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Joey the Clown

The pantomime, like the clown, has changed through the centuries. Now it is based on a children’s story and performed at Christmas.

When it first came to England in the seventeenth century it derived from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte, popular theatre performed by travelling artists, with a moral tale. The Harlequin character appeared in 1717.

By the late eighteenth century the story was introduced in the first scene; the main part being the harlequinade. Characters were transformed into Harlequin, Columbine, the clown, pantaloon and others. There was a series of scenes with much comedy and music, but no dialogue – mime was an essential element of pantomime. The story generally had a happy ending in the final scene.

At the start of the nineteenth century managers, playwrights and performers worked to transform elements of the pantomime and of the clown’s role. Previously clowns had been rough country characters dressed in rags. Clown’s and Harlequin’s roles developed partly by changes of costume for Harlequin and the Clown. With a new tight-fitting costume, Harlequin’s role became that of a romantic figure rather than a comic rogue. The Clown was given a new costume decorated with diamonds, circles, tassels and ruffs. Clown now became the chief rascal. Grimaldi also developed the make-up. Harlequin wore a black mask so Grimaldi’s clown had a white face in contrast, with a huge mouth. Grimaldi was acrobatic and skilled at physical humour. He used mime – and vegetables - to convey satirical observations. His fame spread across England, and other theatres such as the Theatre Royal in Birmingham booked him to appear.

He played at Birmingham’s Theatre Royal in 1810, and with his son in 1817 and 1823.

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