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Punch and Judy: Britain’s National Puppets

As many may know, Punch and Judy is a traditional, popular, and usually very violent puppet show featuring Mr Punch and his wife, Judy. The performance consists of a sequence of short scenes, each depicting an interaction between two characters, most typically Mr Punch and one other character (who usually falls victim to Mr. Punch’s club). It is often associated with traditional British seaside culture.

"Islington Punch and Judy". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Islington_Punch_and_Judy.JPG#/media/File:Islington_Punch_and_Judy.JPG
“Islington Punch and Judy”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

The show is performed by a single puppeteer inside the booth, known since Victorian times as a “professor” or “punchman”, and assisted sometimes by a “bottler”, who corrals the audience outside the booth, introduces the performance and collects the money (“the bottle”). The bottler might also play accompanying music or sound effects on a drum or guitar and engage in back chat with the puppets, sometimes repeating the same or the copied lines that may have been difficult for the audience to understand. In Victorian times the drum and pan pipes were the instruments of choice. Today, the audience is also encouraged to participate, calling out to the characters on the stage to warn them of danger, or clue them into what is going on behind their backs. Also nowadays most Professors work solo since the need for a bottler became less important when busking with the show gave way to paid engagements at private parties or public events.

The Punch and Judy show has roots in the 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte. The figure of Punch derives from the Neapolitan stock character of Pulcinella, which was anglicized to Punchinello. He is a manifestation of the Lord of Misrule and Trickster figures of deep-rooted mythologies. Punch’s wife was originally called “Joan.”

 Italian: Pulcinella:  Paris, Michel Levy Freres, 1860
Italian: Pulcinella:
Paris, Michel Levy Freres, 1860

The figure who later became Mr. Punch made his first recorded appearance in England on 9 May 1662, which is traditionally reckoned as Punch’s UK birthday. The diarist Samuel Pepys observed a marionette show featuring an early version of the Punch character in Covent Garden in London. It was performed by an Italian puppet showman, Pietro Gimonde, a.k.a. “Signor Bologna.” Pepys described the event in his diary as “an Italian puppet play, that is within the rails there, which is very pretty.”

In the British Punch and Judy show, Punch wears a brightly coloured jester’s motley and sugarloaf hat with a tassel. He is a hunchback whose hooked nose almost meets his curved, jutting chin. He carries a stick (called a slapstick) as large as himself, which he freely uses upon most of the other characters in the show. He speaks in a distinctive squawking voice, produced by a contrivance known as a swazzle or swatchel which the professor holds in his mouth, transmitting his gleeful cackle. This gives Punch a vocal quality as though he were speaking through a kazoo. So important is Punch’s signature sound that it is a matter of some controversy within Punch and Judy circles as to whether a “non-swazzled” show can be considered a true Punch and Judy Show. Other characters do not use the swazzle, so the Punchman has to switch back and forth while still holding the device in his mouth.

Charlotte Charke, in pink, plays Damon as a breeches role in her father Colley Cibber's pastoral farce Damon and Phillida.
Charlotte Charke, in pink, plays Damon as a breeches role in her father Colley Cibber’s pastoral farce Damon and Phillida.

In the early 18th century, the marionette theatre starring Punch was at its height, with showman Martin Powell attracting sizable crowds at both his Punch’s Theatre at Covent Garden and earlier in provincial Bath, Somerset. Powell has been credited with being “largely responsible for the form taken by the drama of Punch and Judy”. In 1721, a puppet theatre that would run for decades opened in Dublin. The cross-dressing actress Charlotte Charke ran the successful but short-lived Punch’s Theatre in the Old Tennis Court at St. James’s, Westminster, presenting adaptations of Shakespeare as well as plays by herself, her father Colley Cibber, and her friend Henry Fielding. Fielding eventually ran his own puppet theatre under the pseudonym Madame de la Nash to avoid the censorship concomitant with the Theatre Licensing Act of 1737.

Punch was extremely popular in Paris, and, by the end of the 18th century, he was also playing in Britain’s American colonies, where even George Washington bought tickets for a show. However, marionette productions presented in empty halls, the back rooms of taverns, or within large tents at England’s yearly agricultural events at Bartholomew Fair and Mayfair were expensive and cumbersome to mount and transport. In the latter half of the 18th century, marionette companies began to give way to glove-puppet shows, performed from within a narrow, lightweight booth by one puppeteer, usually with an assistant, or “bottler,” to gather a crowd and collect money. These shows might travel through country towns or move from corner to corner along busy London streets, giving many performances in a single day. The character of Punch adapted to the new format, going from a stringed comedian who might say outrageous things to a more aggressive glove-puppet who could do outrageous—and often violent—things to the other characters. About this time, Punch’s wife’s name changed from “Joan” to “Judy.”

1024px-Swanage_Punch_&_Judy
A traditional Punch and Judy booth, at Swanage, Dorset

The mobile puppet booth of the late 18th- and early 19th-century Punch and Judy glove-puppet show was originally covered in checked bed ticking or whatever inexpensive cloth might come to hand. Later Victorian booths, particularly those used for Christmas parties and other indoor performances, were gaudier affairs. In the 20th century, however, red-and-white-striped puppet booths became iconic features on the beaches of many English seaside and summer holiday resorts. Such striped cloth is the most common covering today, wherever the show might be performed.

A more substantial change came over time to the show’s target audience. Originally intended for adults, the show evolved into primarily a children’s entertainment in the late Victorian era. Ancient members of the show’s cast, like the Devil and Punch’s mistress “Pretty Polly,” ceased to be included when they came to be seen as inappropriate for young audiences. The term “pleased as Punch” is derived from Punch and Judy; specifically, Mr. Punch’s characteristic sense of gleeful self-satisfaction.

The story changes, but some phrases remain the same for decades or even centuries: for example, Punch, after dispatching his foes each in turn, still squeaks his famous catchphrase: “That’s the way to do it!”

The characters in a Punch and Judy show are not fixed as in a Shakespeare play, for instance. They are similar to the cast of a soap opera or a folk tale like Robin Hood. While the principal characters must appear, the lesser characters are included at the discretion of the performer. New characters may be added as the tradition evolves, and older characters dropped.

Along with Punch and Judy, the cast of characters usually includes their baby, a hungry crocodile, a clown, an officious policeman, and a prop string of sausages. The devil and the generic hangman Jack Ketch may still make their appearances but, if so, Punch will always get the better of them. The cast of a typical Punch and Judy show today will include:

  • Mr. Punch
  • Judy
  • The Baby
  • The Constable
  • Joey the Clown
  • The Crocodile
  • The Skeleton
  • The Doctor

Characters once regular but now occasional include:

  • Toby the Dog
  • The Ghost
  • The Lawyer
  • Hector the Horse
  • Pretty Polly
  • The Hangman (a.k.a. Jack Ketch)
  • The Devil
  • The Beadle
  • Jim Crow (‘The black man’)
  • Mr. Scaramouche
  • The Servant (or ‘The Minstrel’)
  • The Blind Man

Other characters included Boxers, Chinese Plate Spinners, topical figures, a trick puppet with an extending neck (the “Courtier”) and a monkey. A live Dog Toby which sat on the playboard and performed ‘with’ the puppets was once a regular featured novelty routine.

From the Punch and Judy script, illustrated by  George Cruikshank, 1827.
From the Punch and Judy script, illustrated by George Cruikshank, 1827.

Glyn Edwards (2011, p.19) has likened the story of Punch and Judy to the story of Cinderella. He points out there are parts of the story everyone knows, namely, the cruel step sisters, the invitation to the ball, the handsome prince, the fairy godmother, Cinderella’s dress turning to rags at midnight, the glass slipper left behind, the prince searching for its owner and the happy ending. None of these elements can be omitted and the famous story still told. The same principle applies to Punch and Judy. Everyone knows that Punch mishandles the baby, that Punch and Judy quarrel and fight, that a policeman comes for Punch and gets a taste of his stick, that Punch has a gleeful run-in with a variety of other figures and takes his stick to them all, that eventually he faces his final foe (which might be a hangman, the devil, a crocodile, or a ghost). Edwards contends that a proper Punch and Judy show requires these elements or the audience will feel let down.

Peter Fraser writes (1970, p.8), “the drama developed as a succession of incidents which the audience could join or leave at any time, and much of the show was impromptu.” This was elaborated by George Speaight (1970, p.78), who explained that the plotline “is like a story compiled in a parlour game of Consequences … the show should, indeed, not be regarded as a story at all but a succession of encounters.” Robert Leach makes it clear that “the story is a conceptual entity, not a set text: the means of telling it, therefore, are always variable.” Rosalind Crone (2006, p.1058) asserts the story needed to be episodic so that passers by on the street could easily join or leave the audience during a performance.

From the Punch and Judy script, illustrated by  George Cruikshank, 1828.
From the Punch and Judy script, illustrated by George Cruikshank, 1827.

Much emphasis is often placed on the first printed script of Punch and Judy (1827). Based on a show by travelling performer Giovanni Piccini, it was illustrated by George Cruikshank and written by John Payne Collier. While this is the only surviving script of a performance, its accuracy is questioned. The performance was stopped frequently to allow Collier and Cruikshank to write and sketch, and Collier, in the words of Speaight (1970, p.82), is someone of whom “the full list of his forgeries has not yet been reckoned, and the myths he propagated are still being repeated. (His) ‘Punch and Judy’ is to be warmly welcomed as the first history of puppets in England, but it is also sadly to be examined as the first experiment of a literary criminal.”

The tale of Punch and Judy, as previously with Punchinello and Joan, varies from puppeteer to puppeteer and has changed over time. Nonetheless, the skeletal outline is often recognizable. It typically involves Punch behaving outrageously, again, struggling with his wife Judy and the baby and then triumphing in a series of encounters with the forces of law and order (and often the supernatural), interspersed with jokes and songs.

As performed currently in the UK a typical show will start with the arrival of Mr. Punch followed by the introduction of Judy. They may well kiss and dance before Judy requests Mr. Punch to look after the baby. Punch will fail to carry this task out appropriately. It is rare for Punch to hit his baby these days, but he may well sit on it in a failed attempt to “babysit”, or drop it, or even let it go through a sausage machine. In any event Judy will return, will be outraged, will fetch a stick and the knockabout will commence. A policeman will arrive in response to the mayhem and will himself be felled by Punch’s slapstick. All this is carried out at breakneck farcical speed with much involvement from a gleefully shouting audience. From here on anything goes. Joey the Clown might appear and suggest that “It’s dinner time.” This will lead to the production of a string of sausages, which Mr. Punch must look after, although the audience will know this really signals the arrival of a crocodile whom Mr. Punch might not see until the audience shouts out and lets him know. Punch’s subsequent comic struggle with the crocodile might then leave him in need of a Doctor who will arrive and attempt to treat Punch by walloping him with a stick until Punch turns the tables on him. Punch may next pause to count his “victims” by laying puppets on the stage only for Joey the Clown to move them about behind his back in order to frustrate him. A ghost might then appear and give Mr. Punch a fright before it too is chased off with a slapstick. In less squeamish times a hangman would arrive to punish Mr. Punch, only to himself be tricked into sticking his head in the noose. “Do you do the hanging?” is a question often asked of performers. Some will include it where circumstances warrant (such as for an adult audience) but most do not. Some will choose to include it whatever the circumstances and will face down any critics. Finally the show will often end with the Devil arriving for Mr. Punch (and possibly to threaten his audience as well). Punch — in his final gleefully triumphant moment — will win his fight with the Devil and bring the show to a rousing conclusion and earn a round of applause.

A Victorian audience watches the Punch and Judy show, from an 1870 edition of the script.
A Victorian audience watches the Punch and Judy show, from an 1861 edition of the script.

While Punch and Judy, as with the tale of Robin Hood, might follow no one fixed storyline, there are nevertheless episodes common to many recorded versions. It is these set piece encounters or “routines” which are used by performers to construct their own Punch and Judy shows. A visit to a Punch and Judy Festival at Punch’s “birthplace” in London’s Covent Garden will reveal a whole variety of changes that are wrung by puppeteers from this basic material and although scripts have been published at different times since the early 19th century, none can be claimed as being the definitive traditional script of Punch and Judy. Each printed script reflects the era in which it was performed and the circumstances under which it was printed.

Behind the scenes at a Punch and Judy show. From and 1870 edition of the script.
Behind the scenes at a Punch and Judy show. From and 1861 edition of the script.

The various episodes of the show are performed in the spirit of outrageous comedy — often provoking shocked laughter — and are dominated by the anarchic clowning of Mr. Punch. While the Victorian version of the show drew on the morality of its day, the Punch & Judy College of Professors considers that the 20th- and 21st-century versions of the tale have evolved into something more akin to a primitive version of The Simpsons, in which a bizarre family is used as vehicle for grotesque visual comedy and a sideways look at contemporary society.

In my opinion the street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct. It is possible, I think, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance… is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstance that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about, without any pain or suffering.

—Charles Dickens, Letter to Mary Tyler, 6 November 1849, from The Letters of Charles Dickens Vol V, 1847–1849

While censorious political correctness threatened Punch and Judy performances in the UK and other English speaking countries for a time, the show is having one of its cyclical recurrences and can now be seen not only in England, Wales, and Ireland, but also in Canada, the United States, Puerto Rico, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In 2001, the characters were honoured in the UK with a set of commemorative postage stamps, issued by the Post Office.

In 1828, the critic John Payne Collier published a Punch and Judy script under the title The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy. The script was illustrated by the well-known caricaturist George Cruikshank. Collier said his script was based on the version performed by the “professor” Giovanni Piccini in the early 19th century, and Piccini himself had begun performing in the streets of London in the late 18th century. The Collier/Cruickshank Punch has been republished in facsimile several times. Collier’s later career as a literary forger has cast some doubt on the authenticity of the script, which is rather literary in style and may well have been tidied up from the rough-and-tumble street-theatre original. Punch is primarily an oral tradition, adapted by a succession of exponents from live performances rather than authentic scripts, and in constant evolution. A transcript of a typical Punch and Judy show in London of the 1840s can be found in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

Historical information and images from Wikipedia.com