A puppet show about wife-beating and sausage-eating sounds like something that would have gone the way of Shakespearean English or minstrel shows. For many confounding reasons, however, the Punch and Judy show remains, continuing to inspire laughs all over the world for more than three and a half centuries.
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The show centers on Mr. Punch, a rascally hand puppet whose primary vocation is whacking his saucy, nagging wife, Judy, and various members of the constabulary with a stick. Mr. Punch has performed for English kings and American presidents, been chased by crocodiles at the British seaside and anacondas in Brazil, and even appeared in some of the first movies ever made. Not bad for a squawking, red-nosed puppet who hasn’t had a job in 350 years.
Mr. Punch’s influence on British culture is unparalleled. In 2006, the Punch and Judy show was named one of 12 icons of Englishness by the British government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport—right up there with a cup of tea and the double-decker bus. To celebrate his 350th birthday in 2012, Mr. Punch was treated to an entire year of parties and was the focus of a six-month-long exhibition about him at the venerable Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood.
But this most English of entertainers isn’t actually English in origin—he’s Italian.
Punch historians take the puppet’s first appearance in England as May 9, 1662, the day that compulsive diarist Samuel Pepys caught an “Italian puppet play” in Covent Garden. (In honor of that connection, Covent Garden has remained the spiritual home of Punch and Judy ever since; it’s still home to the Punch and Judy Pub, the kind of place that tourists love and locals avoid.)
Punch came to England at a moment of social upheaval. The country’s recent brush with republicanism had gone spectacularly off the rails after its leader, the deeply puritanical Oliver Cromwell, turned England into a dead zone of no theater, no dancing, no sports—no fun. Cromwell died of natural causes in 1658, and his faction soon collapsed with his son at its head. King Charles II was reinstated on the throne and Cromwell was posthumously tried, found guilty of, and executed for high treason in 1661. With Puritanism abating, artists and performing troupes from the European continent began to flood into England to fill the fun vacuum. Pulcinella rode that wave over as a marionette puppet.
“Pulcinella” was an Italian clown character of the commedia dell’ arte tradition. Pepys called the Covent Garden show “very pretty, the best that ever I saw,” and he wasn’t the only one who loved it. English showmen knew a good thing when they saw one, so they adopted Pulcinella or, after the name was mangled by English pronunciation, “Punchinello”; this was soon shortened and Anglicized to just “Punch.” Within a few years, he started to look like the Mr. Punch of today, with the protruding red nose and chin, the garish cap and clothing, and the humped back. He also sounded like him—since the beginning, performers voiced Punch using what’s called a “swizzle,” a reeded mouth instrument that produces a squawking, kazoo-y sound when spoken through.
But he didn’t yet have his own stories. In the late 1600s through the mid-1700s, Mr. Punch would be inserted into familiar, existing tales, such as Noah’s Ark, and given free rein to turn it into his own comedy. With him came “Joan,” his shrewish wife. Says Punch in Henry Fielding’s The Author’s Farce of 1729, “Joan, you are the plague of my life,/ A rope wou’d be welcomer than such a wife.”
“That kind of comic squabbling between male and female has a long pedigree in English drama,” said Glyn Edwards, a Punch performer for more than 50 years. Edwards, a self-professed “Punch activist,” calls Mr. Punch the “Lord of Misrule” and says that part of his enduring appeal is that he gets to do what everyone secretly wants to—thumb his nose at authority.
Punch and Judy soon became a staple of country fair entertainment, where they would have made both adults and children laugh. As England moved to a more industrial economy, the Punch and Judy show became street fare, losing the marionette strings and picking up the recognizable red-and-white-striped booths set up in market squares, or later, on boardwalks and beaches at the seaside. The show could now be performed by one person using two hand puppets: Mr. Punch and whomever he was punching at the time.