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Punch and Judy is a traditional, popular 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 the violent Punch and one other character. It is often associated with traditional English seaside culture.
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."
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 colored 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 had to switch back and forth while still holding the device in his mouth.
In the early 18th century, the marionette theatre starring Punch was at its height, with showman Martin Powell attracting sizable crowds at both Covent Garden and Bath, Somerset. In 1721, a puppet theater 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 theater under the pseudonym Madame de la Nash to avoid the censorship concomitant with the Theater 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."
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!" Modern British performances of Punch and Judy are no longer exclusively the traditional seaside children's entertainments they had become. They can now be seen at carnivals, festivals, birthday parties, and other celebratory occasions.
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
- The Baby
- The Constable
- Joey the Clown
- The Crocodile
- The Skeleton
- The Doctor
Characters once regular but now occasional include:
- Toby the Dog
- Hector the Horse
- Pretty Polly
- The Hangman (a.k.a. Jack Ketch)
- The Devil
- The Beadle
- Mr. Scaramouche
Characters only seen in a historical re-enactment performance include:
- 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.
There is no one definitive "story" of Punch and Judy. As expressed by Peter Fraser in Punch & Judy (1970), "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 in his Punch & Judy: A History (1970), 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." The most recent academic work, Punch & Judy: History, Tradition and Meaning by Robert Leach (1985), makes it clear that "the story is a conceptual entity, not a set text: the means of telling it, therefore, are always variable." The story was intentionally episodic so that passers by on the street could easily join the audience during a performance (Crone 1058).
Much emphasis is often placed on the first printed script of Punch and Judy (1828). Based on a show by traveling 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, 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, 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 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.
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 rung 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.
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 (including 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.
Despite Punch’s unapologetic murder throughout the performances, it is still a comedy. The humour is aided by a few things. Since the puppets are carved from wood, their facial expressions cannot change, but are stuck in the same exaggerated pose, which helps to deter any sense of realism and to distance the audience. The use of the swazzle also helps to create humour; the kazoo-like sound of Punch’s voice juxtaposed against the violence made the show funny rather than cruel. According to Crone, a third aspect that helped make the violence humorous was that Punch’s violence toward his wife was prompted by her own violence toward him. In this aspect, he retains some of his previous hen-pecked persona. This would suggest that since Punch was merely acting violently out of self-defence, it was okay. This is a possible explanation for the humour of his violence toward his wife, and even towards others who may have somehow "had it coming."  This suggestion better explains the humour of the violence toward the baby. Other characters that had to incur the wrath of Punch varied depending on the punchman, but the most common were the foreigner, the blind man, the publican, the constable, and the devil.
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.
Allusions in other media
- Punch, the former British humour magazine, was named after Mr. Punch.
- In the Marx Brothers' 1931 comedy Monkey Business, Harpo joins a live Punch & Judy show (performed by an uncredited Al Flosso, a famous American Punchman) while trying to avoid capture by the crew members of the ship he has stowed away on.
- Riddley Walker, a 1980 novel by Russell Hoban, utilizes Punch and Judy characters as quasi-political symbols.
- The Old Curiosity Shop, an 1841 novel by Charles Dickens, features the Punch and Judy performing partners Mr. Codlin and Short Trotters.
- Punch and Judy inspired an opera of the same name by Harrison Birtwistle in 1967.
- The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, a 1994 graphic novel by writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean, explores a boy's memories triggered by a Punch and Judy show.
- The American vocal group The Cascades had a song released in 1963 entitled "Punch and Judy" about a girl who always makes a fool of her boyfriend.
- The band Marillion had a #29 hit in the UK in 1984 with a song entitled "Punch and Judy", satirising marital strife.
- The band The Stranglers included a song on their 1984 album Aural Sculpture called "Punch & Judy."
- The band Lightning Seeds' album Jollification features a song called "Punch and Judy", that deals with issues of domestic violence.
- In the film Time Bandits, a Punch and Judy show is seen when the characters are transported back in time.
- The Punch cigar brand was named after Mr. Punch, and features him on the label.
- The 1963 Ingmar Bergman film The Silence (or Tystnaden) features a boy, Johan, who plays with Punch and Judy dolls.
- In the 1980 children's novel The Magicians of Caprona, by Diana Wynne Jones, a Punch and Judy show is a part of an important series of events.
- Early concepts of Pink Floyd's rock opera The Wall centered on the characters of Punch and Judy. These later became Pink and his unnamed wife.
- In FoxTrot, an American comic strip, character Jason Fox plays a prank on his sister Paige by pretending to do a Punch and Judy show using only Judy. When Paige asked, "Where's Punch?" Jason had the Judy puppet "punch" Paige in the nose.
- The 1987 horror film Dolls by director Stuart Gordon features a young girl named Judy, who is gifted with a Punch doll that comes to life and protects her.
- In The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, the clown-magician Horrabin is introduced performing a morbid version of the Punch story.
- "Punch and Judy" is the eighth track on the album Either/Or by Elliott Smith.
- The DC Comics villains Punch and Jewellee, wearing greasepaint and harlequin clothing styled after Punch and Judy puppets, appeared regularly in the pages of Suicide Squad.
- In Midnight Riot (UK title Rivers of London) by Ben Aaronovitch the main antagonist is the ghost of Mr. Punch and murders in a style that mirrors the Punch and Judy story.
- Game designer John Tynes created a role-playing game called Puppetland based on the Punch and Judy shows and stories.
- Two characters, one named Punch and one named Judy, appeared in nine episodes of The Batman as henchmen of the Joker.
- One of the killers in the movie Screamtime was a puppeteer, who used a Mr Punch doll.
- A Punch and Judy show is a running theme, and its professor an important character, in the Midsomer Murders episode Destroying Angel.
- Punch and Judy are Agatha's adoptive parents in Girl Genius. The characters Punch and Judy are also a popular feature in the traveling circus Agatha joins.
- In the Doctor Who serial Snakedance, A Punch and Judy show is briefly recreated despite the alien setting. The only difference to the traditional show is that the Crocodile is replaced with the snake-like alien Mara.
- The Doctor also used a puppet of Mr. Punch to 'sonic' the Ice Governess in the 2012 Christmas Special The Snowmen.
- XTC wrote a song entitled "Punch and Judy" during recording sessions for their album "English Settlement".
- in the Japanese anime Cowboy Bebop the presenters of the Big shot TV show are named Punch and Judy.
- In the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, the raucous exchange of accusations and insults between rival Members, especially at Prime Minister's Questions, has become known as "Punch and Judy politics". David Cameron famously used the phrase in a December 2005 speech.
- In Diana Gabaldon's novel The Scottish Prisoner (A Lord John Novel), Jamie Fraser watches a Punch and Judy show in London in 1760.
- In February 2012 a London based Theatre company Improbable performed a string of shows at the Barbican Theatre London, called "The Devil & Mr Punch" which is an adaptation of the Punch & Judy story.
- The Punch and Judy show is popular in the town of Mejis in Steven King's The Dark Tower series.
- The Terry Pratchett novel Dodger, Punch and Judy is mentioned several times, usually with nothing but disgust from the titular character, who finds no humour from something he has seen play out many times in the rookeries of Dickensian London.
- In the movie Charade, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn watch a Punch and Judy show in a Paris park.
- The second season of Luther features a killer who wears a Mr. Punch mask and is nicknamed accordingly.
- Punch and Judy are a particular plot device in the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
- In the 2000 film 102 Dalmatians, Chloe, Kevin, several of the dogs, and Waddlesworth the parrot attend a Punch and Judy show, which is disrupted when Oddball the spotless Dalmatian puppy attempts to steal a spotted sweater from one of the puppets.
- "A Brief History of Punch and Judy (with an introduction to the characters)". Speckinspace.com. Retrieved 2012-08-02.
- "Puppet show faces knockout punch?". BBC News (London). 8 November 1999. Retrieved 2008-09-03.
- "around the world with mr. punch » Silly-Season-On-Sea". Punchandjudyworld.org. 2008-08-14. Retrieved 2012-08-02.
- ""Stamp of Approval for Punch and Judy", BBC News, 20 August 2001". BBC News. 2001-08-20. Retrieved 2012-08-02.
- Crone 1065
- Proschan 530
- Crone 1063
- Crone 1058
- "Punch & Judy: 1832 Book pdf file". Spyrock.com. Retrieved 2012-08-02.
- "Rhythm of the Rain". Retrieved 8 April 2012.
- Struther, Jan (1939). Mrs. Miniver. Pocket Books, Inc. p. 35.
- "The Guardian 06 December 2005: Full text of David Cameron's victory speech". Guardian. Retrieved 2012-08-02.
- "Punch and Judy". Retrieved 2012-01-17.
- Punch and Judy: A Short History with the Original Dialogue by John Payne Collier, illustrated by George Cruikshank (1929, 2006) Dover Books
- Mr. Punch by Philip John Stead (1950) Evans Brothers Ltd.
- Punch & Judy: A History by George Speaight (1955, 1970) Plays, Inc.
- The Art of the Puppet by Bil Baird (1965) Ridge Press/MacMillan
- Punch & Judy: A Play for Puppets by Ed Emberley (1965) Little, Brown
- Punch and Judy by Peter Fraser (1970) B.T. Batsford, Ltd.
- Punch and Judy: Its Origin and Evolution by Michael Byrom (1972, 1988) DaSilva Puppet Books
- The Punch & Judy Show: History, Tradition and Meaning by Robert Leach (1985) Univ. of Georgia Press
- A program featuring Punch and Judy, as well as Santa Claus
- Punch and Judy on the Web
- The Punch & Judy Fellowship: The largest and oldest organisation of its kind devoted to keeping alive the tradition of Punch & Judy shows.
- The Punch and Judy College of Professors: detailed site of leading UK professional Punch Profs organisation.
- The Worldwide Friends of Punch and Judy: an international assemblage of people who love the Punch and Judy Show. Their journal "Around The World With Mr Punch" is treasured by students of the Punch tradition.
- The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy -PDF facsimile of an 1832 edition of Collier's script, with Cruickshank's illustrations