Born: 18th December, 1779
Birthplace: London, England, United Kingdom
Died: 31st May, 1837 (aged 58)
Cause of Death: The coroner recorded that he “died by the visitation of God”
Grimaldi came from a family of dancers and entertainers and made his debut as a dancer at age four at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. For a number of years he appeared at two theatres nightly, running from one to the other. In 1806 he joined Covent Garden Theatre, where, in the pantomime Harlequin Mother Goose, he enjoyed his greatest success. Harlequin was the central character in pantomime until the actor Joseph Grimaldi started performing in the early 19th century. He took the part of Clown and was so successful that the clown became the main character in the Harlequinades.
Grimaldi’s physical comedy was extraordinary, as was his ability to invent visual tricks and buffoonery. He would poke fun at his audience, transforming himself with inventive costumes.
Grimaldi was responsible for developing the pantomime tradition of audience singing. He was famed for his comic songs and for encouraging audience participation.
His whiteface makeup and impudent thievery became the norm for all pantomime clowns (“Joeys”) who came after. At the height of his powers, Grimaldi was considered to have no equal as a comedic performer.
After numerous injuries over the years from his energetic clowning, his health declined rapidly, and he retired in 1823. He appeared occasionally on stage for a few years thereafter, but his performances were restricted by his worsening physical disabilities. In his last years, Grimaldi lived in relative obscurity and became a depressed, impoverished alcoholic. He outlived both his wife and his actor son, Joseph Samuel, dying at home in Islington in 1837, aged 58.
Isn’t it ironic?
That a man who made a living and achieved huge success ended up sad and alone. It is especially ironic that he achieved that living and that success by making people laugh.
One of my favorite things about his entire story is what the coroner wrote as cause of death… Life is stranger (and funnier) than fiction.