First Night Vintage store for Dan Leno and many more performers.

See also Dan Leno in Mother Goose at Drury Lane in 1902.

Take care and keep laughing!

Sarah


Dan Leno

Mr Dan Leno Cards
Mr Dan Leno Cards by FirstNightVintage

Dan Leno was one of the most famous music hall comedians of his time (1860–1904) and was the forerunner of them all, the inspiration for many comedians and actors since.

This image comes from an original theatrical postcard in my collection which shows him playing pantomime dame in a 1902 production of Mother Goose at Drury Lane under the management of Augustus Harris.

A friend of mine, the actor and playwright Stewart Permutt, who has written a play about Leno, said to me in a 2003 interview  for my theatre site Rogues & Vagabonds that Leno “just played [his Dames] terribly truthfully and if you hear recordings of him, it sounds like a little lady.”  “He wasn’t gay, he wasn’t camp, he wasn’t Danny La Rue,’ added Stewart, stressing that Leno played his women, his dames, “absolutely for real”.  “He didn’t put on a silly voice or anything like that.”

Leno’s contemporary, the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm-Tree, once said to one of his leading ladies, Constance Collier, that if Dan Leno had played Richard III, he would have been the greatest Richard ever.

Take care and keep laughing!

Sarah

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