The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi is a theatrical history containing tyrannical parents, insanity, insolvency, alcoholism, depression, debtors’ prison, child stars, singing ducks, performing dogs, and ruinously expensive tours of the provinces. (I’m enjoying it so much that I’m writing this to put off finishing it.) More than anything it’s a study of outrageous artistic excess.
To cash in on Nelson’s popularity as national hero after the Battle of the Nile, the management of Sadler’s Wells turned the theatre’s cellars into a huge reservoir, tore up the stage and built a huge “wooden bathtub” in its place which could hold 65,000 gallons of water and in which they re-fought naval battles with miniature ships. On opening night:
from downstage the miniature fleet floated to the front, its sails and pennants shifting in the wind, processed before the orchestra and fired a salute to the audience that put them ‘in an extacy’… The ships readied for battle. Deafening volleys were fired on both sides as custom-built fireworks rained down… puncturing sails, dismasting ships and punching holes in enemy hulls. shipwrecked children struggled in the waves, mimicking drowning with their feet planted firmly on the bottom of the tank… smoke rolled out into the auditorium… [and] when it cleared revealed the coup de theatre, a calm sea bobbing with flotsam and the Franco-Spanish fleet smashed and beaten.
I’d have paid to see that – or to have seen Grimaldi go on a balloon ride: through the proscenium and over the heads of the audience.
Proving that there’s nothing new under the sun, Stott describes a publicity stunt in which clown Dicky Usher:
sailed from Southwark Bridge to Cumberland Gardens in a washtub drawn by four geese. Landing two and half hours later he swapped his tub for a carriage lashed to eight tomcats which he then intended to drive to Waterloo Road.
I had no idea about any of this: that before the Victorians got their hands on it pantomime was both artistically vibrant and politically subversive; that performances could be so volatile that Sadler’s Wells had spikes fitted to the front of the pit to stop members of the audience rushing the stage; that threats of price rises in 1809 led to months of rioting.
A re-fighting of the Battle of the Nile is my suggestion for the Olympic opening ceremony – a surefire crowd pleaser (possibly not for the French, but it was a long time ago and hey, we’re all friends now). I wish I had the money to bid for the film rights.