'The "Sister Arts" in the Popular Theatre, 1820-1910

  • Jonathan Buckmaster (Speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


‘We are all actors in The Pantomime of Life’: Charles Dickens and The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi

While any number of associated practices might claim to be ‘sister’ arts to theatre, Wilkie Collins staked a place for the novel when he asserted that ‘the Novel and the Play are twin-sisters in the Family of Fiction’.
The theatrical sensibility of Dickens’s major fiction has been well-documented, but in this paper I shall consider one of his less-regarded texts, The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi. Part-biography, part-fiction, Grimaldi’s biographer Richard Findlater has dismissed The Memoirs as ‘among the most disappointing reminiscences in our theatrical literature’, principally for ‘its failure to suggest his theatrical genius’ by giving only a limited account of Grimaldi’s performances.
However, by reading The Memoirs alongside Dickens’s earlier essay ‘The Pantomime of Life’ I shall argue that rather than portraying Grimaldi’s theatricality inadequately, Dickens in fact foregrounds the themes of theatre and performance in his life story of the Clown.
The central idea behind ‘The Pantomime of Life’ is that the boundary between onstage and offstage is highly porous, and that the principal characters of the pantomime – such as the Pantaloon and the Clown – all have their counterparts in our everyday life off the stage. Accordingly, I shall demonstrate how The Memoirs represents a case study for these ideas, as Dickens constructs his characters (including Grimaldi) around these theatrical types, and moreover demonstrates the insistent presence of an audience.
While I will regularly refer to those texts that Dickens was writing at the same time as The Memoirs, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, in my conclusion I consider the implications this representation of life as a pantomime has for Dickens’s work beyond this period, and even consider how it may have affected the writer’s own sense of self.
Period8 Jul 2010
Event typeConference
LocationBirmingham, United KingdomShow on map