Punch and Judy


Punch and Judy
   Puppet shows were well established in Elizabethan and Stuart times, especially as a popular fairground entertainment. The subjects were very various: Bible stories, the legends of Faustus, 'St George or Dick 'Whittington, historical episodes such as the Gunpowder Plot, and so forth. In 1662 Pepys noted the arrival of a new character from Italy, called Pollicinella or Punchinello, but soon to be renamed 'Punch' - a fat hunchback with a shrill voice who would disrupt the more serious plays by bawdy remarks, fighting, and farting.
   Soon, Punch developed a mini-drama of his own (first mentioned in 1682), centred on the battles between him and the shrewish 'Mrs Punch', whose name at this period was Joan. Another of its standard features was an encounter with the Devil; a writer in The London Spy on 10 May 1699 says that at a May Day fair he heard 'a senseless Dialogue between Punchinello and the Devil ... conveyed to the Ears of a Listening Rabble thro' a Tin Squeaker'. The ending varied; most evidence from the 18th century supports Strutt's comment in 1802 that 'Punch is constantly taken away from the stage by the Devil at the end of the puppet show', but some writers say that it was always Punch who beat the Devil.
   In 1828 John Payne Collier, a journalist, interviewed a puppeteer called Giovanni Pic-cini and took down the text of 'Punch and Judy' from his dictation, while the illustrator George Cruikshank drew scenes of the puppets in action. The basic plot is the one used ever since: Punch loses his temper with his own baby and kills it, fights his wife and kills her, kills a succession of characters, beats a policeman, tricks Jack Ketch the hangman into hanging himself rather than Punch, and finally kills the Devil. Later showmen added further characters and episodes, notably a clown, a ghost, a beadle or constable, and a crocodile, and developed the role of Dog Toby (a real dog, not a puppet); to this day, no two shows are alike in every detail.
   Towards the end of the 19th century Punch changed from an itinerant fairground and street show appealing primarily to adults to a children's treat associated with seaside holidays and Christmas parties. Since 1962, the 300th anniversary of the arrival of Punch in England, the show has been enjoying a strong revival, but is increasingly geared to children's tastes, with much audience participation and topicality, as in pantomimes, to mask the unwelcome violence of the basic plot.
   Traditionally, the showmen carved their own puppets and jealously guarded their personal method of making a 'swazzle', the metal device which, held in the mouth, transforms the human voice into Punch's screech. Some families performed Punch for several generations. The 'script' was always open to variation and improvisation around a central structure; this interplay of fluidity and stability, individuality and anonymity, marks Punch and Judy as folk art.
   ■ Speaight, 1955/1990, and 1970; Leach, 1985. J. P. Collier's 1828 text, The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy was reprinted several times, for example in a booklet from Routledge & Kegan Paul in 1976, which, however, omits the important introduction and notes. For an analysis of one present-day performer's art, see Robert Leach, Folklore 94 (1983), 75-85.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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