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Book Review

One of the world’s first celebrities

By Roger Atwood
Globe Correspondent / December 31, 2010

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Not many remember him today, but Joseph Grimaldi may have been the world’s first genuine show-business celebrity. For almost 20 years, he stood astride the London stage in ways that were unprecedented at the time and prefigured the mass entertainment industry. The play “Mother Goose,’’ in which he starred, was the longest-running pantomime in history and packed in some 300,000 paying visitors, almost one-third the population of London. He was beloved by the humble and the powerful, including the poet Lord Byron and mad King George III, who attended his shows even after surviving an assassination attempt in the same theater.

At his height, around 1820, Grimaldi was so well known that his clownish visage was plastered in a proto-Warholian craze on teacups, prints, pocket watches, board games, children’s coloring books, and statuettes that still pop up today at curio shops. Among the first actors to perform literally in the limelight — a movable cone of incandescent lime that made its debut in his day — Grimaldi lived in “a culture of personal fascination that was born in the first decade of the nineteenth century,’’ writes Andrew McConnell Stott in this exuberantly detailed biography.

Grimaldi was raised in the anarchic dregs of Industrial Revolution-era London by a savagely abusive father, a traveling actor from Italy given to dragging his children onto the stage to beat them in front of an audience. Acting was more servitude than employment, but theaters attracted huge crowds nightly with lavishly staged melodramas and operettas. Directors were known to bring on live bears and elephants. Grimaldi’s home theater, Sadler’s Wells, diverted the course of a nearby stream to turn the stage into a shallow lake in which actors reenacted Napoleonic naval battles, to the public’s ecstatic delight. Bored audiences were known to throw fruit, bottles, or worse. A stampede following a Grimaldi performance killed 18 people, and fire at another theater killed 23.

At the center of this tumultuous world was pantomime, a mongrel-mix of slapstick, music, and mime with stock characters meant to amuse the masses but which, in Grimaldi’s hands, acquired new levels of quality and respectability. His most enduring legacy was Joey, a clown character with powder-white face and garish red makeup who was, in Stott’s judgment, “the first great experiment in comic persona.’’ Clowns were a pantomime standard, but Grimaldi gave it a satirical edge and a much wider emotional palette that enthralled audiences and whose influence was felt on both sides of the Atlantic. Lurking behind that blood-red grin was a mix of melancholy and madness that Grimaldi wrapped into his character and, Stott argues, became the soul of modern comedy. It was Grimaldi who created that tension between performance and private despair that suffused later comic acts from Charlie Chaplin to John Belushi to Robin Williams.

He had plenty of material to work with. Grimaldi struggled with depression and con artists drawn to his fame and wealth. Late in his career he was crippled by arthritis and painful spine curvature caused by kicks and falls he’d taken over 200,000 performances. He fought to help his son realize his early promise as a character actor but saw him lose it all to alcoholism.

Stott tells this haunting and ultimately heartbreaking story with brilliant pacing and solid sourcing based on letters and period accounts. The occasional pratfalling metaphor and too-cute description aside (“pieces of fruit made graceful parabolas across the auditorium’’), he has created a splendidly offbeat account of a key moment in the birth of modern taste. Grimaldi’s life shows that then, as now, influence can long outlast fame.

Roger Atwood is a reporter and critic for ARTnews magazine. He can be reached through his website at www.rogeratwood.com.

THE PANTOMIME LIFE OF JOSEPH GRIMALDI

Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian

By Andrew McConnell Stott

Canongate, 433 pp., $14.95 (paperback)