‘There are no standards to compare him with or models to judge him by,’ Dickens wrote in his edition of Grimaldi’s Memoirs the year after the great clown’s death at the age of fifty-eight: ‘all his excellencies were his own … the genuine droll, the grimacing, filching, irresistible clown, left the stage with Grimaldi, and, though often heard of, has never since been seen’. In this attractively written and well-researched biography Andrew Stott, who teaches theatre history at the State University of New York in Buffalo, brings this extraordinary genius vividly before us, richly evoking the tumultuous life of the London theatre in the age of Sheridan and the Kembles. Pantomime at that period meant something very different from the Christmas family entertainment, with its cross-dressing pantomime dame and principal boy, into which it developed during the Victorian era and which is still with us today. In Grimaldi’s day pantomime was closely related to the Italian commedia dell’arte. It would begin with a story usually involving young love threatened or obstructed by some tyrannical older figure. Then, at a certain dramatic moment, the scene would open out into a harlequinade, when both the setting and the principal figures would be transformed by Harlequin’s magic wand into his beloved Columbine, her elderly guardian or suitor Pantaloon, and his unruly servant Clown. The rest of the entertainment would consist of Pantaloon’s frenetic pursuit of Harlequin in an effort, ultimately frustrated of course, to prevent his union with Columbine, a pursuit involving constant spectacular transformations of both settings and personages.
Grimaldi’s forebears were travelling acrobatic comedians originally from Italy. His father Giuseppe, always known as the Signor, arrived in England about 1760 and worked for Garrick. He soon became famous for the astounding leaps he performed as Clown in the pantomimes which Garrick found himself obliged by popular demand