David Crane

Behind the white face

Has there ever been a more compelling period in London’s history than the first years of the 19th century?

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The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi

Andrew McConnell Stott

Canongate, pp. 352, £

Has there ever been a more compelling period in London’s history than the first years of the 19th century?

Has there ever been a more compelling period in London’s history than the first years of the 19th century? There is, I suppose, a case to be made for the London of Shakespeare, but any city that can boast a Byron to look after its poetry, Sheridan its drinking, Hazlitt its journalism, Nash its architecture and Brummell the cut of its coat would certainly edge it for fun.

There was admittedly no Lancelot Andrewes to preach it into sobriety — it would have to make do with Sydney Smith — and no great statesman after the deaths of Fox and Pitt, but this lack of spiritual and political authority only added to the brew. Even at the best of times Georgian London was a notoriously volatile beast, and the ever-present threat of France abroad and a repressive Tory government at home brought a note of tension and danger to these years that was never far beneath the surface.

There are any number of ways into this dazzling, tawdry, elegant and brutal age — the satire of Gillray, the surface brilliance of Lawrence, the diaries of Haydon, the miseries of the Newgate Calendar — but perhaps nothing reflects its turbulent and contradictory character quite like its theatre. It is always tempting to see Regency culture in terms of what ‘the Smith of Smiths’ called the ‘Golden Parallelogram’, but beyond the narrow world of the great Whig hostesses and Albemarle Street lay a vast theatre-going public — anything up to 20,000 a night — of servants, nursery maids, petty crooks, errand boys and prostitutes for whom a Childe Harold or Lara were unknown extras in a cultural landscape over which the great comic creations of Joseph Grimaldi — the finest clown of his or possibly any age — held undisputed imaginative sway.

If it was an inspired choice of Andrew McConnell Stott to fix on the creator of ‘Joey’, white-face make-up and modern clowning however, there are problems in bringing to life an art that was as inevitably and deliberately ephemeral as Grimaldi’s. ‘Comedy performed is an untranscribable art,’ as Stott himself writes,

a mayfly living in the confluence of the moment that immediately dies. What kind of memorial could there ever be for someone who always operated in the present tense, whose very purpose was to catch his audience by surprise and viscerally alter the now? ‘To those who never saw him,’ wrote a contributor to Bentley’s Miscellany, ‘description is fruitless; to those who have, no praise comes up to their appreciation of him. We therefore shake our heads with other old boys, and say, ‘Ah! You should have seen Grimaldi!’

At first sight this would seem a bit of a ‘facer’ for a biographer, but while there are times when there can seem something of a hole at the heart of this story — a hole that no amount of ‘business’, no description of tricks, costume, trap-doors or greasepaint can ever quite fill — it scarcely seems to matter. Stott certainly does all that can be done to bring Grimaldi to life again, but the real strength of this brilliant history lies in its command of the world that Grimaldi inhabited and in its cameos of late Georgian theatrical life and the political and social world it reflected.

In many ways Grimaldi provides a perfect focus for this, too, because his career was coterminous with the golden period of London pantomime and his life with an age that only finally admitted defeat with the ascent of the young Victoria to the throne. The grandson of the great Giovanni ‘Iron Legs’ Grimaldi and the son of the vile ‘Signor’, the young Joe first went on the stage with his father at the age of two and a half in 1781, just one of that seemingly endless stream of emotionally and physically abused child-players that the dynastic world of the 18th-century theatre offered up to the great Moloch of popular entertainment.

With its savagely long hours, its financial precariousness, its jealousies and physical dangers, it was a harsh and unforgiving environment, but if it took its bodily and mental toll on Grimaldi he made it his own. At his final benefit he was not even able to stand to take the applause of his devoted audience, and yet in the 50-odd years between his first and last performances he had transformed the nature of English clowning, forging out of his private insecurities and miseries a tragi-comic identity that has become the inescapable clowning archetype down to the present day.

For Stott this is Grimaldi’s greatest and most enduring bequest to comedy, but he is too good an historian to psychoanalyse him out of his context. Grimaldi played his Wild Man — better than any Caliban in Hazlitt’s view — made his faces and effected his transformations in the age of the great theatrical rivalries between Drury Lane, Covent Garden and the Wells. This was the age of patriotic naval battles mocked up in giant tanks, of fabulous effects, equestrian entertainments, Gothic dramas, stage fatalities, violence, ‘infant prodigies’ and the ghastly Master William Betty. It was an age in which you were as likely to be burned, shot, robbed or trampled to death at the theatre as you were to be entertained, and Stott embraces it all. As a portrait of London life in all its mutinous and anarchic variety this book would be hard to beat; as a history of the pantomime it almost makes one want to go to one. Almost.