Joseph Grimaldi

* This article appeared in the June issue of The Regency Reader.

"He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." These words, one of my all-time favorite opening lines, were meant to describe the protagonist in Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche. But they could as well be an apt portrayal of Joe Grimaldi, the Regency period's beloved Clown.

Joseph Grimaldi was born December 18, 1778, son of Signor Joseph Grimaldi, ballet-master at Drury Lane and Rebecca Brooker, a dancer in the Drury Lane corps de ballet. Much of his life is cloaked in mystery, his original autobiography lost.

Little Joe Grimaldi made his stage debut on Easter Monday, 1781, at Sadler's Wells, with his older half-sister, Mary. From then until he retired in 1823, ill, exhausted, and crippled, Grimaldi was a frequent presence on the stage.

True to the traditions of the clown, his life contained as much tragedy as triumph. His father was a brutal and eccentric man who drove Joe hard and beat him and his younger brother when they didn't measure up to his demands. His death when Joe was nine caused financial difficulties for the family, but in every other way lightened their lives.

As a very young man, Joe fell in love and married Maria, the daughter of the principal proprietor of Sadler's Wells. Their happy life together was short, for Maria Grimaldi died in childbirth a year and a half after their marriage. He found solace in throwing himself into his performances, and eventually in another marriage. Although Grimaldi apparently did not love Mary, his second wife, he found contentment with her and she gave him a son.

Their son, Joseph Samuel Grimaldi, showed promise of having his father's talent, but even that turned sour in the end. Soon after the Joe retired, J.S. Grimaldi, as he was known, fell into a life of dissipation and drunkenness, and died at the age of thirty.

Joe made two farewell appearances, at Sadler's Wells on St. Patrick's Day 1828, and at Drury Lane June 28, 1828. A cheering crowd came to say goodbye to the beloved actor, whose prodigious talent was the guiding force behind pantomime in the Regency period. He died May 31, 1837, on the brink of the Victorian era.

* About Judith Laik: If Judith had realized the difficulties her characters would face in putting on a pantomime for their entertainment at a country house party, she never would have made them do it.