Joseph Grimaldi (1778–1837) was the most celebrated comic entertainer of the Regency age. He developed the role of clown from the simple buffoon of the ‘harlequinades’ of the time, and his whiteface make-up set a tradition still familiar today.
Born into a London family of entertainers, he was onstage from childhood, becoming the family breadwinner aged nine when his father died. Making his name at Sadler’s Wells and Drury Lane theatres, he graduated in his 20s to Regency pantomime.
This was a very different entertainment to that of today. A fairytale first half was followed by a ‘harlequinade’ second half with frenetic action involving four regular characters: acrobatic Harlequin, his lover Columbine, and their enemies Pantaloon and Clown – the role Grimaldi made his own.
His onstage success was balanced by offstage depression, confirmed by his own quip ‘I am grim-all-day, but I make you laugh at night’. The lifestyle and physical demands of his work – not helped by a high-spending wife and light-fingered accountant – took its toll, and Grimaldi died aged 45 with his memoirs, produced with the help of a hack called Thomas Wilks, incomplete.
To finish the project, a reluctant Charles Dickens (1812–1870) was brought in – he considered the draft ‘twaddle’. Produced in a hurry and by dictation, the final edit was published in 1838. It enjoyed many reprints – this edition dates from 1883 – with illustrations by Dickens’s regular collaborator George Cruikshank (1792–1878).