Punch Kills Judy
From Gutenberg ebooks - author and illustrator unknown.
As another UK Election ends, during which political parties have all indulged in varying degrees of wit and repartee, the VV is reminded of a different Punch and Judy show: the popular fairground attraction which dates back to the sixteenth century and the Italian ‘commedia dell’arte’ - from which Pucinella, the Lord of Misrule, was later anglicised as Punch.
During the nineteenth century Punch and Judy shows were very popular, adapted for the entertainment of children rather than adults. At the seaside, in towns, and at country fairs, even in private houses, there was often a Mr Punch to be found. Set in a colourful mobile tent, the puppet was seen to be bobbing about, squawking in his distinctive, cackling voice (created by the use of a ‘swazzle’ or ‘squeaker’ through which the puppeteer’s voice was distorted).
A cast iron doorstop based on the image of Punch
Visually, Punch was instantly recognisable. A hunch-backed jester with enormous hooked nose and jutting chin, he wielded an oversized battering stick and created a state of anarchy as he murdered his baby for crying, before also beating his wife, Judy, to death. The dictator continued to mete out abuse on whoever happened to cross his path. Even the strict code of Victorian morality was thrown to the wind in the face of the tyrant who consistently avoided justice - either by tricking the hangman to place the noose around his own neck, or evading death with the devil himself. However, Victorian ‘Punchmen’ or ‘Professors’ sometimes removed the devil character, expanding the original story and cast by introducing the ghost of Punch's wife, and also black servant called Beadle. There might be a clown and policeman, a crocodile, and a string of sausages. There might even be Toby the dog, sometimes a living animal, trained to sit upon the stage, either biting or shaking hands with Punch, and sometimes even smoking a pipe.
From Gutenberg ebooks - author and illustrator unknown
For the politically correct, the visually grotesque Punch and Judy shows were often viewed as a bad influence; a means of inciting aggressive behaviour; creating the same sort of moral dilemma as today’s use of violent computer games. In his own contribution to the debate Charles Dickens was to write:
‘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.
Today, if you happen to witness a Punch and Judy show, remember that you are experiencing a flavour of Victorian life, for the dramatic presentation has altered very little since - and for many years before as well with the very first Punch and Judy show presented on an English stage on this day in 1662.
‘That’s the way to do it.’
Punch and the baby - from Gutenberg ebooks
For further information, or to book a show, you might like to view the official site of the modern day Punch and Judy college of Professors.