Georgian Era Theatre, History

Tears of a Clown – the Great Joseph Grimaldi

Joe Grimaldi as a clown by George Cruikshank

I was recently doing a bit of research on one of my main character’s co-stars, prompted by a photographic memory of a most unusual church service held in London every year which I attended. The service is attended by clowns in full costume, all in tribute to the man considered to be the ‘King of Clowns’ – Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837). His biography was edited by none other than the great Charles Dickens. Joseph was brought up in the world of theatre as his father, Joseph Giuseppe Grimaldi, was an actor and dancer – eventually becoming ballet master at Drury Lane Theatre. But his father was a vile and cruel man, fathering children from various mistresses. He was rumoured to have punished children at his dance school by placing them in cages suspended from the ground and was renowned for his bad temperament (those in the know called Grimaldi “Grim All Day”).

Miraculously, Joe came away from this troubled upbringing possessing his father’s great theatrical talent, but being a very kind-hearted, dedicated man. It was this reputation for kindness, and a possession of a saddened heart (his first wife died in childbirth) that drew me into writing him in as a supporting character in my novel An Actress of Repute. Joe Grimaldi was also married to the sister of my main character’s first ally at Drury Lane Theatre – Miss Bristow. Mr. Grimaldi continued to be an important co-star and colleague throughout Elizabeth Searle’s career – later following her move to Covent Garden Theatre and working together on their greatest theatrical success, the smash hit pantomime Mother Goose and the Golden Egg.

Sadly, Joe Grimaldi’s life continued to have more tragedy than mirth. For all the laughter and smiles he brought to the world, he was racked by depression and physical disability brought on by the physicality of his onstage acrobatics. His only child, a troubled son who was seeking to follow in his father’s theatrical footsteps, died before him. Unable to work, he was dependent on charity and lived his remaining years in poverty. His legacy does live on, however. There is a musical memorial near his grave, in a park named after him, not far from King’s Cross Station. Shaped like a coffin, you can ‘dance on his grave’ – the tiles playing the notes of his most famous song Hot Coddlins.

To learn more about the remarkable Mr. Grimaldi, I highly recommend Andrew McConnell Stott’s touching and highly readable biography – The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi. I found the book indispensable for helping me understand the backstage politics of London’s main theatres of the time. Miss Searle herself (and her future husband) actually get very brief mentions in the text, as does Elizabeth’s little brother Tom, along with insights into several of Miss Searle’s fellow actors and actresses. It was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and you can listen to some excerpts on Mr. McConnell Stott’s webpage: Literary Remains — Andrew McConnell Stott I had heard that a musical based on this biography was in the works a few years back, being developed by Daniel and Laura Curtis. I was pleased to see that there were casting sessions for the musical just last month, and I believe that the show is being developed for television as well. The soundtrack is available to listen to on Spotify, and other music services: The Pantomime Life Of Joseph Grimaldi – Single by Daniel and Laura Curtis | Spotify

Joseph Grimaldi by John Cawse 1807

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