As the day of the UK Election draws near and political parties all indulge in varying degrees of repartee, the VV has been reminded of a 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, the shows became immensely popular, adapted for the entertainment of children rather than adult audiences. 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, by tricking the hangman into placing the noose around his own neck; evading death and the devil himself. However, Victorian ‘Punchmen’ or ‘Professors’ sometimes removed the devil character, expanding the original story and cast by introducing Judy’s ghost, and a black servant called Beadle. There might be a clown and policeman, a crocodile and a string of sausages. And, there might even be Toby the dog, sometimes a living animal, trained to sit up on the little stage, either biting or shaking hands with Punch, and sometimes even smoking a pipe.
For the politically correct, the visually grotesque Punch and Judy shows were often seen as a bad influence; a means of inciting agressive behaviour – creating the same sort of moral dilemma as today’s use of violent computer games. When contributing 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. Nevertheless, we do live in changing times. On May 6, 2010, a brand new political era begins, one in which the winners will, no doubt, be just as ‘pleased as Punch’. Who knows, there may be some hanging done: an event which might cause Mr Punch to screech: ‘That’s the way to do it.’
For further information, you might like to view the official site of the modern day Punch and Judy College of Professors.