Friday, July 13, 2012

The Mystery of Joseph Grimaldi

Joseph Grimaldi ruled the London stage, and the hearts of the London people, from 1806 until 1830.  He it was who first trod the boards in complete white face – giving the world, and especially the nascent circus, its first true clown.  Before then the performers who plied their trade as comedians made themselves up as rustic bumpkins, with reddened cheeks and bulbous nose to denote a lifetime spent outdoors in the brutal elements, constantly nipping on moonshine.

  But Grimaldi did not care for that type of character, thinking it too close to the reality of rural poverty and suffering to be of true universal humor.  So he borrowed from the Italian Commedia dell’arte, the folklore of Till Eulenspiegal, and the French Rabelasians to create a fantastic zany, so far removed from the purlieus of common human existence that his character could get away with blatant lese majesty and many other types of behavior considered licentious because he did not seem to be of this world, and thus could not be blamed for his ignorance of the limits of good taste, or even treason!  Grimaldi’s pantomime burlesques of royalty and his hysterical battles with fishmongers and other minions of the middle class onstage compelled audiences to love him as they nearly choked with laughter.  Charles Dickens wrote “Once you have seen Grimaldi, you have seen all there is to comedy!”

A mystery has always surrounded Grimaldi’s premature retirement at the age of 49, and his death several years later.  The reason given, by his biographer Charles Dickens, is vague; it is stated merely as “ill health due to his strenuous work as a clown on the London stage.”

It is true that so great was the demand for his unparalleled comic talents that he often was engaged at 2 theaters at once, on the same night, and would have to run, in makeup and costume, between the 2 theaters several times each night.

Still, all contemporary reports state that Grimaldi had a robust constitution and never seemed to tire of committing his strenuous lunacy in front of an audience.

Modern theater scholars are beginning to wonder if Grimaldi wasn’t poisoned.

By his own son . . .

Some scholars are beginning to think that the makeup Grimaldi used to whiten his face was an old Italian recipe of bees wax, paraffin, and white lead.  This is a dangerous mixture to keep on one’s face for long periods of time, because of the white lead.  Exposure to white lead can cause lead poisoning.  To counteract this deadly effect, Grimaldi would certainly have used an old Italian remedy, one that Italians, with their ancient knowledge of essential oils, knew all about.  A few drops of bergamot oil mixed in with the white makeup would neutralize the potency of the white lead, making it completely safe to wear.

The suspicion voiced by some theater scholars is that Grimaldi’s son, Joseph Grimaldi Junior, who was known to be anxious to take his father’s place in the pantomimes at Sadler’s Wells, may have replaced Grimaldi Senior’s bergamot oil with lemon oil, which would smell the same, but had no effect on the white lead.  That way his father would slowly decline with the effects of lead poisoning, which include uncontrollable tremors in the limbs, disorientation, and incontinence.  And no one would suspect Junior in the least of the diabolical deed. 

Whatever the case may be, when Grimaldi Senior retired in 1830 his son was quick to take his place, using the same outrageous costume and makeup.  But audiences could tell the difference, and the new Grimaldi was greeted with scanty applause and even some catcalls, until he was forced off the stage and died (some said) of a heart broken by disappointment and remorse a few months later.

Grimaldi Senior lived on, however, and was given several benefit concerts so he would not have to spend his last years in stark poverty.  The London crowd did not forget their old whiteface friend.

The great Grimaldi died in May of 1837.  In his honor circus clowns to this day are still called Joeys, or First of Mays.  His grave is in the courtyard of St James Chapel, in Islington.  Every year, on the first Sunday in February, clowns from all over the world come to pay tribute to this esteemed tweaker of noses at his gravesite.  Paper mache flowers are placed on his tombstone and the clowns put on a free show for the children of Islington.

A very few theater scholars want to dig up the grave to see if there are traces of lead in his bones; a sure sign of lead poisoning.  But most everyone agrees it is better to let the bones of a great clown rest unperturbed until the angels lead Grimaldi forth for his Last Performance.

Tim Torkildson is a former circus clown who now works as a free-lance blogger.  He is currently working on a series of blogs about comedy and clowning, and how they relate to essential oils, for 

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