Grimaldi the Clown

Joseph Grimaldi as Clown in the pantomime 'Harlequin and Friar Bacon' by Bonnor and O'Keefe, etching coloured by hand by George Cruishank, Theatre Royal, Covent Garden London, 1820, Harry R. Beard Collection

Joseph Grimaldi as Clown in the pantomime 'Harlequin and Friar Bacon' by Bonnor and O'Keefe, etching coloured by hand by George Cruishank, Theatre Royal, Covent Garden London, 1820, Harry R. Beard Collection

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 catch phrases included 'Here we are again!' and the teasing audience taunt 'Shall I???', to which they would all yell 'Yes!' His most famous song was 'Hot Codlins' (toffee apples).

When Grimaldi retired in 1823 people felt sure that pantomime was dead. 'We fear the spirit of Pantomime departed with Grimaldi' claimed one critic reviewing a pantomime in 1832.

Other famous Victorian Clowns included Harry Payne and Harry Boleno. After the 1850s the clown role was performed by dancers and became more insignificant. Richard Flexmore was a very successful dancing clown but no one achieved the same legendary status as Grimaldi.

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