'We Are All Actors in the Pantomime of Life': Charles Dickens and the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi


  • Jonathan Buckmaster (Royal Holloway, University of London) Royal Holloway, University of London




During the nineteenth century, a number of writers, including W.H. Ainsworth and Wilkie Collins, proposed a relationship between fiction and drama. A number of critics have also examined this relationship in the work of Charles Dickens, but one of his most theatrical texts, the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi“ (1838), has been given little critical attention.

Yet by examining the Memoirs “within the context of Dickens's earlier essay, 'The Pantomime of Life' (1837), I argue that in the Memoirs“ Dickens foregrounds the themes of theatre and performance in his depiction of Grimaldi's "offstage" life. Dickens integrates the principal figure of the pantomime Clown into the Memoirs“, and uses both text and illustration to demonstrate the theatrical quality of life through the persistent presence of a demanding pantomime audience.

In 'The Pantomime of Life', Dickens demonstrates the theatrical nature of life by mixing off-stage and on-stage scenes in a way that shows how the stock characters of the pantomime have identifiable counterparts in the "real" world. In particular, he focuses on the mischievous figure of the Clown (as formulated in Grimaldi's act), who appears in life as the confidence trickster who uses his play-acting skills to dupe an audience so socially self-conscious that they are willing to believe in the pretence. This sort of character had already briefly appeared in Sketches by Boz“ (1836) but had been developed further in The PickwickPapers“ (1837) through the character of Alfred Jingle. In the Memoirs“, the fictional figure of Jingle is reformulated in the real-life villain, Mackintosh.

The other aspect of the theatrical dynamic is the persistent presence of a pantomime audience, which Dickens often conflates with a volatile public mob. In a number of episodes in the Memoirs“, Dickens demonstrates how the audience's misreading of the boundaries between on-stage and off-stage, which initially made them so attractive to confidence tricksters, becomes something more threatening. Grimaldi's identity becomes fixed, as he is forced regularly to perform outside of the playhouse, either for a large and unregulated mob on the London streets, or for a smaller group of people in the barber's shop.

Despite the author's early optimism, the Memoirs“ was a commercial failure for Dickens and, unsurprisingly, he declined the offer of helping Tom Ellar with a similar project. However, the Memoirs“ is better seen as part of one of Dickens's early projects in characterisation, in which life was refigured as a pantomime performance. Theorised in 'The Pantomime of Life', this theme runs through much of his early work, from Sketches by Boz“ to Oliver Twist“ (1838) and is also a recurrent motif in later characters such as Seth Pecksniff and Wilkins Micawber. In this way, Dickens refigures the character of Grimaldi, taking him from the stage and into the pages of his novels.