In the year 1806, a well-dressed man in his twenties visited a doctor who was renowned throughout London for being able to treat what nowadays we’d call depression, but back then was called melancholia.
The patient explained that he felt overcome by a terrible sadness, that he didn’t want to get up in the morning. He could not see any point in his existence.
“With your condition I would normally prescribe a course of my patent powders,” said the doctor, “but it so happens that I have recently come across something which will alleviate your condition much more quickly.
“You must,” he continued, “go to the Covent Garden theatre to see the pantomime, Harlequin and Mother Goose. This is the happiest thing I have ever seen performed on a stage, tears of laugher ran down my face. Why, sir, I can almost guarantee that watching Grimaldi the clown will cure you completely!”
“Ah, but doctor,” said the man sadly, “I am Grimaldi the clown.”
That’s a famous story, sometimes told as a joke, often related as fact. It’s really your archetypal “sad clown” story, and indeed exactly the same tale has been told of other clowns, most notably the Swiss clown Grock (Charles Wettach, 1880-1959).
Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), the “Garrick of clowns” and easily the most popular English entertainer of his day, was born into a theatrical family. His father and paternal grandfather had both been dancers, though his father apparently also doubled up as a dentist. Appearing on stage from an early age, Grimaldi would have made a distinguished career for himself as an actor in any event, but it was his pantomime performances as Joey the Clown that made him a major celebrity.
Aside from physical comedy and pratfalls, he delighted audiences with Joey’s larcenous and amoral nature, particularly in his extravagant stage thieving (strings of sausages were especially popular). Another speciality was employing household objects to make bizarre creations, such as a coach drawn by dogs, and made from a basket, broomsticks, and large cheeses for wheels. He also famously satirised the fashions of the time, making cartoon-ish outfits from unlikely objects. In his time and for many years afterwards, other clowns copied his style and he remains a huge influence on the clowning art to this day.
His autobiography, edited by Charles Dickens and published posthumously, makes no mention of the doctor story, but it’s plain that he had plenty to be sad about. His father died when Grimaldi was still a child, and the family led a hand-to-mouth existence. His wife Maria, the great love of his life, died in childbirth after 18 months of marriage. His son by a second marriage was an alcoholic and died young, and his own stage career was cut short in his mid-forties by ill-health. His years of acrobatics had taken a terrible toll, and he ended his days in poverty, spending most of his time in a Pentonville pub whose landlord would carry him home to his lodgings at night since by then he was a virtual invalid.
The famous annual ‘clown service’ at the Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, which is attended by hundreds of clowns from all over the world, is held in his memory.