Romantic Identities, Selves in Society, 1770-1835

  • Jonathan Buckmaster (Speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


‘An Actor on the Stage of Life’: Drama-tisation in the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi

The pantomime clown Joseph Grimaldi died in May 1837 and it is a measure of his wide popularity that within a year of his death, two lengthy accounts of his life had appeared. As well as H.D. Miles’s Life of Joseph Grimaldi, with Anecdotes from his Contemporaries, there were the clown’s own reminiscences, published as the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi and ‘edited’ by a promising young author whose stock, according to one reviewer, had recently ‘risen like a rocket’ – Charles Dickens.
Dickens’s biography received mixed reviews and limited sales, and has fared little better since. It is largely ignored or dismissed by Dickensians, and later Grimaldi scholars have favoured Miles’s account as the story of Grimaldi’s life. However, by re-appraising Dickens’s method in light of recent theories of life writing, I will present a case for its value as an artful construction of a theatrical identity, far more complex and compelling than Miles’s work.
Through a close reading of selected examples, I will demonstrate that Dickens’s technique of presenting Grimaldi’s offstage life emphasised the performative and theatrical aspects in order to interrogate the concept of the theatrum mundi, or more specifically, the pantomime of life. As I will show, this style of life-writing aligns Dickens closely with a number of ‘Lives’ from the 18th-century, a period that saw a proliferation of (auto)biographies of stage actors, who had discovered ways of literally dramatising their own lives.
Period13 May 2011
Event typeConference
LocationLondon, United KingdomShow on map