Found books 1: Dickens' clown


This may seem an odd choice for the opening number in a series about theatre books. An unreliable memoir of a forgotten figure who performed in a genre we rarely see. It's not, I guess, an essential text. But Charles Dickens' Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, reissued by the enterprising Pushkin Press in a chubby little volume, gets to the heart of the theatre-going experience. It's both about our need for entertainment - all sorts of entertainment, high and low, sometimes all at once - and our desire for stars' lives to track their material, for the performance to continue offstage.

Grimaldi was England's most popular clown in the early 19th century. He performed in rib-tickling interludes and vivid pantomimes - sometimes running in costume between two theatres in the same evening. His comedy was arduously physical, but particularly characterful - Dickens notes that he was a 'humorous' rather than a 'tumbling' clown.

The book was assembled from Grimaldi's notes after his death - Dickens was the second journalist to take a crack at the material, so it is essentially a piece of superior hack-work by the young author of The Pickwick Papers. And he instinctively gives the life a theatrical shape. As Vera Rule's review observes, he strings together 'a sequence of emotional catastrophes like a script for a melodrama,' even including a reunion with the long-lost brother who ran away to sea and then vanishes without trace once again. Here too is an image of the clown whose painted smile masks his tears: when Grimaldi's young wife dies early in their marriage, he returns to work, 'chalking over the seams which mental agony had worn in his face.'

What else is to love? Find out after the click:

Dickens adored the theatre, and his early novels are like rumbustious mixed bills - farce and sentiment, colourful character turns and sensational melodrama. He dissolves the distinction between high art and popular entertainment, as did the theatre of his time. Grimaldi's pantomime might share a bill with As You Like It, while Macbeth was followed by a musical finale called The Quaker. It's not that Georgian audiences were undiscriminating: more that they had impressively omnivorous tastes.

The Memoirs give a quiet sense of a lost theatrical culture (for example, there's a brief glimpse of an actor called Davis, 'the best stage Jew upon the boards': what kind of a career was that?). And the book is also a hymn to London, which grew to engulf the area around the Wells during Grimaldi's career. No more is it surrounded by fields used for the cruel sport of ox-driving. Grimaldi, like Dickens, loved to explore unfamiliar parts of the capital - on one stroll he discovers an abandoned purse stuffed with cash, like a reward for pedestrianism. This is just one of many endearingly picaresque incidents: Grimaldi is continually tangling with burglars, con artists, spendthrifts-turned-highwaymen and, in a celebrity cameo, Lord Byron.

Sadler's Wells no longer offers evenings stuffed with a jostle of raggle-taggle delights. But, as London's most imaginatively-programmed dance theatre it is probably the venue I visit most often. And a memory of Grimaldi is close by, as I discovered when a friend introduced me to the snug Harlequin pub round the back, a cosy refuge with the text of his farewell to the theatre on the wall.

Suggestions for future columns are always welcome, people. What should I be reading? What are the books on theatre and dance that mean most to you?

October 16, 2008 5:47 PM | | Comments (3) |

3 Comments

think the peculiar tone of the grimaldi book comes from its construction as a sequence of scenes in what should be incompatible tones — you'll laugh! you'll cry! you'll exclaim what, what, WHAT! — you can see the fancy typefaces on the bill — that are made compatible by a flattening of the time dimension. they all seem to be in a continuous present, as performing is — like film footage, they're always now. (and now is where the poor have always lived.) when the special effect of the past is required, dickens does it as a vignette, an SFX miniature, to cheat on the distance. the tone also reads like a telly interview — even when the past is being talked about, what matters is the present personality before your very eyes.

Sherry, that's fantastic. Do let us know how the play goes. The Grimaldi revival starts here...

This is great news ! I'm working on a play about Grimaldi!!!

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on October 16, 2008 5:47 PM.

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