There was a time when the harlequin in the theatre plays, was just just “the fool”, and was never the main character. At least not until Joseph Grimaldi invented the harlequin with the face of what we know today as a clown. He was so successful that the clown became to be the character that the audience was going to the theatres. He is the one who invented the make-up of the clown as we know it today.
Grimaldi’s father taught him to act the characters in the harlequinade since Joseph was three. His first appearance was at the stage of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre was in 1780, and in 1781 the manager of Drury Lane cast him for the pantomime The Wizard of the Silver Rocks; or, Harlequin’s Release. Sheridan employed dozens of children, including Grimaldi, as extras at Drury Lane.
Grimaldi played the role of the Little Clown in the pantomime The Triumph of Mirth; or, Harlequin’s Wedding at Drury Lane which was a great success for him personally because the show became so popular among the audience that it had to run for an extended period of time.He became an established juvenile performer at Drury Lane and at the same time, he was a prolific performer at Sadler’s Wells.
While the Drury Lane Theatre got demolished in 1791 Grimaldi was loaned to the Haymarket Theatre, where performed nxt to the tenor Michael Kelly.
In 1794, when Grimaldi was 15 years old the new Drury Lane Theatre opened, and he got his job back. That year he played in many shows including Valentine and Orson and after two years he played the role of Hag Morad in the Thomas John Dibdin Christmas pantomime The Talisman; or, Harlequin Made Happy at Sadler’s Wells and received rave reviews.
In 1796 Grimaldi met Maria Hughes, the eldest daughter of the proprietor of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, and they got married after three years of love romance. During this period Grimaldi appeared in a succession of shows including A Trip to Scarborough (as a countryman) and Rule a Wife and Have a Wife (as a maid).
With the new management policy of Drury Lane, the annual Christmas pantomime was canceled, and Grimaldi had to find a place to entertain the audience for the month of holidays. However, his father-in-law got him a place at Sadler’s Wells, where he played roles in several Charles Dibdin plays and made a huge impression, especially in Dibdin’s Easter 1800 pantomime, Peter Wilkins: or Harlequin in the Flying World at which new costumes were designed.
He showed up with oversized clothes, wildly patterned version of the shirt, ruff, and pantaloons he had worn at school, with child’s slippers and a tower of colored wigs. Then came the face, with its red mouth, rouged cheeks, and curving eyebrows.
“Day after day,” writes Andrew McConnell Stott, “he sat before the mirror, brush in hand, marking his features, wiping them clean, and starting again, until finally, a face emerged from the candlelight that bore a grin so incendiary it refused to be erased.”
The production was a hit, and the new costume design was copied by others in London. Despite Dubois’ “endless bag of tricks and a vast array of skills”, his performance appeared artificial, in contrast to Grimaldi, who was better able to “draw the audience into believing the essential comedic qualities” of Clown.
In 1806 he joined Covent Garden Theatre, where, in the pantomime Harlequin Mother Goose, and again he enjoyed the success of his performance. In this production, he created a new type of clown combining rogue and simpleton, criminal and innocent dupe in one character, a role subsequently adopted by many other English clowns. His whiteface makeup and impudent thievery became the norm for all pantomime clowns (“Joeys”) who came after.
The Times noted in 1813:
“Grimaldi is the most assiduous of all imaginable buffoons and it is absolutely surprising that any human head or hide can resist the rough trials he volunteers. Serious tumbles from serious heights, innumerable kicks, and incessant beatings come on him as matters of common occurrence, and leave him every night fresh and free for the next night’s flagellation.”
In 1816 Grimaldi terminated his relationship with the Sadler’s Wells Theatre but two years later purchased a part interest in it.
Unfortunately, all of his work cost him his health and in 1822 he was already unable to fulfill his remaining commitments at Covent Garden. The stage, the audience, the public, nobody wanted him away from the theatre so in 1825 he became the assistant manager at Sadler’s Wells and in 1828 he gave his last public performance.
Grimaldi retired from the stage in 1823. The years of extreme physical exertion his clowning had involved had taken a toll on his joints, and he suffered from a respiratory condition that often left him breathless. Although officially retired, Grimaldi still received half of his former small salary from Drury Lane until 1824. Soon after the fee stopped, Grimaldi fell into poverty after some ill-conceived business ventures and because he had entrusted the management of his provincial earnings to people who cheated him.
On 31 May 1837, he spent a convivial evening entertaining fellow patrons at the house of The Marquis of Cornwallis, and he drank to excess. He returned home that evening and was found dead in bed by his housekeeper the following morning. The coroner recorded that he had “died by the visitation of God.” Grimaldi was buried in St. James’s Churchyard, Pentonville, on 5 June 1837. The burial site and the area around it were later named Joseph Grimaldi Park.
At the height of his powers, Grimaldi was considered to have no equal as a comedic performer. His memoirs were edited by Charles Dickens in 1838.