That’s the way to do it

As a child I remember watching a puppet show with my grandfather. Nothing unusual in that, except it was on a beach. I can’t recall it very clearly except that I didn’t like the major character, who frightened me. As I have been exploring puppet theatre across the world I have steadfastly ignored this experience until a colleague pointed out that Punch and Judy was as much a legitimate world theatre form as Wayang Kulit. So I was prompted to dig deeper, and even more so when the image below, taken two weeks ago, appeared in the british press.

And the one below is from late nineteenth century.


I hadn’t realised quite how old the form was, or that it had its roots in Commedia dell’arte – although now that seems really obvious. Punch and Judy is one of the world’s most famous and long running puppet shows. It is essentially linked with England but Punch and Judy can be found just about wherever the colonial English decided to ‘set up home’ and english is spoken as a first language, America, Canada, Australia. Here is a great history of the form, written by Keith Preston, an Australian Punch and Judy man.

Punch and Judy has its origins in the commedia street theatre of medieval Italy and Punch arrived in England in 1663 from Italy as the marionette Pulchinello (noted by the famous London diarist Samuel Pepys). The character evolved into Punch over the next century and Punch appeared extensively both as a marionette and as a comic actor and slowly acquired a more English character that was a cross between the English Jester, Fool and the Shakespearean comic characters. In the late 1700’s the London puppet theatres closed and Punch and Judy as we know it appeared as a busking act on the streets of London as a portable hand-puppet show.

To entertain its new audience of street-wise townsfolk this new form of puppet theatre needed to be fast, loud, action-packed, comic and portable. Punch and Judy was all of these and more. The show started with the bottler (assistant who carried the bottle for the money donations) banging a drum and playing the pan pipes. The Punch-Man (later to be called a “Professor of Punch”) stayed inside the booth and operated all of the puppets and most notably the character of Punch whose shrill shrieking voice was created with a special reed inserted in the throat (known as the swazzle).


The early puppeteers led a gypsy style existence moving through the streets of London and also taking the puppet show to fairs and events. When Londoners began to travel to the seaside towns by train in the 1840’s the Punch Professors followed and soon the Punch and Judy Show became a seaside institution. Some beaches and cities have had a Punch and Judy show every year for well over a hundred and thirty years. The Punch Professors guarded their shows fiercely and only passed on the secrets of puppetry to a son or nephew and kept the business ‘in the family’.

The show itself has changed enormously over the last two hundred years. The first written scripts appear around 1830 but illustrations of shows actually appear in the 1770’s. By the time the first scripts are found the Punch and Judy show has already been around for fifty years and has had a chance to develop into a fully fledged puppet show. While the story is new and reflects the life of the then modern Londoner, the script is also full of references to the early years of Punch, to the Medieval mystery plays and to the symbolic dramas, themes and characteristics of England.

The early shows feature Mr Punch , a hook-nosed comic figure with a stick who is a cowardly braggart but strangely likeable. He hides, lies, cheats, steals, beats, boasts eats, drinks and loves his way through a difficult life. He is a rascal but is also an “Everyman” figure in that he represents the average person. In the old storyline he has an argument with other characters, fights them, sometimes he kills them, is chased by the law, taken to jail, but beats the hangman and the devil and ends as triumphant anti-hero. In between, the whole drama is treated as a total farcical comedy with lots of action, routines, jokes and slapstick moments. Other characters include Judy his wife and their Baby, Scaramouch the neighbour and his dog Toby (often played by a real dog) Joey the Clown, The Beadle or Policeman, The Quack Doctor, The Crocodile, Sweet Polly the Mistress, The Hangman, The Devil. In particular the characters of Hangman and Devil owe their origins to the medieval English dramas and early theatre of the Elizabethan period.


Obviously much of this is black-humour but with the comic drama, Punch and Judy acquired a symbolic status as a drama about life itself. Punch and Judy was a hugely popular entertainment for ordinary people on the street but also was often invited into private homes and mansions of the aristocrats.

It is interesting to note that a similar evolution of the commedia/marionettes also happened in other parts of Europe around the same time or slightly later and in Germany we have a similar hand-puppet show-Kaspar, in France – Guignol, Petrushka in Russia, Punchinello in Italy as well as links to the Greek shadow puppet theatre.

Punch and Judy emigrated with the English to America, Australia and other parts of the world in the Nineteenth Century but by the 1940’s was in decline with the advent of films and other aspects of popular entertainment. As with many other forms of traditional performance such as Vaudeville, Circus, Fairs and so on Punch and Judy was able to reinvent itself and had a revival in the 1960’s with the new emphasis on community arts, national pride, tourism and so on.


However over the years the Punch and Judy Show has also adapted and changed. In some cases it has become more of a children’s entertainment, far removed from its origins as a street-play. The rough and tumble violence has been changed and Punch is very much less of a sinister figure than he was in his early days. Some performers however do present shows that portray old-style performances still to this day.

To me it all seems terribly dated, but it clearly lives on. In an article in the Smithsonian Magazine by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie earlier this year the question is asked, Are Punch and Judy Shows Finally Outdated? It would seem not, although Rodriguez McRobbie does  talk about the violence (and murder!) in the shows:

The violence, of course, has remained—and for that reason, Mr. Punch’s influence on children has understandably long been a source of worry. A New York Times article from February 11, 1896, describes children enjoying a Punch show on West 135th Street in Manhattan—and one “grave gentleman,” who resembled Punch “as if they were brothers,” grumbling at the policeman-beating scene and declaring, “It is a shame to show such things to children! How can you expect them to have any respect for the law?”

In 1947, the Middlesex County Council in England banned Punch and Judy from schools, prompting wide outcry from Punch fans and his eventual reinstatement. More than 50 years later, in 1999 and 2000, other councils in Britain considered banning Punch and Judy shows on the claim that they were too violent for children; they didn’t, but it was close……Punch defenders claim that’s just modern oversensitivity. “Although adults get very upset about the violence, the bashing the baby, it’s no more real to a child than watching a cartoon, like ‘Tom and Jerry,’” says Cathy Haill, curator of popular entertainment for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. “Ninety-nine percent of children will roar with laughter [at ‘Tom and Jerry’] and not think ‘Oh, I’ve got to write to the society for prevention of cruelty to cats’…Nowadays, people are far more— and I hate this term—politically correct and get ridiculously worried about things like this, in my view.”

Mr_Punch_coverInterestingly though, Punch has been reinvented in a number of ways. In 1994 The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch appeared as graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Last year Improbable Theatre created one of its most famous pieces, The Devil and Mr Punch:







There are two excellent pieces from Exuent that look at this particular show, The Immortal Mr Punch by Gareth Martin, and an interview with Julian Crouch (Designer and Director) by Tom Wicker.


And to finish, a delightful interview from 3 days ago, entitled Keeping Punch and Judy in the family, by Giulia Rhodes for the Guardian, where she talks to three generations of a Punch and Judy family.


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